It was the morning of my sister’s wedding, and we were all primping and prepping at the reception site. Bridesmaids scampered in and out of the bathroom to fix their makeup or hair. Florists and decorators arranged purple and white centerpieces around the oak-paneled reception hall. And I stood in front of the lounge room mirror, painting gobs of red lipstick onto my chest to hide a tattoo of the chipper Disney character Jiminy Cricket.
The lipstick was just the first step in a three-part procedure to temporarily hide the tattoo and allow me to walk around with confidence. And this day, special as it was, wasn’t exactly an outlier. The 3-inch-by-2-inch smiling cricket above my right breast had been a source of shame and embarrassment for more than 10 years. I constantly worry what other people think of it. I long felt that it ruined every attempt at sexual appeal. So I go out of my way to cover it up.
I never buy low-cut shirts or tank tops, and I rarely join friends at the beach. While considering a purchase of a sleeveless or loose fitting blouse, I run the clothes through a series of endurance tests in the dressing room: running in place, jumping jacks and forward and sideways bends. If there is any doubt that I will accidentally expose the tattoo, the shirt goes back on the rack. But I could not hide the tattoo for my sister’s wedding.
Once the red lipstick dried onto my skin,I slapped nude colored foundation on top of it. It smeared in with the red and changed the color of the cricket’s face from forest green to mint. The outline of the tattoo was still noticeable after I applied a second layer of foundation, so I scooped out the makeup in fistfuls, lumping it onto my skin like wet sand on a sand castle.
The cover-up wasn’t working so well. My chest was beginning to look deformed, like another appendage was trying to push its way out of my body.
I stared into the mirror with a sour look on my face and began to question if this was the normal response to getting a tattoo. How many other people live in constant worry and shame about a permanent addition to their body? How many other people wake up in the morning and look down at their chest with regret?
The tattoo seemed like a good idea when I was 18. Ever since childhood, I knew I wanted a tattoo. I believed people with tattoos looked intimidating and rugged. And I wanted people to fear and respect me for permanently marking an ephemeral mood.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Jiminy Cricket…fear and respect? Well, I’ve wanted a tattoo of a Disney character ever since my all-time favorite teacher, Ms. Pallero, showed us fifth graders her own ink of Mickey Mouse. She was an amazing teacher and so cool. But when, years later, I decided to actually get my Jiminy tattoo, I was just 30 days clean from a crack cocaine addiction. I was a troubled youth, and after elementary school, I turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with my problems. It got bad pretty quickly, and I’m lucky that I stopped. But when I did stop, I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to make good decisions on permanently marking my body.
But back to my sister’s nuptials. The wedding coordinator called us to take our places for the ceremony. In a rush to finish, I dumped powder over the goiter of makeup that hung off of my chest. Another bridesmaid stopped before me and grabbed a blush brush. “You have to mix it in,” she said and went to work, delicately smoothing out the makeup on my chest so that it looked more normal.
All the bridesmaids lined up to walk the procession down the aisle. When it was my turn, I carried myself with a sense of dignity that I hadn’t felt in years. Here I was showing off my body, and I didn’t have to worry about what other people thought if they saw the tattoo.
The Sunday-morning Florida sun shone down as I appeared to the left of the guests. Most people wore sunglasses to shield the glare, but I welcomed it: the bright light helped to blend in the tan and ivory colors painted on my body.
Throughout the ceremony, I glanced down at my cleavage and smiled at how beautiful my chest was now that the damaging image was gone.
But as the priest droned on about commitment and for better or worse, I worried that the sun was melting the masterpiece painted over my dreaded commitment. As soon as the bride and groom kissed, I rushed to the bathroom to touch up. I felt like Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her, constantly spray-painting her gray, dead skin.
By the time I reached the bathroom, I realized that some of the makeup had gotten on the lining of my purple dress. I tried to wipe it away with a wet towel as best I could without disrupting the dry foundation.
I soon rejoined the reception and greeted various family members and friends. As I approached my aunt and cousin, their eyes zoomed down to my chest and their expressions turned from delight to horror. My chest looked like a third-degree burn. The layers of foundation were flaking off and the black outline of the tattoo was already starting to reappear. My relatives looked at me with a mixture of pity and confusion. I tried to ignore it and went to give them hugs. As I circled my arms around my Aunt Jean’s waist, she pulled back as if worried that I would infect her. My cousin Jill looked down at her wine glass and decided that she needed to go and get a refill as quickly as possible. I didn’t see her again until the end of the wedding. I wondered how they would have reacted if I had left the tattoo alone. I wondered if it made a difference that the tattoo was there at all.
It made a difference to me, though. That’s why I’ve spent the past decade looking for a way to get rid of it. I considered covering the tattoo up with another tattoo, but I can’t think of anything that would look appropriate in that area. Spray paint might cover it up, but the fumes would probably get me high or predispose me to various forms of cancer. Laser removal crossed my mind too, but it costs nearly ten times as much as the tattoo and there is no guarantee that it won’t leave a gnarly scar.
I’ve certainly put a lot more thought into the removal of the tattoo than actually getting it. I guess now I understand what it means to commit to something, for better or worse, till death. Actually, no, the tattoo will still be there after I die. There’s no getting rid of it.
I made the rounds of hellos with family members, and then I rushed back to the bathroom to touch up before giving my toast. For the next few hours, I ran back and forth between the reception hall and the bathroom to check on my chest before the first dance, after the entrees were served, and between the cake cutting and the dancing — my parents probably thought I was using drugs again. I was so tired by the end of it all that I didn’t even have time to track down the photographer to request proofs of all of the photos that I was in to ensure that he could airbrush away anything that wasn’t to my liking.
After the wedding, I spent the next hour or so in another bathroom trying to wash off the cover-up. The powder and foundation came off easily enough. The five layers of smudge-proof lipstick wouldn’t budge, though. I scrubbed at it so hard that I couldn’t even tell when it was actually off because my skin was the same shade of red as the lipstick. I fell into bed that night knowing that I needed to find another solution.
Since then, I have gone back to my old ways of covering up the tattoo. It’s just so much easier to avoid showing that part of my body altogether with carefully crafted and ultraconservative outfits.
I was at a nightclub not too long ago where most of the women wore sexy spaghetti strap dresses. I was wearing a long-sleeved black and white dress. I thought I looked pretty good. And then one guy told me I looked like a pilgrim.
But you know what? Maybe that’s not so bad. Better than gobbing a volcano of makeup on my chest, at least.