The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)
FORGIVING MY LOWER BACK TATTOO
When I was on the Comedy Central roast of Charlie Sheen, I told Mike Tyson that he had a slutty lower back tattoo on his face. I said, “Men don’t know whether to be scared of it or finish on it.” He heckled me for a minute, shouting high-pitched insults I couldn’t understand, before I improvised a way to stop his interruptions, asking, “Is his interpreter here?” Now, that is just not a smart thing to say when you’re twenty feet away from an ear-biting ex-con who was described as making a “comeback” after serving six years in prison for rape. But I did what any desperate comic would do. I committed to the moment, put myself in immediate danger, and went for it—which is exactly how I wound up with my own slutty tattoo, right where the good lord intended: on my lower back. Yes, I have one. What a hypocrite I am. I roasted Tyson while sporting my very own shitty, humiliating, not-even-on-straight, slightly-raised-because-the-guy-sucked-and-went-too-deep-and-it-got-infected tattoo of my own.
I’d wanted one for years. I saw so many tribal varieties while I played beach volleyball with my sister on Long Island, and I thought they looked badass. I wanted to get a tattoo that communicated “Don’t fuck with me, because I don’t give a shit about anything and I’ve been through it all,” even though I was only eighteen and all I’d been through was the cereal aisle at Key Food. I was not a badass. I didn’t feel strong or confident or particularly tribal. I thought I could literally stamp myself with those qualities, and if I could fake it long enough, they’d become real. And, unlike with an orgasm, I think that tactic works sometimes. The point is, my heart was in the right place seeking those things. Too bad my lower back got in the way.
The summer I was eighteen, Kim and I were on a road trip passing through Myrtle Beach. We decided to get some tattoos after careful consideration that consisted of seeing the shop; saying to each other, “Should we get tattoos?”; nodding; and going in. We browsed around, looking in different books and examining the designs on the wall, before we picked out the “art” we wanted on our bodies for the rest of our lives. I thought the guys who worked in the shop were just being cool allowing us to look around, because at fourteen, Kim was so clearly too young. I figured once they knew we were serious about getting all tatted up, they’d tell Kim she couldn’t get one since she was a minor. We walked up to the counter and with confidence that can be described as wavering at best, I told the sun-damaged muscle-bound surfers that we’d like them to deface our young bodies with the two worthless designs we had so painstakingly chosen. “Cool,” one of them said. “Let’s go.”
What the fuck? Was this a game of chicken to see who would break first? I tried to hide my confusion and appear bold and skeptical by asking: “How long will it take to get them put on?” The reddest-faced one pointed at me and said, “Yours will take ten because it’s bigger, but hers will take about seven.” “Ten hours?!” I shouted. “Minutes,” red-faced-emoji man replied. Kim had picked out a little fairy that she wanted on her hip, but mine was a big tribal motherfucker, the size of a small possum. Ten minutes seemed like a very short amount of time, but what did I know about tattooing? “And how much will they cost?” I asked, projecting a lot of authority, amping up my New York accent so they wouldn’t overcharge us. He said mine would be twenty dollars and Kim’s would be ten. WHAT?!!?
I was beyond confused. Kim and I looked at each other and had the same thought, but as the big sister, I spoke up. I proclaimed, “We’re not gonna do anything with you guys. We’ll pay the full price!” The whole shop stood still. It was like a record had scratched. I looked around and noticed we were by far the least attractive girls in there, and if they were going to try to get sexual favors it wouldn’t be from the two busted-ass Long Island teenagers. Then the man whose tank top exposed his nipples said, “You know this is a temporary tattoo shop, right? Tattoos are illegal in South Carolina.” At that moment, I became the one with the reddest face. We slowly backed out of there like cats. Kim and I didn’t speak on the walk back to our bedbugged hotel. It was too embarrassing.
When we finally got our real tattoos one year later (when we were ready to make great permanent decisions), we actually went to our mother for permission. I told her we’d wanted them for a really long time and had selected exactly the right designs and placement. You’d think a year would have matured our aesthetic, but I was still set on a big tribal configuration and Kim still wanted that dumb fairy. Upon hearing this request our mother responded like any parent and told her teenage daughters, “No fucking way. You smell like pot! Go to your room, you’re grounded, you no-good skanks!” Oh, wait, nope, not our mom. Our mom responded with, “Well, what are we doing just sitting here talking about it? Let’s get in the car!” She drove us to the East Village, where we went into the back room of the shadiest shithouse and got our “ink,” as the douchebags call it.
