Skin Deep: Eating Disorder Recovery Tattoos

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Sometimes beauty is skin deep – like when it comes in the form of beautiful artwork commemorating a commitment to being healthy and happy through the work of recovery. My own recovery tattoo got me thinking – who else out there has some sweet recovery art? I’ll start us off, and then I’m excited to share some of the really great reader submissions that I received!

My Own Recovery Tattoo:
My recovery tattoo was my first tattoo. I got it over the summer of 2005, when I was 22 and had been in recovery for about two years. February of that year, I smashed the scale I had been using in the alley behind my first apartment with a triumphant and cathartic anger (the avatar for my blog, Twitter, etc. is an actual photo of my smashed scale!). The scale had become a physical representation of the otherwise invisible tormentor known as anorexia, an altar upon which my self-worth was constantly debated. I had been making strides in recovery and was doing very well, but I kept coming back to the scale. In February 2005, I hadn’t weighed myself in months. I came across it, and, in a moment of weakness and curiosity, stepped back on it.

I knew it was a bad idea, though, and talked to a friend about it the next day. Well, she was furious. She told me everything I already knew – that I didn’t need it, that it was only going to create problems and that I was stronger than this. I agreed with her.

She asked me to get rid of it. Despite agreeing with all her points, I hesitated.

“Just put it in the trunk of your car until you go back to your parents’ house.”

I thought this was reasonable enough. It wouldn’t be sitting under my bed, easy to get to. Still on the phone, I put on my coat and walked out back, scale in hand. I popped the trunk and was about to set the scale down, but I froze.

“Matt? Are you there?” I hadn’t spoken in awhile and my friend thought the phone had cut out.

“Hang on a second,” I said. I set the phone down in the trunk, freeing my left hand, and in one swift motion raised the scale above my head and threw it onto the pavement. The last time I stepped on that scale I wasn’t weighing myself – I was stomping on it with all of my strength.

It was such a turning point for me, and so empowering, that it seemed a suitable image for a recovery tattoo. I took some photos and provided them to a local artist recommended by a friend:

HULK SMASH!

The phrase, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” is on the Virginia state flag, and means, “Thus Always to Tyrants,” which seemed a fitting slogan to the tyranny of anorexia and my refusal to let it ruin my life. Yes, ‘Tyrranis’ is spelled with a U on my leg, which was an accident. I like it, though, because it’s an “imperfection” that I can’t change, and recovery is all about accepting yourself as you are.

For me, getting tattooed definitely played a role in how I thought of my body. Suddenly, I had a custom piece of artwork that no one else has or ever would have. I realized that in my adolescence I had built up a ton of insecurities about how I looked, but none of them had to do with ways I actually felt about myself, just ways I was concerned with how I thought other people might think or feel about me. Getting tattooed contributed in an inadvertent way – rather than focus on my body, I feel like people focus on the artwork, and suddenly I don’t care. That wasn’t my intention when I started getting tattoos but it’s made me appreciate my body more and feel more like it’s “mine” and not just some “imperfect” expression of a male body (as if there is such a thing!)

Enough about me, though. Let’s check out what others have done!

Reader Submissions:

Recovery pieces seem to range from elaborate, custom pieces to simple phrases which have special meaning to someone. Some go for a simple, elegant recovery symbol popularized by the National Eating Disorders Association and featured in their logo. Behind each one, though, is a commitment to health and recovery, and a reminder of how far each person has come.

Lindsay Gemmel:

Our first reader submission actually has multiple recovery tattoos! Here are her pictures and the story behind each one:

“BREATHE- when I was very sick with an ED, I often would attend support groups/individual therapy, and I had an extremely difficult time trying to talk because of my anxiety. I would be so anxious, that I would literally stop breathing until I suddenly had to take a deep breath of air. This tattoo, which is my own handwriting which my tattoo artist traced, reminds me to breathe through my anxiety! and also the 3 middle letters spelling “EAT”, remind me that I must continue to nourish myself to stay well. Also, it’s a reminder of project brEAThe, my amazing campaign that has kicked off tremendously.”

“Silvers’ Hope- Silver was my best friend who passed away in 2009. She also struggled with anorexia. She told me I was her hope. This is my daily reminder and a big motivation in my recovery.”

“ED recovery symbol- this speaks for itself! I got it done when I came home from finishing my treatment at Homewood. It was when my full recovery truly began. And it’s above my scars, and tells a story of how far I truly have come.”

