Do you remember when only sailors had tattoos? And only punks had piercings? Now almost everyone I know has a discreet little inking somewhere, as well as a shiny ear stack populated by their favourite high-end jeweller. Self-ornamentation is a trend that’s gone mainstream for midlifers – so how come the tattoo is no longer taboo?
As some of you may know, I have skin in this particular game. In 2019, after thinking about it for quite literally years, I finally got a tattoo at the top of my back, a simple, beautiful line written in Portuguese: minha vida, my life. It’s in Portuguese for my mother, who gave me life and love. It’s also for my children, who are my life. And it’s for me too – this is my life, and my time.
I got some new piercings, too: now I have three in one ear and two in the other, and I love them. But why did I wait so long to undergo what’s essentially a fairly uncontroversial bit of self-ornamentation? I think it’s some kind of generational hangover – until fairly recently, it was deemed less than acceptable for a woman in midlife to have a tattoo, or multiple piercings. It sent the kind of message about you that you wouldn’t want anyone to receive.
Now we’re much more comfortable with the idea of self-expression. There’s been a significant shift in our thinking – and I believe that’s partly down to our children, who seem to be so much more unfettered by labels than we ever were. They’re happy to make a statement about who they are. And they’re paving the way for us to be braver, too. So if you want a tattoo, then damn well go and have one. Put yourself out there – get used to being seen.
A recent survey found that a fifth of all British adults were inked, with 30% of 25- to 39-year-olds having at least one tattoo. I think that counts as mainstream: a significant proportion of midlifers who finally decided to opt for body art as a means of self-expression. And the pandemic only seems to have pushed the trend further forwards.
Just look at the high-profile women in their fifties and up who are rocking their tattoos: Samantha Cameron, Halle Berry, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts, Felicity Kendal and even Judi Dench, who got her first one at the age of 81. For some of them, a tattoo might mark a meaningful event or a person, for others it’s simple adornment, while for others still it’s a symbol of bodily reinvention.
Television presenter and disability advocate Sophie Morgan told The Telegraph recently that her multiple tattoos are her way of “beautifying my paralysed body and of taking control of what I’ve lost”. For me, my tattoo was a celebration of my own life, and those of the people I hold dear.
So tattoos and piercings are a powerful way to articulate something emotional. But they can also be about something much simpler: the desire to bring some much-needed beauty into our lives. I love the sparkle my new earrings bring, as well as the edge they give to my look.
One of my favourite fashion jewellery brands, Astrid & Miyu, which has piercing salons in London and Manchester, says appointments have increased by 280% since 2019, with a notable uptick in sophisticated older customers. And they’re not just going for second (and third) lobe piercings: there’s a rise in midlife women getting piercings on the helix (at the top of the ear), the conch (halfway up) and the tragus (the bit of cartilage at the entrance to your ear, which is theoretically the least sensitive to pain).
High-end jewellery brand Monica Vinader already has five piercing parlours, and is opening another two this month, such is their popularity among her (typically) well-heeled female customers. “Earrings were our fastest-growing category over the past year,” Vinader said recently, “which I think really speaks to the popularity of ear stacking as a new and bold form of self-expression.”
Although my vision – certainly for my tattoo – was for something small and exquisite, tucked away where only I would know it existed, others find that once they start, it’s hard to stop.
Sophie Caven is a midlife journalist who’s onto her eighth piercing in her right ear – “I’ve pretty much got no space left,” she says – and is currently contemplating a new tattoo. “I have a horror of sliding into later life grey and colourless. So frankly the more ornamentation I can add, the better.”
The taboos are long gone. So if you’re still hankering in midlife for a tattoo or a piercing, just take the plunge. Express yourself – and be the change you want to see in the world.