The Secret Power of Tattoos When Chronic Illness Controls My Body

I like getting tattoos.

Other things I enjoy include piercings, dying my hair colors not found in nature, and spending far too much of my disposable income on whatever makeup a Kardashian is currently peddling on Instagram.

So what, am I having a late-in-life rebellion against my parents? Do I just like my hair to look like sherbet because I’m really hungry?

I’ve thought long and hard about why I like to make my body physically fun-looking in unconventional ways, and the best answer I can come up with is control. Control is a really un-fun sounding word, but to me it’s an exciting concept.

Chronic illness means rarely having control over your own body. It means you can be trucking along in life, doing everything your doctors ask, and you may still encounter a storm of symptoms at a moment’s notice. It can make me feel pretty powerless —  everybody wants to talk about how “your body is your temple,” but what happens when your temple is tearing itself down for no good reason?! Screw this temple, honestly. I got a broken temple.

So how do you take back your own body? That’s where body modification comes in. There are a lot of different levels to body modification — everything from ear piercing to full body tattoos are included. For some people, it’s a whole lifestyle. I’m a pretty small-grade practitioner of it myself; I only have a couple of piercings and a few tattoos. But throughout history, whether you have a sleeve, or gages, or fuchsia eyebrows, I believe body mod has meant something kind of cool: self-empowerment.

young woman sitting in tattoo parlor getting a tattoo on her arm
Samantha getting a tattoo.

If I can’t control the chaos going on inside my temple, there’s something empowering about being able to decorate it as I please. It’s also nice on an infusion day or a trip to get blood work done to look down and see the tattoos I’ve chosen looking back at me. When I was a little kid and I was having a bad day, my mom would draw a smiley face on my index finger as a reminder at school that things would be OK. My tattoos feel like the big-time version of those little smiley faces drawn in pen.

And when I’ve been bedridden or housebound with a flare for a while, something like turquoise hair can make me feel like a glamorous unicorn in a way nothing else quite manages. It’s a great (and slightly less permanent) way to take charge of putting a smile on my own face. And while makeup doesn’t quite fall into the category of modifying your body in any permanent sense, I tend to include it in the category of aesthetic changes that lift my mood. Trying a new spidery eyelash trick or a bright purple lipstick can make me feel newly human on the outside even when my inside is like “Meh, ow, take a nap.”

So if you have a chronic illness of your very own, might I suggest treating yourself to a new foundation that makes you look more glowy than you feel? A box dye can turn you into a Rainbow Brite fairy princess. Try whatever trend makes you happy. Because in the grand scheme of control over your body, you’ve got to take it where you can get it. I may go to bed at 8 p.m. tonight, but at least I’ll do it with sparkly new nail polish on, and that was enough to make me feel like me today.

Follow this journey on Sicker Than Your Average.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one unexpected source of comfort when it comes to your (or a loved one’s) disability and/or disease? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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