I went first. When I say it killed, no, it fucking KILLED. It was like being stung by a thousand bees every second, or dozens of tracker jackers for all you young adult–fiction fans. The guy doing it wasn’t very skillful, so he went way too deep, which caused the tattoo to keloid and scar. Hawt, Aim, tell us more! Okay, he was also very drunk, so the tattoo came out crooked. The guy’s name was Kurt and he looked like an overweight asthmatic Son of Anarchy. I was dying from the pain, but I wanted to be brave for Kim so that she wouldn’t be scared. So while tears ran down my face I smiled, saying that it wasn’t that bad. The whole time my mom was beaming at both of us, so happy to be a part of this wonderful event we’d live to regret immediately. Naturally, my tattoo got infected and hundreds of tiny bumps formed around it, and it healed horribly. This display of rash and inflammation is exactly what every sexy young lady wants floating just above her ass. To this day, it’s still raised like a Mad Max war boy’s head scar.
So now, fifteen years later, I’m thirty-five, and any time I’m in a bathing suit people immediately know in their hearts that I’m trash. Any time I take my clothes off for the first time in front of a man and he sees it, he also knows in his heart that I’m trash and that I make poor, poor decisions. And now that the paparazzi think it’s interesting to take photos of me doing absolutely nothing noteworthy on a beach somewhere, the whole world has been treated to photos of my lower back tattoo hovering crookedly over my bikini bottoms. But I promise you from the bottom of my heart I don’t care. I wear my mistakes like badges of honor, and I celebrate them. They make me human. Now that all of my work, my relationships, my tweets, my body parts, and my sandwiches are publicly analyzed, I’m proud that I labeled myself a flawed, normal human before anyone else did. I beat all the critics and Internet trolls to the punch. I’ve been called everything in the book, but I already branded myself a tramp, so the haters are going to have to come up with something fresh.
The summer before eighth grade, in my pre-tattoo days (or, as I call them, my PTDs), I landed the nickname “Pancakes.” A large group of my friends and I—and the boys we liked—were walking around the neighborhood on a warm night with beer in our book bags, ready and willing to run from the cops when they found us, as they often did. On this particular night, we’d just enjoyed Dr Pepper shots and Irish car bombs at my friend Caroline’s house. For those who grew up Amish, a Dr Pepper shot entails dropping a shot glass full of amaretto into a pint of beer just moments before chugging the whole thing. Somehow it tastes like Dr Pepper. Add Bacardi 151 and a lit match to make it a Flaming Dr Pepper shot. Also say good-bye to all your loved ones. The Irish car bomb is a shot of Bailey’s dropped into a pint of Guinness—and is also highly, highly offensive to any Irish person who has lost a friend that way. Once a year I’m provoked to drink one of these terrible combination drinks with little to no convincing needed.
We walked up the block to an elementary school on Caroline’s corner, sloppy and excited by the drinks and the freedom. While we were hanging on the playground, the ten guys somehow convinced the six girls to lift up their shirts and show them their boobs. They’d presented the very good argument of “Why not?” We had no counterargument for that, so we lined up and, on the count of three, lifted our shirts.
I wrapped my fourteen-year-old fingers around the bottom of my Gap tee and yanked it over my pimpled, plump face with abandon. I was nervous and excited, and probably buzzed. I peeked at the boys over the top of my sensibly priced T-shirt and realized they were all looking only at me. Not at Denise, who had the biggest boobs, or at Krystal, who had the greatest abs, or at Caroline, whom they were all fighting over at the time. I was in the solid-medium range, boob-wise, so I was shocked by how much attention mine were getting. I can remember the boys’ faces: they looked as if someone had just done a sick move in a basketball dunking contest, like “Ohhhh!!!!” They covered their mouths and high-fived one another. I then looked down the line and realized that all the other girls had just shown their bras. In a perfect metaphor for my life, I had revealed too much. I’d pulled up my entire bra too. I was the only skins player on the team. That was also the moment I learned the unforgettably fun lesson that I had larger-than-average nipples.
The nickname “Pancakes” (and also sometimes “Silver Dollars”) stuck around long enough that its life span and evolution could have been slowly, carefully chronicled in a Ken Burns–length documentary. At least that’s how it felt. But really it was just the remainder of the summer. I was HUMILIATED and didn’t think I’d ever live it down. Of course, by now I’ve been around a lot of different women and watched a lot of porn, and I know that our body parts come in all shapes and sizes. (Men’s too! Did you know their body parts also come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but strangely, the media almost never discusses it?) At the time, I was stunned to learn that my silver dollars were not the norm.
Anyway, that day on the playground turned out to be prophetic for me. I displayed everything to everyone and learned that there would be a price to pay for doing so. This was my very first experience of the stripped-down, cold, unprotected space where vulnerability meets either confidence or shame. It was my choice, and I had to learn (I’m still learning) how to choose to be proud of who I am rather than ashamed. Lucky for me, I’m a woman, so I’ve had the opportunity to practice this lesson over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Ultimately, I just decided, fuck it, yeah, that’s my body, so what? There was more power in that position than I realized at the time.
