Fatphobia in Body Piercing

Fatphobia is a chronic issue across many areas and spectrums, and piercing is no exception. Piercing and body modification is inherently an industry that deals intimately with people’s bodies, and works around their bodies, and this includes working on fat bodies. That being said, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of fat bodies within the industry and it is part of a larger systemic issue with fat phobia.

That said, I would like to acknowledge my privilege as a slim, white passing person. I do not speak from a place of fatness or a personal understanding of the lived experience of fat people’s bodies. Therefore, this article will primarily feature the voices of two amazing women – Becks is a fat, body positive, sex-positive sex worker who has been getting pierced and tattooed for many years and speaks from a client’s perspective, and Caleigh is a fat, body positive body piercer who has been working in the industry for 10 years, and can speak both as a client and as a professional about their experiences. I would like to elevate their voices to help both clients and studios alike understand how we are failing fat people in this industry, and how we can be better.

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Becks, one of our contributors

“I’m so excited to see this article. I’ve never, in all my time, seen something that specifically addresses fatness in tattoo and piercing like this. And it needs to be said. I think it’s so drilled into people’s mind that tattoos and piercings are adornments that go on your bodies, and we only expect to see this on typical, pretty, “skinny” bodies. As soon as you get out of that it’s like why are you even trying, why are you even putting pretty things on you, just stop. That’s been my experience in tattoos and piercings.” – Becks

Google “tattooed woman”, “pierced woman”, “pierced man” etc. – the first few pages feature nothing but slim bodies. It wasn’t until page 3 or 4 that I found someone with an average build. It was much further before anyone fat was pictured. As body positivity and body acceptance has grown, we have seen many industries embracing the fact that bodies come in every shape and size. Old Navy recently expanded to offer all clothes in sizes XS-4X. Fenty Lingerie was celebrated for featuring all body sizes and shapes. Larger mannequins in stores are seen more and more. But the tattoo and piercing industry is lagging behind in terms of acceptance.

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Caleigh, our other contributor

“It’s always felt too cliquey and too cool for me to enter the industry and be tattooed and pierced. You can be weird and be different and be edgy, if you are skinny. But you can’t be fat and alternative and modified. And I’ve felt that way in almost every tattoo studio I’ve been in, I’ve never felt like I was treated the same way. Fat women are locked into a chill aesthetic or hyper feminine. Anything more different like goth, pastel goth, kawaii, etc, alternative subcultures, aren’t accessible for fat people. Clothes don’t come in your sizes, people aren’t featured for brands or on social media. All the alternative subcultures that align with tattoos and piercings aren’t as accessible to fat bodies as they are skinny bodies.” – Becks

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Representation is huge, and it matters. The lack of representation for fat bodies in piercing and tattoo culture is unfortunate, and this representation is also unequally affecting fat women. “The archetype of the alternative girl is skinny. You can be a big dude and have tattoos and be alternative and you are the chill alt dude, he’s the funny fat tattooed guy. There’s nothing like that for women. Alternative women are almost exclusively pictured as skinny.” – Becks

This is painfully true – larger bodied tattooed men and male tattoo artists grace the pages of Inked Magazine and Pain, whereas larger women are nowhere to be found. Popular tattoo and piercing meme pages regularly post images that fat shame specifically women – even as they praise the work of fat male artists. And I see a number of piercers and tattoo artists who preach body positivity, who advertise themselves as a safe person or a safe space – follow and support these pages.

“The industry is very two faced. Piercers and tattoo artists preach body positivity but it’s often faked. I’ll find people on social media and see the pages they follow and it’s pages with memes that shame fat people. I’ll hang out in a studio while a friend gets tattooed and hear the comments artists make about clients’ bodies. And I think ‘Damn. You made a big post about how body positive you are and how safe your studio is and that’s very clearly a lie.’” – Becks

The tattoo and piercing industry is inherently built on the concept of being different – of celebrating our bodies and/or lives and experiences externally. It should be a place of body positivity, of self love and self acceptance. And while that has grown over the years and the industry is now more than ever open to a wider range of people, fat people are largely left out of the conversation. They are not represented in our culture and our media. Beyond that, they are actively failed in terms of accessibility. This is the larger issue, and I think one that deserves the most immediate attention. Most studios are not accessible to fat bodies.