Lindsay brings up a great point here – getting out of treatment doesn’t always mean that someone is “better.” I view treatment as the method of laying a strong foundation for long-term recovery. Sometimes we want so badly to just put it behind us that we rush it and want to be further along than we are – but recovery isn’t a destination. Recovery is something that you do, meal by meal, day by day.

Sadie Jane:

“So here’s my tattoo. I have ‘Namaste’ tattooed on my wrist, with the ED recovery symbol. I decided to ink my wrist mainly for the sake of how visible it is for me, especially when I am eating or struggling with any self-esteem or personal struggles. It reminds me to be mindful and that I have the strength to do this. I love the fact that it is not hidden because it ALWAYS brings up conversation. ‘Oh what does your tattoo say?’ Then I explain what it is, and how in treatment we used to say Namaste at the end of groups, meetings, etc. I wanted to take that strong message and the power of that supportive community with me everywhere. This tattoo not only helps me in my recovery journey, it also creates opportunity to educate others.”

Thanks for sharing, Sadie!

Cat S. Ginn

“I’m in recovery from Anorexia for 8 years now –  since 2004. I’ve been fighting it all my life, it seems. I’m 50 years old now. I took a piece of my artwork to a tattoo artist. After discussing depth, color, and representation of the “journey” that is my life, he tattooed this on the inside of my right wrist… It represents a difficult, yet transitional point in my life’s journey. One that has tested my strength, resiliency, and ability to overcome whatever reality comes my way!

Take THAT, Anorexia! Take THAT, Bipolar Disorder! And Bring it on! Tourettes Syndrome! I’ve beaten the ass of the toughest amongst you!

THIS TIME you will NOT overcome! I WILL!”

Wow, Cat – that’s quite a battle cry! Thanks for sharing!

Andi:

“I have lived with disordered eating my entire life. when exactly did that became an Eating Disorder? I am not sure. I was 18 by the time I was actually anorexic, but I remember having disordered thoughts as young as 12. I entered Homewood Health Centre in Guelph Ontario in May of 2008, after my husband and doctor realized something had to be done. I was at an all-time low weight and slowly starving myself. Once there I learned not only how to cope and handle my eating, but also made some of the most important relationships I would ever have. Before leaving Homewood, a woman that I had become friends with and I decided a tattoo would be a great way to honor the time we spent there.

To me, it was also a stamp on my wrist to remind myself daily of the people I met, both patients and staff. Remind myself of how sick I was and how sick i didn’t want to be ever again. Remind myself to eat. But mostly I wanted people to ask me what it was…and what it meant. I wanted to be able to tell people that eating disorders don’t just affect young athletic woman. I wanted to be able to tell people that an eating disorder can hit at any age, any sex, any race, any religion.  I wanted to be able to share with people the knowledge that an eating disorder is a mental illness and my getting sick with one was no different than me getting cancer or diabetes.

I am incredibly proud of the tattoo on my wrist. Not only has it has made for some awesome conversations over that last four years, but it shows what a fighter I am as I fight every day to be in recovery and no longer let this illness run my life. I believe if society as a whole was more aware of what eating disorders really are then it would not only help reduce many of the negative stigmas but maybe save a life or two by recognizing the symptoms! 

Andi – age 45″

Thanks for your passion and commitment to educating others about eating disorders, and thanks for sharing your story!

Hilary:

My name is Hilary and this is my recovery tattoo. I got it at the age of 19 ( I am now 23) when I was nearing the end of my treatment at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph. For me this tattoo represents my faith in a higher power that gave me a a second chance at life when I thought ED was going to take it from me.

I was driving back from Ottawa General with my Mum after a consultation to go into their inpatient program. The doctor there said he would get me in as soon as possible but he couldn’t say when it would be. We were on the 401 coming into the Toronto and it was dusk and the stars where just starting to appear. My entire body hurt and I was tired. I had a meeting in Guelph at Homewood the next day that my Dad was going to take me too. At that moment I looked up into the sky and prayed..for the first time in my life I asked that if there really was a higher power and if I was meant to survive this they would let met get into Homewood despite the fact I was quite a bit bellow weight restrictions. At that moment I really felt a spiritual connection with something. I had a feeling that someone out there had heard me.

I was right. The next day Homewood told me to go home, pack my bags and come back the next day to be admitted.

I do not follow any particular religion but  I know from this experience that there is something out that watching over all of us. I was not meant to die of anorexia, if I was it would have been for years ago. I am meant to LIVE and that is what keeps my fighting. My tattoo is meant to remind me of that and to give thanks for my second chance at Life :)

Saige:

 Time and time again, my eating disorder has made me feel like a prisoner of my own mind. “Free your mind” (in my best friend’s handwriting who has been my main support through it all) is a continued reminder to allow my mind to be free from my eating disorder. 