As women, most interactions from around age eight on teach us to keep things cool so no one is inspired to, God forbid, call us the U or F words: “ugly” or “fat.” I’m not the first to point out how women are taught that our value comes from how we look, and that it takes a lifetime (or at least until menopause) for most women to undo this awful lie. As someone who is crazy impulsive and incapable of taking any shit from other people, I’ve been criticized from so many angles and laughed at for all the wrong reasons. But, as many comics have realized, there is a gift in being laughed at, or heckled, or even booed off the stage. When your fears come true, you realize they weren’t as bad as you thought. As it turns out, the fear is more painful than the insult. I boxed for a few years, and when I started sparring, I was so afraid of being hit, of experiencing that physical pain. But I learned that trying to avoid the pain didn’t protect me from it. Oddly enough, getting punched in the side of the head or taking a shot to the gut did protect me. I got hit and it hurt for a second, but then I realized I was okay, that I could take it. And then the pain passed. After having all my fears realized and being insulted to no end, I got stronger. Being scrutinized for the ten years since I was first on a reality show has made me feel invincible. There’s nothing left. So what if someone says you’re fat or you’re ugly? SO WHAT? Most women I know are far less afraid of being physically hurt than they are of being called ugly or fat.
I have a tramp stamp and I’m on the cover of Vogue. The puffy blue-green tendrils of ink underneath my skin weave together in a meaningless formation, but I’ve found the meaning in it. I fully accept myself as the girl with the lower back tattoo. This is not to say that I don’t have regrets. Fuck yes, I regret getting this ugly tattoo that I thought signified toughness when it really just symbolized how lost and powerless I was when I was an eighteen-year-old girl. But I forgive that girl. I pity that girl, and I love that girl.
Ironically, the tattoo represents the opposite for me today. It reminds me that it’s important to let yourself be vulnerable, to lose control and make a mistake. It reminds me that, as Whitman would say, I contain multitudes and I always will. I’m a level-one introvert who headlined Madison Square Garden—and was the first woman comic to do so. I’m the “overnight success” who’s worked her ass off every single waking moment for more than a decade. I used to shoplift the kind of clothing that people now request I wear to give them free publicity. I’m the SLUT or SKANK who’s only had one one-night stand. I’m a “plus-size” 6 on a good day, and a medium-size 10 on an even better day. I’ve suffered the identical indignities of slinging rib eyes for a living and hustling laughs for cash. I’m a strong, grown-ass woman who’s been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by men and women I trusted and cared about. I’ve broken hearts and had mine broken, too.
Beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength. There’s nothing anyone can say about me that’s more permanent, damaging, or hideous than the statement I have forever tattooed upon myself. I’m proud of this ability to laugh at myself—even if everyone can see my tears, just like they can see my dumb, senseless, wack, lame lower back tattoo.
I was a bundle of joy.
My ride home from being born.
Me and my dad.
Gordon and Sandy Schumer.
Me and Jason looking flyyyyyyyy.
Kim, me, Vinny (my brother-in-law), and Abbott, my love interest.
“Hey, I’m workin’ over here!”
At our farmhouse, two and a half.
Me at age three, always a flawless accessorizer.
At a magazine (not-fitting) fitting.
Me as a baby model = nepotism. Also, is there anything creepier to put in a baby’s crib than a stuffed sixty-year-old man smoking a pipe?
Panda, Pokey, Penny, Mouser, Bunny, and the two-headed bear.
Cincinnati, thirteen years old.
Dad at the farm.
Dad visiting me at my Vogue cover shoot.
Me on a horse, Chicago.
Boxing in New York City. Kim puked shortly after this photo was taken.
Just a gal eatin’ some pasta.
I was twerking before it was hip.
Dancing with my friend Kati in Baltimore, sophomore year of college.
Me and my sister-in-law, Cayce, heading to Ellen for the first time. Cayce made this book with me.
Brother and sisters, 2016, Minneapolis.
Siblings on the set of Trainwreck.
Rehearsal for the dance scene in Trainwreck.
Me and Kev, my working partner and brother from another mother.
Writers of Inside Amy Schumer, season three.
Always had comedy-writer energy.
Bloomington, Indiana, 2010.
One of many pyramids with my oldest friends.
Rachel Feinstein, me, Bridget Everett, and Poppy prepare to go onstage.
Heading home from a Boston show with Chris Rock.
A couple hours before filming my special at the Apollo.
Saying we are grateful and that we will do our best is a preshow tradition.
Charleston, South Carolina, 2016.