BY MICKIE MEINHARDT
“So what do your tattoos mean?”
I get this a lot. Anyone with ink does. People love to ascribe meaning to tattoos; as if to say that to make such a decision, to put permanent markings on your skin, has to have gravitas. But often it does not. Some even seem offended when I answer that, well, most of them don’t “mean” anything. The anchor on my left bicep? Just really wanted one. The mermaid on my right? A beautiful work of art from an artist I admire. It’s a lot like buying a painting, except instead of hanging it on a wall, it’s on my body. Forever.
But some do have symbolism. Like the smattering of line drawing on my wrists: the Deathly Hallows, an octagon for my math-teacher grandma, and wave for my beach hometown dappling my wrists. Of these small but significant ones, there are two I’m particularly fond of, both hand-drawn by me: A heart on my upper right thigh, and the words “NO TIME” on the inside of my right ring finger. Both represent the culminations of periods of extreme personal, emotional, and mental turmoil, and have become symbolic mantras to a better self. In the absence of religion — I’ve been agnostic since I learned what the term meant, though hold beliefs in various universal phenomena that one could, I suppose, call spiritual — they and the feelings they represent have become like small visible prayers to myself, without which I would certainly have been OK, but perhaps not so quickly.
The heart was my first tattoo. I got it in tandem with the small bicycle on my ribs, never seen, the summer before my senior year of college, to celebrate the end of what was and remains one of the worst period of my life.
I was living in the Bronx, commuting nearly an hour to Manhattan to intern at a fashion news website for no money and waitress after at a midtown beer bar for barely-decent money; days frequently began at 8am and ended around 2am with maybe $150 bucks in my pocket, if I was lucky. After rent and bills, there wasn’t much left over, and I was often unable to feed myself anything other than cheap college staples — bananas, beans, booze — or whatever I could scrounge from the restaurant. My apartment life was in turmoil; one of my roommates was experiencing a terrible, life-altering personal situation that, for no fault of hers, oozed into everyone’s life around her and caused a rift in our friendship. Home was not a safe or happy place for me when I very much needed it to be.
That summer, I was in the throes of battling my way out of years-long eating disorders. Three years of on-and-off anorexia and bulimia had caused deep personal revulsion and body image issues. And at that point, whatever reasons the disorders began and were perpetuated were long gone. I felt terrible all the time. Constantly tired, sore, sick of looking at myself in bathroom mirrors with hatred-filled, watery eyes. I was repulsed by what I was doing to myself. So, as low a point this was for me — over-worked, under-paid, stressed, and feeling completely alone — there was a twisted silver lining: Under the pressure of those months, I finally cracked. I resented myself for what I was doing to my body, and my mind, so much that I vowed to kick it all for good.
In hindsight, I wish I had told someone, anyone. But admitting how incredibly fucked up I was to another person was impossible, unfathomable, at the time. It would mean admitting what a serious problem I had. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone watching me when I ate, looking for signs of deep-seated issues. So I told no one. I was isolated, depressed, and a mess. I drank a lot to forget my anxieties, or try to quiet them. If school hadn’t started when it did, giving me a distraction and getting me out of my own head, I probably would have lost it. Years later, a doctor would ask me, incredulous, how I managed to get over the disorders without therapy or serious treatment.
In truth, it would be years more before the aftershocks of those psychological earthquakes would finally die down, but at the time I was determined to quell the actions of the disorders as best I could on my own. I remember this decisive moment of “You will learn to get better” mostly because of an unconsciously-drawn doodle. It was on the late train ride home after a long shift at the bar. As a writer, I was always scribbling, even when bone-tired. With one of the black pens I always carried, I drew a tiny heart on my right inner thigh just below the hem of my denim miniskirt. I stared at it for a bit, willing myself to love my body more.
“This would make a good tattoo,” I thought.
A week before classes began, I took a few days to visit my hometown, Ocean City, Maryland, for beach relaxation and decompression. On the last day, I accompanied my brother to get a tattoo and decided I would, too.
I sketched the heart over and over in my journal. I’d doodled absentminded hearts into margins my whole life, but this wasn’t a college-ruled notebook. It was important that it was imperfect; not symmetrical, not too clean. I drew quickly, rapidly, trying to conjure “the one” with literal stokes of brilliance. Some came out longer, swoopy, with a flick to the point. Some were plump and short, like Sweetheart candies. The ideal was something in the middle: Curvy and cute but not comically plump.
It finally materialized, and I triumphantly circled the nickel-sized symbol and handed the notebook to the tattoo artist to scan. I sat down on the padded chair, jean shorts hiked and leg splayed, and watched. I remember how the ink welled up and sank into my skin, how I did not bleed, how surprised I was at easily enduring the pain, having always been afraid of needles. When it was over, I had a permanent reminder to be a better person to myself that would be seen, as I once told a friend, every time I sat down to pee. This was important — as any recovered disordered eater knows, the bathroom is where your indiscretions manifest. So several times a day, there it was: Love me. Love yourself. Love.
I can’t pretend it was an instant elixir, but it helped a lot. When I became an avid yoga practitioner, it took on a new form.
“Look how strong you are! You’re amazing! I love you!” It seemed to say, as it warrior-ed and stretched and danced through the poses. I came to think of it as a friend who never leaves, and always has the same good advice.
