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.
“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.
“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
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
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.
“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.
“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
This is a chronic, systemic issue. I cover it briefly in my navel piercing article, but navels need to be pierced inside the navel. Regardless of your weight, navel shape, navel size, etc, your piercing should go inside the navel. It shouldn’t just be through the skin in front of it - this is just a surface piercing and usually rejects or migrates, leaving severe scarring. This scarring can even sometimes prevent you from being pierced again in the future. And after almost a decade of piercing I can say with confidence that I think the vast majority of incorrectly done navels come from a place of fat phobia. Piercers can nail navels on every type and shape of navel on skinny clients, but the moment a client has a larger stomach, these surface navels become more commonly seen.
“You see navels done wrong more often on heavier clients. Just look at Ask A Professional Piercer. There’s obviously reasons to turn people down for everything, anatomy matters, lifestyle matters, not all navels can be pierced. But it’s pretty fucking rare we can’t make something work, or we can’t properly pierce a client inside their navel if they have the anatomy. But overwhelmingly piercers do surface piercings on heavier stomachs. And fat people are often already insecure about their belly, and now you did a bad piercing that’s gonna leave them with scars and make them more insecure. And it’s not ok.“ - Caleigh
Like Caleigh said, some navels can’t be pierced. Not every anatomy is suitable for every piercing. But I see so many clients who are told “You are too fat for a navel,” or “Don’t bother, it won’t look good.” Clients who go into studios and don’t even get given an anatomy check - piercers take one look at them, see they are fat, and assume they can’t have a piercing. I’ve had clients drive from states away after being turned down by multiple piercers who had perfectly viable, pierceable navels. I’ve even successfully done navels on 400+ lb clients who have the anatomy for it. Your weight doesn’t determine if you have the anatomy for it, it’s much more about your navel shape and size. But many piercers have so much ingrained fat phobia they don’t approach these piercings this way.
“Obviously we all have different bodies but people can be horrible about how they approach it. Obviously, some people have creases on their stomach and they can’t heal a navel. The navel is compressed by the skin or the scarring and it would put too much pressure on the piercing. But that happens on skinny clients too - it’s about the shape of the navel. But rather than explain that some piercers just say, “Yeah you are too big for this, you can’t have it. Lose weight.” And that’s just not true - they could lose 200 lbs and still have a navel that compresses too much to pierce.
It goes hand in hand with the idea that fat people shouldn’t expose their bodies. Like the girl who was just kicked off the plane for wearing a crop top. They don’t kick skinny people off for wearing a crop top. They just don’t wanna see fat bodies. People don’t think fat people, particularly fat women, should show off their bodies or their stomachs. And there’s an inherent bias against piercing a fat navel.” - Caleigh
Fat phobia and sexism interact heavily here - this idea that fat bodies shouldn’t be shown off or celebrated. A navel inherently implies showing off and celebrating your stomach - a part of a fat person's body they are often told to feel the most shame and insecurity about. And piercers take part in that belief when they don’t approach a fat client’s navel the way they would a skinny client. When they write off their ability to be pierced before ever looking at their anatomy.
“It overlaps with sexism too. I will say I’m glad more women are tattooing and piercing - not that women can’t be part of the issue, but it's more nurturing and safe. When I go into a studio and it’s all men I often feel uncomfortable. And it’s because a lot of these artists sexualize their female clients, and they don’t want to sexualize a fat woman, so I get treated doubly like shit.” - Becks
This extends beyond just navels as well. I often see piercers approach other piercings on fat bodies incorrectly - namely nipples and genitals. I see large or downward facing breasts pierced incorrectly quite often, and I hear as many stories about body shaming.
