Inked Dolls: Cheryl Cole and disgust


So, Cheryl Cole has added to the large rose design she unveiled earlier this year.

Cue the social networking outpourings of horror, and the slow news day Sunday papers having the photographic evidence on the tabloid front covers.

And now Liz Jones wades in selflessly to protect teenage girls from copying Cheryl. Presumably nice middle-class girls, whose parents read the Daily Mail, and have the funds to potentially buy a tattoo that in its earlier stage took 15 hours.

But kudos to Lizzy, she has Cheryl up as a contaminated figure who poses a threat to nice decent girls, innocent teenage fans who may find themselves in a trance-like state walking into a tattoo parlour.

Of course anyone interested in seeing Cheryl’s tattoo could google it, or see it via instagram, twitter, facebook and celebrity blogs. The newspapers serve the picture on their covers as a source of repulsion. The strong impression left on those largely unfamiliar with some large pieces of body art are felt as disgust, shock, anger, hate. ‘How can a woman do that to her body?” Why would she?’ And leads to a wider debate about the decay of femininity and the attached decay of the nation; the decaying state is read through the site of the female body.

Of course this is a gendered issue. Cheryl is objectified to no more than the sum of her ink, and judged as stupid, ‘trashy’ ‘chavvy’. She is seen as excessive, too visible, having ‘no class’, being disgusting, being strange or deviant. Compare this to how David Beckham and his tattoo collection including full sleeves are treated. Or Harry Styles of One Direction and his reported 43 tattoos. Sure some criticise celebrity men with tattoos, but not to the same extent. Because the female celebrity’s body becomes public property to judge dissect and rule over, in a way that the male’s never does.

Sara Ahmed quotes William Ian Miller “Horrifying things stick, like glue, like slime” (Miller, 1997, p.26 cited in Ahmed, 2004, p.89). The repetition of the pictures serves to invoke the public’s horror that a female would deface her body. It lends to a wider anxiety about the behaviour of women, the dangerous trope of the out-of-control chav who does not abide by the demure white middle class standards of Pippa Middleton et al. The women who cannot be contained, who are vulgar, who stick 2 fingers up to conventions of beauty.

And sure, Cheryl is a pop Barbie. She is beautiful, petite, with long shiny hair and Bambi eyes. But I still like the fact she has had the nerve to ‘deface’ her body, to go against convention and get the tattoo she wanted, rather than a tiny modest Sam Cam one that tows the line of respectable femininity. And yes, I am aware of the Suicide Girls criticisms, that an Inked Barbie is hardly an authentic subversion, but Holly Willoughby isn’t going to turn up for work on Monday morning with full sleeves is she.

Model Holly Henderson told me that due to her tattoos she receives negative treatment whilst flying on business. Staff presume Holly cannot afford to be in the restaurant, or are reluctant to let her into business class. Because tattoos are still associated with deviance, crime, and a ‘chav’ subculture. A woman with noticeable tattoos is seen as inferior to ‘nice girls’. And this is wrong.

Imogen Tyler argues in her book Revolting Subjects Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain (buy it, it’s amazing) says: “Disgust is not just enacted by subjects and groups in processes of othering, distinction-making, distancing and boundary formation, but it is also experienced and lived by those constituted as disgusting in their experiences of displacement and abandon” (2013, p. 26). The symbolic violence launched against Cheryl for her choice of tattoo is just only symbolic, it becomes lived in how women with tattoos are treated (Ibid, p.27).

If you think “well everyone’s got a tattoo these days” consider a person in court with noticeable tattoos. Do you think the stigma and associations with crime and deviance and poor taste will have no consequences for the decisions made? Stigma is a visible mark of a spoiled identity according to Goffman, and the tattoo is a specific branded mark.

Whether you like Cheryl’s tattoo or not, is it acceptable that the media out women’s bodies on trial every day?