A daughter's open letter to her parents about her tattoos
Writing this piece was both painful and liberating. And it is terrifying to share. If you choose to read this long, heavy piece, I hope you will read not as social media has conditioned us to read — extractively and with minimal effort — but sensitively and with compassion.
Beyond creative expression, I share this to destigmatize body dysmorphia. I dream of a world in which the beauty of a human body is no longer spoken of qualitatively, of greater or lesser value, but as a spectrum of countless, diverse meanings.
“Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals: the fears, the angers, the strengths of a woman under a triple, quadruple oppression. Yet in that very act lies our survival, for a woman who writes has power.”
~ Gloria Anzaldúa, from “Speaking in Tongues: Letter to 3rd World Women Writers”
“I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.”
~ from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
A good daughter is a daughter who takes care.
I am a daughter who takes.
I took my body, which my parents gave a sheltered and privileged childhood, and decorated it in a way they see as destructively reckless. I took the strong education they gave me and entered a "lowly" job in customer service to build a creative career on my own terms. I took a year's savings of cash tips, and spent it on tattoos.
This past year, time passed so slowly, the permanence of tattoos seemed the one thing I could control — the immediacy of its permanence. Knowing it would last through the years, even though body dysmorphia scarred my willingness to wait that long.
My tattoos are a letter to the person I’ll be forty, fifty, sixty years from now — her skin full of wrinkles and blemishes, her heart that has loved, broken, and healed.
To this woman, these tattoos are a promise, that I'll meet her there.
A daughter’s open letter to her parents about her tattoos
by theresa seguritan abalos
Dear Mom and Dad,
Not long ago, I was steeped in food service and the exuberance of entering a creative career. So I thought of getting a tattoo. Half a year and a half-sleeve later, I wonder if you can look at the woman I’ve become without seeing a failure.
She wears a garden of ink on her back and upper arm, a lady’s head with seashells. When you see these pictures on her skin, will you feel ashamed to call her your daughter? Does it make her a monster to you, that to compound the transgression of her shaven head, she decorated her body in ways impossible to erase, in places not easily unseen?
Last December, ice breathed upon this city when I called to confess, I shaved my head and got two tattoos. You took it in stride. The only thing that mattered was that I keep my faith.
Ice devoured this city when I lost my faith. Midwinter, months of doubt pivoted into darkness, a famine of forgiveness. I could not forgive myself for wandering. I could not forgive myself and stay.
Relief washes over you, for by spring I wandered back to the faith in which you submerged my body, freshly-born. Since baptism, the deepest, clearest part of me plunged roots into this faith. To lose faith was to cut her away.
It meant losing our framework for existence — the lens that transfigures suffering into the planting of seeds, the promise of eternal life that hushes our dread of death.
Before winter swallowed this city, you crossed the country to see me. I was fresh out of college, working only part-time — "for now," we agreed, but my voice betrayed enchantment with the flexibility of this path. I was mesmerized by the energy of a liminal space, of worlds unfolding within me.
That summer, I moved to a new place but couldn’t sleep — the streetlight by my window too bright. Brighter still, the insistent whisper that I was a traitor. A daughter of immigrants, I was betraying your sacrifices to “follow dreams” that couldn’t promise a place to land. For every immigrant's hope is to land — socially, financially, for their children to do the same.
With no landing in sight, I lay awake. Awakening soaked my body in night, an ocean of crescendoing dissonance between me and you.
Does it make me a monster to you, that in shedding the skin of a student while evading the shell of a respectable job, I found myself drawn towards the latent reality of my death and yours? This became my object of study, study hours spent alone in sunlight, for the nearest place to sit between part-time jobs was a cemetery.
Around me, tombstones bore the names of bodies that perished a century ago. Their lives enclosed within numbers and letters, the whiteness of their names reminded me: how far we are from the earth that cradles the graves of bodies like ours.
All my grandparents have passed away. You know how it feels when life escapes the bodies that generated your own, when their breath becomes air.
With their passing, did you lie awake at night? Did you hear the dissonance of words unspoken?
For the price of my awakening, I lost the capacity to take each day for granted. So I found a place for the night in my skin.
Before nights drenched in dissonance, a girl grew up in the suburbs of San Jose, sheltered and soaked in sunlight.
Your youngest daughter, do you remember when she was little? Always drawing pictures, always getting lost. She’d walk a few steps, then a few more, then turn a corner. Her head of black hair three feet from the ground, she was too small to realize her colorful inner world was no map for the world of bodies looming like skyscrapers, voices strident like streetlights.
Too small, she could not assess the consequence of her wandering.
So you’d tell her, “Hold my hand.”
Twenty years later, she drew a tattoo to sever her from you.
“Didn’t it hurt?” you asked about my first tattoo.
“Well, yeah.” My first tattoo was on my stomach. “But then it was over.”
I didn’t mind the pain, for it was the promise of a more viscerally, permanently realized self. I didn’t mind the pain, for it was a promise.
My first tattoo was a symbol of awakening, of relearning what it means to die and therefore to live.
It was a sign of deviance from the narratives we’d always believed in — “getting a real job," “becoming a real adult,” "living a successful life."
Getting my first tattoo, I called it an act of hope. And I hoped, fervently, for a healed relationship with my body — if not in this life, then in the next.
I called it an echo of beauty within me, surfacing upon flesh I loathed so profoundly, sometimes I wished it had never been given breath, given to me.
My first tattoo was all of these things. And it severed me from you.
