Four . . . that is the number of tattoos my daughter now has adorning her body. Yesterday she got number four . . . where her neck joins her back . . . and, it is of the Beartooth of the Beartooth Mountains in Montana. It is actually a cool looking tattoo . . . in fact; all of her tattoos are pretty cool. There is the tiny dove on her right shoulder . . . the peace symbol on the inside of her right wrist . . . the “Let it be” on the left side of her collar bone . . . and, now, on her neck/back. If you did not know where to look, you probably would not even know she had any tattoos, but that does not hide the fact that she is a “painted woman”.
At least that is how some people react when they learn that she has tattoos . . . she’s a bad girl, a wild woman, a criminal, or even a druggie. When I told some folks about her most recent tattoo, I got that reaction from them . . . you know that look . . . one that expresses lots of disapproval and curiosity. Curiosity about what sort of person she is . . . and, what sort of parents are the wife and I, since our daughter has four tattoos! As I said, if one did not know where to look, no one would even know she had tattoos. So, what is the big deal?
In all honesty, as the kids were growing up, I was pretty staunch against tattoos. I gave the kids the lecture (number 87, I think) about them not getting tattoos as long as they were living their parents’ house. Part of the reason for this is because tattoos are permanent . . . you cannot easily erase them later on when they become boring. Ask one of my friends who got the name of his girlfriend tattooed on his arm professing his unending and undying love . . . ended up marrying someone else, and after forty years still regrets that his wife has to see that “other woman’s” name on his arm. There was also some of that generalizing about the sort of people who would have tattoos . . . didn’t they understand that their parents were ministers! What would the congregation think? As the kids were growing up, tattoos were taboo . . . three of them got tattoos within a few months of moving out. Yeah, what sort of parents were we!
Unfortunately we live in a society that is prejudicial . . . that is very judgmental . . . that has opinions that are readily expressed . . . that likes to separate and divide . . . that generalizes . . . that likes to stigmatize . . . and, even more unfortunately, we are all guilty of taking part in it. Yeah, I know what you are thinking, you are not a prejudiced person . . . phtttt! We all are prejudicial . . . trust me, we are all prejudicial. We have our likes and dislikes . . . our opinions . . . our ideas of what is acceptable and unacceptable . . . what is right and wrong. All of this makes us opinionated. Opinions express our prejudices. Right or wrong, knowingly or unknowingly . . . we all have our prejudices. I have only known one truly unprejudicial person in my life, and he hated everyone and everything!
Stigma is a “mark” or “sign” or “label” that is used to separate others because they are different . . . they are unacceptable to some sort of written or unwritten set of rules and norms . . . It is to brand someone through perceptions (right or wrong) as being different. As we all know, being different is not good . . . after all, God created us all in the same image . . . God’s. Surely your image of God is the same as my image of God!
Stigma reared its ugly head early in my life and the life of my family as I was growing up. Two of my brothers have disabilities . . . one has Cerebral Palsy, the other has major learning disabilities. Growing up they were just my brothers . . . we fought, laughed, played, goofed off, and got in trouble . . . just like all siblings do. I did not recognize that their disabilities made them any more or less my brothers . . . they were just my brothers. But outside of the house the stigma flew . . . they were retarded (which neither of them are) . . . they were burdens (no more than any other children) . . . our family was trash and to be pitied . . . and, the list could go on and on. It is no fun being on the short end of the stick when it comes to stigma . . . you can only ignore it for so long . . . you can only punch out so many people . . . you can only bang your head on the brick walls so many times.
But it did not end when I grew up and moved away from my family. I got married, we had kids . . . and, two of the kids ended with disabilities. One son has Epilepsy, the other learning disabilities. It was like déjà vu . . . I hated what it did to my family growing up, and what it did to my children. It was wrong. Plain and simple, it was wrong . . . then and now.
Now, as many of you know, the wife and I are ordained ministers . . . have been for thirty years now. That in and of itself is a stigma. When I started working at the university, it got out that I was an ordained minister. Which in turn stigmatized me . . . oh sure, I got all the theological questions, all the “please pray for us” requests, but I also got this unfair stigma that I was a certain type of “holier than thou” saint. Needless to say, experience has changed that opinion of me over the years . . . I am just like everyone else. Shocking as that may seem, I really am like everyone else. I cuss . . . fuss . . . think things I shouldn’t . . . say things that I regret . . . and, pretty much live life like everyone else. The problem is that sometimes even positive labels can become stigmas that do not allow the individual to be who God created him or her to be.
Stigma is sticking it to another unfairly . . . it is making generalizations about others unfairly . . . it is separating, dividing, and even killing others because they are not like “us”. We are all guilty of it . . . we do it all of the time. Think about how we lump all politicians and political parties into categories . . . how we react to people with mental illness (they are all crazy) . . . how we treat people with disabilities . . . how we portray the elderly on television . . . how we portray gay people . . . how we treat reformed criminals (once a criminal, always a criminal) . . . how we treat those in different economic classes . . . foreigners, especially those from the Middle East . . . and, the list could go on and on and on.
Which brings us back to tattoos and my daughter. It is unfair to stigmatize my daughter because she has four tattoos. She is intelligent. Good looking. Hard-working. A loving and devoted mother and wife. She laughs at her father’s jokes. She believes in God . . . tries to eat only organic and natural foods . . . reads all of the time . . . sings all of the time . . . enjoys life. She is special and unique, and she happens to have four tattoos . . . did I say that they are all pretty cool tattoos? So why the looks when I tell people that she has four tattoos? What difference does it make? She is beautiful, just as we are all beautiful, as God created her to be. Who are we to mess with what God created . . . after all, scripture tells us, we are all created in God’s image.
Over the years I have come to view tattoos differently. I have even caught myself thinking about getting a tattoo from time to time . . . of course, the children have encouraged me to get off the pot and do it . . . but, it hasn’t happened yet. But, it is getting closer. Maybe, just maybe, I will have to get one to support my daughter. What would the neighbors think! What would my congregation think! What would my co-workers think! What would the world think! That would really blow my minister stigma out of the water! But, who cares? I am who I am . . . in God’s image . . . as God created me to be. If it is good enough for God, it should be good enough for everyone else.
Please don’t stick it to others . . . please do not stigmatize. Label bottles, not people. In the end it is how we loved that will make the difference . . . if that isn’t something that Jesus told us to be about, then I don’t know what is. Tattoo or not, I love my daughter for God created her to be . . . besides, like her, I love the Beartooth Mountains too.