The second meaningful tattoo is relatively recent, inked impromptu on my 25th birthday this past summer, though I’d been contemplating it for some time. I swore I’d never get a words tattoo — I felt out-of-context quotes were cliché, and I’d seen some bad ones — but finding my own handmade mantras changed my mind.
As a creative, self-doubt is a constant companion. Internal body image issues aside, I've always been a confident, outgoing, and capable person, especially in my work as a writer. And, fortunately, depression has never been a clinical or recurring battle for me, like it is for many creatives. But your early twenties are a tumultuous time, and in them the melancholy demon can creep and make itself at home, often to paralyzing effect.
In the later part of 2014, I went through a messy breakup. It felt easy to actually do at the time, to say “we’re done” and walk away, but there were devastating aftereffects in the following months. The relatively short relationship was my first legitimate one as an adult, and, unprepared for the feelings that follow after you lose a love, its dissolution rocked me in unexpected ways. A lot of my body dysmorphia issues came rearing back, and while I was long past the actual disorders themselves, my image of myself was shattered. The breakup had also occurred right before Thanksgiving, meaning I had to trudge through the holidays as if they weren’t making me feel worse about being alone. And finally, I was in the terrible purgatory of waiting to hear back from graduate schools, having finished applications to various MFA programs at the end of the year. I had nothing to do except wait, wait to get better, wait to be accepted—and nothing good comes from an idle mind. Not usually one to wallow, I found myself unwilling to leave my apartment, pathetically curling up in bed with a laptop most nights, or getting wine-drunk and watching the ceiling fan while listening to sad girl music. I knew I was not OK. I saw it, and didn’t like it. But even then, I wasn’t sure how to fix myself. A go-getter who rarely sat still, I’d never been in this situation before. I’d never felt so deflated, like my will to be a person had leaked out of my pores and evaporated. There was a lot of denial, a lot of “I’m fine,” until my roommate finally sat me down and said, “No, you’re not.”
It took a while. But by spring, I’d eased out of the hole. I got into my top school, took on new projects, and started to feel like myself again, in part from the cheesy recitation of several mantras. Say what you will about “quotes” (I did), but they can help more than expected.
One is a poem, “The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowski, which begins: “Your life is your life. Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.” I printed it and hung on my bedroom wall, and on moments when the gray cloud loomed I would remind myself: This is your life, and it is bright and full and amazing, if you let it be. It ends “You are marvelous. The Gods wait to delight in you.” That is true. For everyone.
Another is an aphorism that I found on the source for all aphorisms, Tumblr. It is a photo of a piece of paper that the feminist teen blogger Tavi Gevinson had taped to the back of her door. It read: “There is not enough time for hating yourself. Too many things to make. Go.”
I remember seeing it and feeling like someone had just clubbed me with a reality stick. I can’t tell you how many times I repeated those lines to myself through this past year.
“No time for hating yourself,” in front of my mirror on my way out for the night, when perhaps I didn’t feel like I looked my best. “Too many things to make,” on the mat after weekend yoga, getting psyched to go write something. “Go.” On good days, on bad days. Almost every day. I also liked the way it synced with the meme phrase, “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” which had become something of a tagline for my “no fucks given” attitude — adopted as a way to keep my positive, yes-to-life perspective high and distracting negativity low.
These three combined served as driving forces to betterment. If I wanted to be a successful writer with a great life, if I wanted to pursue more creative projects, if I wanted to be the best version of myself, if I wanted to be GREAT and MARVELOUS, then I did not have time for things that could hold me back: sitting and being sad, worrying about what anyone else thought of me or my choices or my work, stressing about how I looked underneath my clothes, thinking about insignificant, small-minded men — or anyone, really — who did not appreciate me. It all went out the window.
Thus, the “NO TIME” tattoo was on my mind for a few months by the time I got it; I had been waiting for something, but I didn’t know what. A little buzzed in a taxi on my way home from birthday day drinks, I decided that was the moment. I redirected the cab, walked into a trusted shop, and scribbled the words a few times in crooked uppercase chicken scratch. I’d never liked my uppercase handwriting — it’s a block-y, barely-held-together sans serif. My lowercase is loopy, a half-print half-cursive hybrid that I’ve always found interesting and pretty. But uppercase it had to be, a stressed point, a shout, a directive.
It hurt worse than any tattoo I’d gotten — fuck the foot or ribs, FINGERS are some serious pain, right on the bone, close to millions of nerve endings. But it was the best one yet, and so worth it. I walked out as the sun was setting over North Brooklyn in that spectacular summer pink-orange array, head clear, feeling maybe one year older but definitely years wiser thanks to those changes in life and attitude in recent months.
Now, the black ink has softened — fading slightly, as finger tattoo tend to do — and it feels more like a firm but gentle reminder, rather than an “or else” angry shout.
Despite not ever believing in mantras or prayer, or at least not the ones I’d seen so far, I unknowingly unwittingly created my own in times when I needed them the most. Two little shout-outs to the universe, establishing my voice in it as one that often wavered but came back stronger, wiser, each time. And written in my own hand, they feel immensely powerful. Like I composed an unbreakable contract to my body to be a better person and signed it to, and on, myself. I don’t think I would feel the same if they were in a pretty font or pre-packaged shape.
I see both these tattoos quite a lot — when I type, when I pee, when I put on rings, when I change my jeans — and when I remember to look at them, I smile.
Because I know, now: I got no time for anything, except a lot of love.