A Brazilian Lesson in Body Positivity
June 11, 2013
I have five tattoos. My first one, an Aries symbol in rainbow, I bought myself as a high school graduation present. It was to remind myself that I should remain true to myself and never apologize for the way I was born (both as a gay man and a stubborn Aries). My second is an homage to my favorite author Flannery O'Connor. My third is an homage to my favorite film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. My fourth is a poem by E.E. Cummings, and my fifth is a quote from To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
Recently, on a project I undertook in Brazil with a group of eight Fordham University students through the school's Global Outreach (GO!) program, I noticed that very few Brazilians have tattoos. Many asked about the meanings of my tattoos, if they hurt, why I got them, etc. A few people even told me I must live some kind of "wild lifestyle" back in the states. As my couch and my Netflix subscription could tell you, I'm more of a domesticated breed and less wild. However, there was one woman I met in Brazil who had a lot of tattoos -- mostly Christian iconography. Her name was Tatiana, and she was HIV positive.
On a scorching Tuesday morning, accompanied by our Brazilian mentor and mother Leila, I and two other GO! team members met with Tatiana to deliver some good news -- Tatiana had been chosen to receive her very own house in the future. You see, my GO! team was actually in the small Brazilian town of Colinas building a house for another woman named Janaina. Janaina was a former sex worker and recovering drug addict with the most adorable 2- or 3-year-old son named Kacio. Leila sat on the couch with Tatiana, I sat on a couch caddy-corner to Leila and Tatiana, with Tatiana's spaghetti strap top exposing a strip of Christ-inspired tattoos running up and down her arm.
I told her I liked her tattoos. She said "Thank you," and I pointed to my own. With a hefty language barrier between the both of us, we communicated only in nods and smiles. At one point, Tatiana got up from the sofa to get the group a snack. Mind you, the woman had close to nothing. Her two sons slept on mattresses on the floor of her high-ceilinged brick hut. She had a roommate, Maria, who was equally as silent as she was. When Tatiana rose up to fetch some snacks -- cups of coffee on adorable saucers and pão de queijo, or "cheese bread," the national Brazilian snack -- I and my two teammates could see that she was walking with a clubfoot. Clubfoot, of course, being a very common birth ailment that is almost non-existent in the United States, as doctors can usually take care of it right after an infant is born.
While on the drive to Tatiana's house, Leila had recounted to us, in broken-but-effortless English, the troubles present in Tatiana's life. Tatiana was a survivor of domestic violence, and from what I could gather, she had been abused by both lovers and roommates/ friends. She was a former sex worker, she had been in prison at one time and she also had a history with drugs. Of course, anyone familiar with the state of HIV in America knows that, as a woman living in poverty who had survived domestic abuse, been to prison, and had a history of drug abuse, Tatiana was at high risk for HIV transmission, a risk that, in her case had become reality.
And, to me, her tattoos were a very telling sign. Now, let me be clear, for the very brief time I met this woman, and in the very brief exchanges we made, I did not have the time to get a life story. In fact, most of what is coming next may be conjecture. But, as someone who yearns to connect with people, when the universe gave me an opportunity to make this connection, however tenuous, I couldn't let it go.
I know why I have my tattoos. I have my tattoos because, ever since I can remember, I've been fat. And, for a long time, I could not be comfortable with being fat. Something had stood in the way of my embracing my fatness. It always felt like my fatness was stopping me from something. It was stopping me from being in a relationship. It was stopping me from dressing the way I wanted to dress. It was cutting me off from a nurturing, nourishing self-love I needed. Tattoos were a step in the process -- mind you, not the process -- of discovering that my body could be a work-in-progress. My body could be a canvas that could be sploshed with meaning and brushed with confidence throughout my life. This January, when I tattooed "Larger than life is just the right size" on my chest, I felt a wonderful sense of release afterwards -- and I felt kind of sexy. I have come a long way since the spring of 2010, when a boy told me that he couldn't date me because I was "too fat," and he had never dated someone my size before.
Looking at Tatiana's strip of tattoo art on her arm, I felt a connection with her because maybe, just maybe, she was looking for ways to add art to her body. And the religious art on her body was a thing of beauty. It was a celebration in ink. A celebration of a spirit that overcame being differently abled, abused, imprisoned and marginalized. Maybe, for her and me, body modification was a way to transform and to realize that we are more than the sum of our pounds and our illnesses. Maybe for us both, our body art is another thread in place toward the completion of our self-imposed cocoons. And maybe these pieces of art will help us both be butterflies.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.
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