Marking motherhood: tattoos, stigma and being haunted

Dr Lisa Morriss has been awarded a Sociological Review Kick Start Fund for her project: Marking motherhood: tattoos, stigma and being haunted. The project duration is September 2018 – July 2019. Lisa’s mentor for the project is Professor Imogen Tyler.

The project will use interviews, focus group and visual methods to explore the inscription of tattoos as haunted motherhood (Morriss, 2018) experienced by mothers who live apart from their child(ren) as a result of state-ordered court removal. The mothers are marginal grievers; stigmatised as failed mothers. Their grief is for a child that is still living; absent but still present elsewhere. The tattoo can be seen as a way of embodying motherhood; keeping their child with them - etched in their skin - until reunification. Tattoos can be used as a form of indelible memorialisation: inscribing ‘profoundly painful and intimate memories directly onto the flesh’ (Caplan, 2010, p.138).

Notably, Greek and Roman manuscripts often use the term stigma when referring to body-marking (Jones, 2000). Indeed, Jones (2000, p.5) concludes that we can ‘safely understand the word stigma to refer to what we call tattooing’. This connection with the stigma experienced by the mothers is marked. The tattoos can be seen as a literal stigma, a ‘bodily sign’ (Goffman, 1963, p.11), potentially making the enforced loss visible to others. However, the intimacy of tattooing your child on your body can be seen as a way of challenging the silencing that stigma brings; and enabling the telling of alternative stories about the relationship among power, knowledge, and experience.

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