Thanks for sharing, Saige!

Karly:

I got this tattoo after getting out of treatment for the first time. It is a constant reminder for me to be strong even when I feel weak. I decided the heart needed to be uneven and strange to challenge my perception of ‘perfection’. Even things that aren’t perfect can be beautiful.

Thanks for sharing Karly, and stay strong!

If you have a recovery tattoo you’d like to share, I can add it to the post. If I get enough of them, maybe it can become a series!

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60 Comments

Filed under Recovery

60 responses to “Skin Deep: Eating Disorder Recovery Tattoos

  1. Wow! For those of us who still struggle, this is very inspirational. Beautiful portrayals of such strength. Thank you for this post :)

  2. Thank you all for NOT posting your low weights. That is extremely triggering for me, and though I wanted to see all the tatts I was dreading (and yes hoping a little bit) to see ATLs (all-time lows) in the thread. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and good luck on your journeys!

  3. Wow. This was such a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. What a beautiful post about recovery.

  5. Hope you don’t think it odd for someone with a food blog to comment on an eating disorder blog but I just had to. This is a wonderful post, and will hopefully inspire many others to find their own way to recovery as well as raising awareness of a debilitating disorder.

    From someone who has their own history with ED as well as currently helping a best friend through recovery, I wish you all the best in your future fight.

  6. What a wonderful idea to celebrate and remind ourselves of recovery. I also have a mental illness, and I often view recovery as this heavy weight I drag around that I try as I might, I never can get rid of (like that awful nickname someone gave you in middle school!). The reasons and symbolism of the tattoos brings a different perspective–a perspective to remind me of where I have been and the strength we demonstrate every day we live in recovery. Now if only I could get over my fear of needles…. :D Thanks for sharing–I’ll definitely be linking this post to my blog.

  7. These are all beautiful. I know first hand what each person went through to earn their tattoo… what a wonderful post…thank you for sharing.

  8. Great inspirational! Thanks for sharing.

  9. This is such a powerful, honest, real piece! Thank you SO MUCH for sharing and giving readers a glimpse of the determination and commitment it takes to live as an overcomer.

  10. I think my daughter’s stretch marks serve as her tatoo (she is my ghost writer – so she is actually writing for me now… ) Well done.

  11. I am just going to re-iterate what an important post you have made to address a very important topic. Bravo.

  12. What a wonderful post; thank you SO much. I hope to have my own recovery tattoo one day.

  13. I was just in Richmond for the Watermelon Festival. Saw some great tattoos there. You have some awesome shops in your city.

    I was just watching L.A. Ink on Netflix and saw a girl get a Eating Disorder recovery tattoo.

    Thanks for the post.

  14. Great post! It is amazing that you gave me perspective about my son who does not have an eating disorder but has had his share of pain and has tattoos. Thanks for the perspective. I especially love the “mistake” in the tattoo as a reminder that we are all imperfect but completely lovable with all our imperfections!

  15. adriennexo

    What people don’t understand, is that everyday is a journey with that type of illness. It’s truely a wonderful feeling to be able to overcome something that controlled your life. So much respect for you all. “Perfect people aren’t real; real people aren’t perfect.”

  16. I wanted to have some tattoo or should i say at least one tattoo in my body but I’m afraid it will harm me someday. I just read your blog and realized that you tattoos can also be used as getting more positive sense of oneself. Thanks for the very inspiring writing.

  17. Beautiful. Inspiring. Promising.
    Kudos and tones of strength for you all to win your battle! You will succeed!

  18. Touching and inspiring. Thank you.

  19. What a beautifully written post, such intimate stories have just been shared, thank-you for opening yourselves up to this, wonderful :)

  20. Reading your post and the contribution from others reminds me that there are other people out there struggling like me. The obsession runs your life. I need to get out of the denial that I’m in control and ED is not controlling me, that I can stop anytime I want. When I admit to my denial, that’s when my own recovery can start…

  21. Beautiful post :) Thanks for the uplifting and inspiring words and pics!

  22. Really like your writing! I managed to recover from Anorexia and Bulimia when I was quite young and then had to overcome Agoraphobia and panic disorder in my early twenties and about a year ago decided to get a tattoo that reflected the strength I had shown and the pride I had in myself of overcoming so many obstacles at such an early age. Any time I’m feeling weak I look at my tattoo and it’s a reminder of just how strong I really am. I think tattoo’s can act as incredibly strong reminders of exactly who we are. I think what you are doing is very admirable and I hope you manage to help as many people as possible.

    http://www.revolutionwriter1.wordpress.com

  23. I too found it subtly moving that no low weights were included. What a strength those tattoos seem to be and what a strength they will now be to others thanks to your post :)

  24. lua.vyon@hotmail.com

    I find it interesting that they’re all on the inside of a wrist??
    maybe I’m noticing it because… mine’s there as well!

