How Should I Tell My Bubbe About My Large Tattoo?

I’m already dreading that conversation, especially as she has a tendency to be super outspoken and judgmental.

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Hey, Hey Alma,

I grew up in the Modern Orthodox/Conservadox world and recently decided to get my first tattoo — something I’ve wanted for a long time and that holds a lot of meaning for me. The tattoo is large and in a pretty conspicuous place on my body. My parents were initially upset (I’m the only person in our family to ever get a tattoo) but eventually accepted this choice. However, we will be visiting my (very traditional) bubbe soon, and she still has no idea that I got one.

Since it’s the summer, I’ll be wearing more revealing clothing and bathing suits during our visit, so it’s inevitable that Bubbe will see the tattoo. I’m already dreading that conversation, especially as she has a tendency to be super outspoken and judgmental. Should I call to tell her about the tattoo before the trip so she doesn’t react in a hurtful or embarrassing way in front of the rest of the family? Should I wait to have the conversation in person? And, what do I even say? 

Hi, pal.

First of all, mazel on your new tattoo! I’m so happy for you — I bet it looks amazing.

I love this question because there are so many layers, but at the heart of this quandary is both your firm self-respect and your evident love for your family. It’s so easy (especially online) to dismiss someone who disagrees with anything we hold important, but the truth is, our familial ties are rarely experienced in such a binary way. Nuance is the name of the game when it comes to family, religion and autonomy, and it seems to me that you already have a strong understanding of that. So let’s get into your options.

Don’t say anything in advance

I’ll say right away — I don’t think this is the move. But it’s an option, so I thought we may as well present it (so we can be clear why we’re gonna rule it out). One could say that your body belongs to you (true!) and your bubbe doesn’t control your choices about your body (also true!) and that if she reacts in a way that is hurtful that’s absolutely on her, not you (extremely true!). This is all true, but as you pointed out, her reaction may be hurtful or embarrassing, which will ultimately upset you. I want you to center your comfort and your well-being as much as possible in this scenario, and so I think whatever choice you make should be the one that makes you feel best. If you don’t bring it up in advance, you’ll be anxious as you wait for the potential blow-up to happen, and you may have to experience the repercussions in public. I usually love a good serious in-person conversation, but in this circumstance, I say no.

Cover up

I understand the tattoo is large and conspicuous, so this might be tough, and also, perhaps you just don’t want to have to cover your body around anyone, Bubbe included. Totally understandable. But sometimes, protecting our inner peace means making compromises when we’re around different people in our lives. Maybe you’d never date someone who would balk at your tattoo, but you have more leeway for your bubbe because, well, she’s your bubbe (and to be honest, she is probably not going to change at this point). For instance, maybe you know that her specific aversion to tattoos comes from an association with the numbers tattooed onto Jews’ arms in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and you know that just seeing one on her granddaughter will make her upset. If you feel that it would be more comfortable for you to just cover up your tattoo and avoid the subject entirely, I don’t think anyone could fault you. Just make sure to let your family members know that they need to keep quiet about it so they don’t blow your cover.

Call her before the trip

“What do I even say?” Great question. I know if you read this column regularly I must sound like a broken record, but boundaries are the key to all healthy relationships, and even though our grandparents (and our parents) don’t always model good boundaries, that doesn’t mean we can’t model them in those relationships. This is a case where you’re going to have to lead your bubbe in the appropriate way to behave. Here’s the script I suggest using:

Hi Bubbe! How are you / it’s so nice to hear your voice / small talk / etc. I have something I want to talk to you about; I got a tattoo. Please let me share my thoughts before you share yours — I was very nervous to make this call, so I want to make sure I say what I need to say. I have a feeling you may not approve of the tattoo, but it’s extremely meaningful to me and I thought about it for a long time before I got it. I love it and I’m really happy with it; it’s very special to me. I know you love me even when you disagree with my choices, and with that in mind, I want to request that you don’t talk about my body — including the tattoo — on our trip. If you have questions about it we can discuss now on the phone; I just really don’t want any negative conversation to come up amongst the family when we’re together.

A script written by someone on the internet for you is imperfect because A. I don’t know you and your bubbe, so I’m not privy to your specific dynamic and have no idea if the words I wrote match your speech patterns, etc. and B. in regular conversation, no one monologues like this — your bubbe will almost certainly jump in and respond at certain places. That’s OK! A script is an outline intended to help you brainstorm how to approach a hard conversation. This is just one example. If parts of it don’t resonate, that might help you figure out what would feel more true to say instead.

Accept an imperfect reality and plan accordingly

This is sort of the crux of what I want to say to you: It’s not your job to manage your bubbe’s reaction. You cannot control how she will react. You cannot coax an ideal reaction by doing “the ideal thing” (spoiler: there is no “ideal thing,” there’s just the decision you make). Whether you call in advance, have a conversation in person or even do both, your choices will ultimately not really have any bearing on how your bubbe chooses to respond. If she is outspoken and judgmental in life, she will probably be outspoken and judgmental about your tattoo. This doesn’t mean you have no agency about how you respond or how you choose to let this affect you and your trip — it just means you have no agency about how your bubbe acts.

So what do you have control over? As you know, you have control over your own body. I’m glad that your family’s perspective on tattoos didn’t stop you from getting one. You also have control over how you respond to your bubbe. Decide in advance: If she says something judgmental, what will you do? Will you respond kindly or indignantly? Will you respond at all? What will make you feel as though you are honoring your own self most? You can also let your bubbe know your boundaries. You can say something like, “I don’t want to talk about my tattoo. I’d love to tell you about [my partner / the seder I hosted / my summer plans / the book I just read] and I’d love to hear about your life!” That’s a soft boundary; you’re not explicitly saying, “If you talk about my tattoo there will be a consequence,” you’re simply setting the tone of where you’d like the convo to go. If your bubbe can’t respect this soft boundary, you may decide you want to be firmer. “I said I don’t want to talk about my tattoo; if you continue bringing it up, I won’t be able to spend time around you for the rest of today.”

And you have control over what you accept. Some of the people in our lives disappoint us. Some of us make allowances for some people that we would never make for others “because that’s how they are.” There’s no moral judgment in doing this; as I said at the beginning, when it comes to family and religion and autonomy, things are rarely clean cut. But acknowledging it to yourself can go far. What would it look like to say this to yourself?

On this trip, when Bubbe sees my tattoo, she will likely have a strong reaction. I am dreading it, and I also can’t avoid it. I love Bubbe and I accept she is the way that she is. Everyone else knows she’s this way, too. I can find support in other family members and friends outside of our family structure, and I can continue my relationship with Bubbe because I love her even when she hurts my feelings. All these things can be true. I accept it.

How would accepting the outcome, no matter what it is, change your perspective?

One final note: Sometimes, people surprise us. It’s possible that after hearing about why your tattoo is important to you, your bubbe will understand and support your bodily autonomy. Based on the comments from people who have tattoos in our Instagram community, it sounds possible that your bubbe may even find the tattoo beautiful, or grow to appreciate it over time. At the very least, she may practice her own acceptance over her own imperfect reality. Good luck with this, and I hope you have a beautiful visit with your family. You all deserve it.

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