(x-posted at Feministe)
I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the regular readers of Social Science Lite and Feministe cringe upon hearing the phrase “tramp stamp.” I dug through Feministe’s archives, and found this insightful post from Jill back in ’07. She wrote about an issue many of us are all too familiar with: sexist interpretations and judgments of tattoos on women’s bodies.
But a recent conversation with a friend pointed to another “–ism”—latent classism—that undergirds many objections to tattoos.
The conversation began simply enough. We were walking through a mall and noticed a fair amount of body art. We commented on arm bands, lower-back tattoos, and arm sleeves. Interestingly, our judgments of the tattoos differed dramatically: I liked creative tattoos but disliked some awkwardly placed ink, whereas my friend uniformly disapproved of body art.
Our conversation was relatively rational until a single word was uttered: trashy.
“I just think tattoos look trashy,” my friend innocently stated. Fair enough; the ugly tribal arm band we noticed on a young man’s tanned bicep did look a bit corny. But I pressed further. “Why is it trashy?” I asked. “I don’t know. Tattoos just look lower-class to me.” I swear I saw her nose tip up in the air, ever so slightly.
And with that, the floodgates opened.
She explained how she associates tattoos with working class men and women, a sign of their lack of refinement and sophistication. Moreover, the very decision to get a tattoo pointed to their lack of decorum, which she directly associated with their class position. In other words, all poor people are trashy, and their tattoos merely accentuate this universal fact.
I replied, naturally, by putting her classism in check: Does simply having a tattoo—any tattoo—equate with being “trashy,” which signals lower class status? By extension, does that mean that all lower class people are “trashy?” Is being “trashy”—and thus, having a tattoo—simply a byproduct of one’s class position, implying that lower class people uniformly make stupid, unrefined decisions? And are all tattoos “trashy?” Who are we to decide what’s trash, and what’s art? Are certain civilizations and cultures that engage with body art “culturally trashy” and “lower class?” And so on.
My friend’s objections to tattoos were infused by her own classism and normative assessments of “proper” behavior. I put her nonsense in check, but that didn’t exactly dissolve her prejudices. See, her take on tattoos was so fundamentally ingrained in her mind that she had difficulty breaking from her blanket associations. She was beginning to see her classism, and recognize her privilege—but it wasn’t exactly a “light bulb” moment. She could see how her prejudices were classist, but had trouble letting them go.
The end result of this conversation produced just that: a conversation. It’s often hard to draw firm conclusions when dealing with such complex and subjective topics. But it’s an ongoing process. We can’t expect people, like my friend, to immediately abandon their classism; we are social beings, after all, beholden to larger social forces that often influence our desires and prejudices. It’s part and parcel of moral boundary work—a social process of defining in-groups and out-groups, often predicated on the policing of “proper” behavior—that’s learned from an early age. Many whites, for example, would be simply lying if we said we didn’t get nervous when approaching young black males on the street. No matter how much we tell ourselves “This is really racist to fear them just because they’re black,” it’s a gut reaction—one embedded in larger structures of social relations.
Classism—like racism, sexism, and other –isms—persists, no matter how forcefully we call our friends’ prejudices into check. But we still try. And hopefully, after continued and repeated conversations, we’re able to alter our preconceptions and begin to view the social world in a slightly different light. Dismantling interpersonal prejudices is, of course, an ongoing social project.