Battling Stereotypes About Lower-Back Tattoos

Stop Calling Them Tramp Stamps

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Lower-back tattoos tend to conjure up a lot of assumptions about the women who wear them. It all starts with the slang terms: "back bait," "California license plate," "handlebars," "spank button," and so many more. Of course, the infamous "tramp stamp" is the most common of these. It's an insulting misnomer that suggests women who choose to wear lumbar tattoos are promiscuous—and on a deeper level, speaks to the stubbornly enduring judgments that society makes about feminine sexuality.

Even in today's "enlightened" society, some ill-informed people take the stereotype to even darker places and claim scientific support. An entry in the Urban Dictionary says this of women who wear lumbar tattoos:

“Those chicks with tramp stamps are the kinds of girls you take home to bang. Don’t get into relationships with them because they are often immature gold digging sluts who sleep with everyone. Oh yeah, make sure you use a rubber because you don’t want to end up with chlamydia trachoma (which 1 in 20 women have between the ages of 14-39 according to the center of disease control … probably much higher if they have a tramp stamp considering the scientific coloration [sic] between sluttiness and tramp stamps). Also, if they pop out a baby (which they often do), they may have issues getting epidurals through their tattoos in the lower back.”

The above statement is wrong on every level, of course; it's full of falsities, misconceptions, prejudice, and shaming with absolutely no basis in scientific study.

Origins of the Term

When and where the term first popped up isn't clear. In 1992, the St. Petersburg Times used it to describe food stamps. In 1999, it appeared in a Toronto Star story about a Charlie Chaplin commemorative stamp. Today's interpretation of the term, however, most likely burst onto the scene when "Saturday Night Live" used it in a May 2004 skit. After that, its use became widespread.

As for designs, "tramp stamp" tattoos were mostly Celtic symbols that appeared to have been stamped onto the skin at the base of the spine. Nowadays, the phrase refers to any tattoo in that area of the body.

Sexuality and Lower-Back Tattoos

The perception of lumbar tattoos as "slutty" is, at best, unfortunate and, at worst, sexist. The choices any woman makes about her sexual activity are up to her and should not be judged any more than those of a man.

The difficulty arises from the fact that how humans dress and decorate their bodies is a form of communication. A woman who gets (and displays) a tattoo on the lower curvature of her back expresses sensuality and sexual confidence.

Unfortunately, this still makes many people uncomfortable, and such expressions have a long history of being shamed. Societal perceptions do change, however. Showing a little lower back, with or without ink, is now no different than showing skin on any other sensual area of the body. In the 1800s, a woman was considered immodest if she showed her shoulders or legs. Early 20th-century pinup images of "bathing beauties" in swimsuits were considered pornographic. Even in the mid-1900s, “good girls” never showed cleavage. In modern society, women are freer than ever before to highlight and express their sexuality, be it in what they wear or what they do. Still, "slut shaming" persists, and the negative assumptions about those who rock lumbar tattoos are glaring examples.

Attention: Welcome or Not?

If you have a lower-back tattoo and choose to display it by wearing low-rise jeans or crop tops, you do have to accept the fact that you are going to attract attention. As long as you're comfortable with that and can handle both the positive and negative, there's no reason for you to cover up. Asserting yourself as a strong, independent, sexually confident woman requires being able to carry yourself in a dignified manner despite negative reactions.

One man joked about this on a message board, saying:

“I see nothing wrong with tattoos, so long as they don't cover their entire body with them. But you know what I find real funny? It's when a girl has a tattoo on the small of her back and wears a mini skirt or low cut jeans with a top that exposes the tattoo ... when I, ahem ... ADMIRE ... her artwork on her back, she starts complaining about how I'm like all the men who undress with their eyes.”

Inappropriate Comments

If you don’t want people to notice your tattoos, don’t display them. Showing a lower-back tattoo, however, is not an open invitation for others to make sexual comments. Likewise, just because a woman decides to assert herself sexually does not mean she should be subject to any assumptions about her sexual behavior.

Bottom line: Yes, people often make certain judgments about women with lower-back tattoos, but there is no truth to the claim that these women are any more promiscuous than anyone else. While her choices should not be fodder for gossip or speculation, people are people, and the stereotypes persist. If you are a woman who wants a lower-back tattoo, go for it.

If you’re concerned about people judging, you have two choices: Use this as an opportunity to develop your confidence and wear your tattoo proudly, or cover it up and keep it as something you enjoy without having to display it. Either way, get the tattoo if you want it. The choice is yours. And if you are among those who would judge a woman with a "tramp stamp," it's time to stop shaming—and start admiring her for the confident, proud human she is.