  25. One of the best “freshly pressed” posts I’ve ever read. I don’t struggle with an eating disorder, but can relate to your feelings and emotions. That is what makes this post so great, those who are suffering with a multitude of illnesses can relate. Thank you for having the strength and courage to write this. Absolutely beautiful and inspiring! I wish you luck on your journey!

  26. Floyda Foley

    I like the tattoos, so meaningful! Great post!

  27. This was a wonderful and inspiring post… and has given me some ideas. :-)

  28. This is amazing!! Thank you for sharing these beautiful stories.

  29. this is amazing! i have a recovery tattoo of my own – although, it’s not ED related.

    this was super inspirational! thank you for sharing! x

  30. You guys are so brave, keep on standing up and keep on resisting! The best of luck to you on your hard way to health!

  31. Daniela

    I started reading and I couldn’t stop scrolling down! Very nice!

  32. How wonderful for you and those who shared to remember their strengths and overcoming such adversity. You are all so brave and strong! Don’t you ever forget it!

  33. Tattoo free

    Nice post, but I would never write on my skin. As someone who formerly cut, the LACK of scars on my arms serve as a happy reminder of who I am now. I appreciate my normalcy. The scars on my legs serve as a reminder to care for myself. The closest I come to reminders are wearing jewelry bought specifically to celebrate my recovery.

  34. This is a wonderful blog. I don’t suffer from an ED myslef, but know people who do. Well done to each and every one of you who is recovering or recovered. Absolutely amazing!

  35. Bleecker Street Thyme

    These tattoos are awesome! Great post! I have the recover symbol on my right ring finger–in Europe, the the right finger is usually the one that holds the engagement ring/wedding band. I wanted the tattoo to feel like a promise: through sickness and through health, I will always strive for recovery!

  36. These are beautiful and powerful tatts and stories. If any of you would like to post photos on our {mental health} photography collective, we would be happy to have you! We would love to continue sharing your stories. You are not alone. Your strength is inspiring, and I know many of the collective members would be able to relate to the struggle and hopefully defeat.
    E-mail me any questions or submissions.
    Feel well,
    D

  37. Imad Kafarani

    I am not fan of tattoos, but I liked the “free your mind” one, and the “breathe” though it could be better somewhere else.

  38. Recovery tats can be so cathartic and wonderfully celebrational. Nice to see all that inspiration! :D

    Congrats on the ‘Freshly Pressed’ include! Good to see blogging being of such help to all.
    Happy blogging!

    Sue @ http://www.reikipeth.net

  39. Firs time reader, and a very interesting post (I mean that in a good way). Great writer!

  40. I love food but this blog, wow!

  41. I would love to respond to you with my tattoos but can’t figure out how! Please let me know.

  42. congrats to all who have recovered!! i am in the process and its amazing what each and every one of you have accomplished—I love how you smashed the scale-awesome!!!

  43. Thank you for sharing those inspiring stories. I feel a million times better knowing that other people out there have recovered from their eating disorder and have been made even stronger because of it.

  44. Reblogged this on This Is The New Me, Katiee and commented:
    i love this…

  45. Pingback: Skin Deep Link « Riding the wavez

  46. Molly

    Thanks for sharing. Tremendously honest and inspiring. Congrats on your recovery and congrats on being FP!

  47. this is beautifully written! congrats on your recovery! what an amazing journey :)

  48. This is such a beautiful post Matt! I love all of the tattoos, but even better than the tattoos themselves were the stories behind them! That is something I haven’t read before, and I really enjoyed :)

    Scott

  49. Just found your blog via another blog – congratulations to you on your recovery. Thanks for sharing your vulnerability and strength…I struggled with a terrible ED for 20 years before I entered recovery from PTSD, major depression, and anorexia/bulimia. The mental torment of an ED is impossible to explain to those who’ve never suffered. Keep up the good work! I love your tat, by the way….

  50. so good to read another recovery story

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