It made visible how I placed the length of this country between us — no longer because of college, but because I imagined a career in this city no daughter of yours should pursue.
All my tattoos, I paid for with cash tips from the bakery counter. As if it wasn't "low" enough to work in food service, I had to soil my skin with its surplus.
At the thought of working in food service after college, 13-year-old me wrote in her diary, “You’ll never find me there.” You raised me to write this — to rise from the privileged childhood you gave me, to study my way to salaried success.
(Instead, I fell into the romanticized notion of “finding my roots,” a deeply intellectual — and privileged — search for cultural identity.)
From the roots you gave me, I was meant to climb to a summit as stable, as safe, as the place where I came from. Thus I'd make you proud, our relatives proud, then myself.
(Instead, I got into Stanford and didn’t go.)
You raised us to be ambitious because you yourselves were. Grades were a matter of life or death because so were our futures, our potential to succeed. Maybe if I lived your lives growing up, then I’d share this vision of success.
But I let go of that vision to reach for another. Exhausted by placing my worth in your expectations, I glimpsed within a creative career an ocean of possibilities. I walked right in, as if my life were no one else’s but my own.
Ice devoured this city when I decided to get my third, fourth, fifth tattoos — each one, a vital organ of the promise already living in my skin, simply growing into visibility.
That winter, I watched night fall upon my first Christmas away from you and our faith.
A vigil starved, starless.
Perhaps, I thought as the night encroached upon my skin, there would be no resurrection for me. My body must be reclaimed, re-fleshed, in this life.
You raised me to take care of my body. Yet my self-worth burned at the altar of this country’s worship of whiteness as beauty. Born in this country, I did not grow up as you did, with faces like ours upon billboards and magazines, book covers and TV screens.
The worship of whiteness as beauty wizened me.
How do I explain how body dysmorphia poisoned my mind, my ability to take up space without feeling desperate to exude an apology?
How do I explain why, countless times and to this day, I have seen my body in the mirror and believed it didn’t deserve to eat? Or, albeit far less often, that it didn't deserve to exist? It took wanting to die to fully internalize, there are worse things than death. When I believed my body was a monster painful to behold, unworthy of life and love, I wanted to die.
Years, or decades, of self-work will mend these wounds.
But at 22, how could I wait that long? Long before tattoos made me a monster to you, I was a monster to myself.
Beyond talent and early success, this was why I had to become a musician — not as a hobby, but as fundamental to how I take up space in the world. Through the particularity of my body, I could create something unquestionably beautiful.
Last fall, I shaved my head to send my body into a liminal space, to free myself from the standards of beauty whose mere existence damned me. To some extent, it worked.
Except those standards are woven into the fabric of my mind.
When my faith withered, so did the hope of healing. So I carved the dream of liberation into my skin. Better to live and die in a vessel of artwork, than to live and die in this body as it was.
You raised me to cherish my faith as the pearl of great price. When it fell under waves of doubt, exhaustion, and shame, I thanked the stars that I had placed the length of this country between us. You could not have watched my faith decay.
When my concept of life on Earth grew murky and swollen, it shattered my concept of God. My faith collapsed, too dependent upon a version of me who was unswerving in her pursuit of virtue, innerly self-righteous, satisfied with blinders.
Ice breathed upon this city when I began to ask, "What if cyclical shame were not the toll of my salvation? What if there were no redemption, because there was no damnation? What if I could break free from the aspiration for moral perfection, and embrace the humanity of my brokenness?"
I began to ask, "Who was the God, the Source of all Life, that I believed in and loved? Why can I no longer believe in Him?"
Heavy with questions, I kept my trysts with silence in the cemetery. Midwinter, the grief of who I was becoming, what I was losing, squeezed from my body — tears caressed my cheeks, only to freeze.
Ice devoured this city when I knew I could never be the same. So, too, my body.
You could not have watched this happen, your vision tinted with memories of a sweet, pious daughter who became a sweet, pious woman.
What eroded this woman, so innocent and sweet? It begs to have been something transgressive by sheer force. But it was the innocence and sweetness of wandering farther, farther, farther away — driven by curiosity, the energy of a liminal space, and a surge of restlessness. Restlessness so deep, it unlocked a realm swept beyond her grasp, dismissed as destructive and reckless. Restlessness so deep, it was like a dream, slowly-unfolding and sometimes terrifying. So deep, the drilling of tattoos into her flesh hardly jarred her, nor the tremor of clippers against her scalp — so deep that upon awakening, she was unmoved to survey the cost of her wandering.
Among Asian-American families, it is taboo to speak of the dark places we’ve been.
Left wondering about yours, I chose to wear mine upon my skin. And maybe this is the real transgression — not to have gotten tattooed, but to have done so from a place of darkness, of crescendoing dissonance. But I have no place for regret. Visibility is a kind of liberation.
Before each of my last three tattoos, I found words simple enough to hold the seeds of my healing:
I will always be enough. Even when everything I find in this world tells me otherwise.
This life given to me, it’s going to be beautiful.
The person whose love and acceptance I've been waiting for, all this time, is myself.
With the writing of this letter, my last tattoo settles into my flesh. Once healed, tattoos fade into mere facts of the body. They were never meant to be an answer. Only a promise.
Mom and Dad, the next time you see me, I wonder if the ink on my skin will speak more clearly than my voice. Hence this letter. If I appear more monster than daughter to you, at least you might know what led me here.
And dare I say it? I’m proud of who I’ve become.
Your youngest daughter