“Piercers need to know how to pierce larger breasts as well, and breasts that hang down. And that’s a larger amount of clients than people acknowledge. I do what I have to to mark and pierce them. I see a lot of people say their piercer marked them laying down because it was easier for the piercer but their piercings are uneven. Of course - their breasts hang off to the sides when they are fatter or larger. If you mark skinny or small clients standing your fat clients deserve it too. I’ll get on my knees to mark nipples that hang that far down, I do whatever I have to to make sure that they are even and perfect. It’s not about what makes me comfortable or my job easier. It’s about the client and their piercings.” - Caleigh
Sadly, this is something I’ve seen too. Piercers marking larger clients laying because it's easier for the piercer, even though the breasts shift and move when they lay and the marks are never even. Or clients with downward facing breasts - denying them outright when their anatomy is perfectly viable.
Many piercers had apprenticeships that were lacking and were never taught about working on larger bodies, floating navels, etc. But, those same piercers become complacent in the lack of education. Then why excuse it by saying, “Well I wasn’t taught that.” Go out - shadow someone with experience in the area. Talk to fat piercers, offer to pay them for their time and educational services in teaching you to work on fat bodies. It is your personal responsibility to fill in those gaps in your education, and you owe it to your clients to be able to provide these services to them safely.
“Piercers also don’t feature fat bodies and realistic bodies online. I rarely see people celebrate fat breasts and stomachs and bodies the way I see skinny people. Tattoo artists too. You hardly ever see people feature that.” - Caleigh
Representation matters too! Include those larger stomachs in your portfolio. Post those larger or asymmetric breasts. Celebrate those bodies the way you celebrate thin bodies. I see a large number of piercers who only have skinny stomachs and small breasts in their portfolios. The same piercers who constantly post and push a message of body positivity and safe spaces. If you aren’t including those bodies in your features and portfolios then you aren’t actually a safe space for them.
“Mirrors are another little thing. When you are getting tattooed or pierced you wanna see how the stencil or mark looks on you. And there’s a lot of mirrors where you can't see yourself fully when you are fat. And that sucks so often - I don’t have the ability to really see myself in the mirror and see how things look overall. I wish more places had larger mirrors. I love when studios have extra pillows and extra support. Because it can hurt to hold a position as a fat person. It sucks. And asking for extra help can be embarrassing. So having an extra pillow to lay between my leg or my fupa to support myself is great. And having it accessible so we can see it and ask for it is great. Just knowing that’s an option. Positions that are ok as a skinny person can be uncomfortable as a fat person, there’s extra fat and areas to be aware of. Don’t make it a big deal, and don’t hesitate. Just offer a pillow, or to take a photo, or to help. Fat people know we are fat - it’s not insulting to make that offer, and it’s better to help.” - Becks
“The size of bathrooms is huge too. I wouldn’t go somewhere that wasn’t handicap accessible already, but still. Often bathrooms are still pretty narrow and it’s like how am I supposed to pull down my pants. And yeah, a regular wheelchair fits. But what about someone fat in a chair? They’ll need a larger chair too. And that won’t fit. If it’s only accessible to skinny disabled people, it’s not actually accessible. Even in accessibility, fat people aren’t considered. We should be considering all bodies, considering our line of work.” - Caleigh
“Aftercare can also be different for a fat person. Particularly with tattoos - I’ve rarely had Tegaderm work for me because I crease and have rolls. I can lay down and my arm creases. Tegaderm - we tried it on my sternum and I already get heat rash under my breasts being bigger, and it was worse with the Tegaderm. Artists can ask ‘Hey, you know your skin, do you think a bandage will work here or do you sometimes have creases? If you crease, we may want to xyz.’” - Becks
Fatphobia is a systemic issue in many areas of culture and our lives, and the body modification industry is not immune from this. In fact, it's almost more insidious in the tattoo and piercing industry. This is an industry that’s founded on being a safe space for you to do what you want with your body, but there’s so many ways in which that safe space is not accessible to fat people or not welcoming to fat people. We as piercers, tattoo artists, and front of house owe it to our fat clients to create a space that is welcoming, accessible, and open to clients with all bodies.
I want to thank Becks and Caleigh for their time and voices for this article. I am very grateful for their time and effort and I hope this blog post can make an impact and influence the people who need it.
And to every fat client out there - you are beautiful. You are enough. You deserve to enjoy piercings and tattoos and modifications as much as the next. You belong here, in this industry and in this space.