“So I have this dragonfly tattoo. And I went to get it with my mom. She went first, and I wanted it on my ankle. And they had a massage table but it was wood. I wanted my tattoo on my ankle and while she was going I was sneakily trying to google the name of the table and see its weight limit, and I couldn’t find it. And this was an open floor plan studio so there were dozens of people around also getting tattooed and I didn’t want to sit on it and break it. So I just said ‘Can I get it on my forearm?’ Because I knew. I knew I would break the table. And they didn’t have any other tables. And so I got it on an entirely different body part then where I wanted it because I knew. I knew it wasn’t a choice for my body there.“ – Becks

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This is not an uncommon story, not by a long shot. Many studios don’t have tables or chairs that are designed to support higher weights. And furthermore, many piercers and tattoo artists don’t even know the weight limits of their tables or furniture. I am in a number of professional forums where piercers and artists discuss this every couple of months and the majority don’t know what the weight limits on their tables are. And these are people who are constantly pushing for accessibility, for queer and poc and disabled safe spaces. And they don’t know what their table’s weight limits are for their fat clients.

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Mac, a client who traveled from Ohio to Nashville for Lynn after experiences of fatphobia

“I have had to embarrass myself before. I was at a drag show and it was a cabaret and it was fancy. And they only had chairs with wooden arms and an hour in I was like I’m gonna ask. I gotta ask. My thighs were so uncomfortable and hurt. And the waitress was great, she swapped the chair right away and it was so much more comfortable. But you know, not everyone has the nerves to ask. It’s nice to have a choice of chairs so as a fat person I can choose where to sit.“ – Caleigh

“I love having choices – like walking in and seeing different types of chairs, so I can choose to sit in what fits my body.” – Becks

This applies not just to our procedure chairs and table but also common spaces. Is the seating in your lobby accessible for fat clients? What are its weight limits? Your extra seating in procedure areas? In many studios, it’s not.

“I’m too heavy for chairs with a foot pedal to go up. I noticed when I got over 280-300 that those chairs stopped going up. And I’ve noticed that at hair salons too, that chairs just don’t go up. I would love to see studios list weight limits for their products on their website, so someone going there could know.“ – Becks

Studios posting their weight limits for chairs and tables online goes a long way for accessibility. Not only should artists and piercers know the weight limits of their setup, but having it online keeps it accessible. Not everyone will feel comfortable asking “Hey, will this table hold me?”, and many fat people have had so many negative interactions around their weight they can be embarrassed or ashamed to even ask. Having this information accessible on your studio site prevents these interactions, and also shows clients you care enough about fat bodies to have that information there.

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Mac’s navel piercing!

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“If the studio doesn’t have any enclosed spaces or safe spaces to tattoo and pierce, they aren’t really trying to cater to people who are insecure about their bodies or fat bodies. As (a fat person) you want that privacy because people will make comments. Or if you have something you know can only hold up to a certain weight you aren’t accommodating to fat people.” – Becks

“So many studios don’t have room. They don’t offer privacy, I mean, obviously many studios have private piercing rooms but beyond that. Checking navels for anatomy is huge, so many piercers just have clients lift their shirts up front and check anatomy. And that can be so difficult for a fat person. Take someone back to a piercing room, offer every client privacy and respect for their bodies.“ – Caleigh

This is something I have witnessed myself guesting and traveling. Studios who just do any and all anatomy checks or stencil placement up front, in front of everyone. No privacy, no separate space. And when it comes to anatomy checks that can be extra difficult. Some people don’t have the anatomy for some piercings, or have extra considerations. Those are conversations that every client deserves to have in a private space. Navels, in particular, come with an extra level of assessment and checking and often discussion about anatomy and healing considerations. Those are always assessments that should happen in the privacy of a piercing room. Not every client wants to lift their shirt up in the middle of a lobby. This also leads into another huge point – navel piercings. Nowhere in the piercing industry do we see more fat phobia and shaming than with navel piercings.

“Piercers have ingrained fat phobia and you see it on navels the most often. I feel like it is fatphobic to not know how to pierce every navel. How can you be piercing a navel in general if you don’t understand how it works? How it functions? But so many piercers deny people based on weight, even clients who aren’t very fat, just because they have a roll. Or a crease. And many piercers do surface piercings on fat clients. They are trying to make the piercing look the same as on skinny bellies. And those same piercers will nail floating navels on skinner clients. But the second a client is fat they don’t know how to pierce them. I hear from so many clients who have been fat shamed over navels. I had a client go back to another piercer in the area after I had to remove her navel. It was done as a surface piercing, not correctly in the navel. And the piercer said “Of course – you are fat. That’s how it has to be pierced. You need to lose weight if you want it another way.” And that’s so common. People pierce larger bellies incorrectly or ignore the anatomy, or fat shame clients and don’t even try to pierce bigger clients.” – Caleigh