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“Fight Like a Girl”: Tattoos as Identity Constructions for Women Living with Illness

Koller, Veronika and Bullo, Stella (2019) “Fight Like a Girl”: Tattoos as Identity Constructions for Women Living with Illness. Multimodal Communication.


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In this article, we explore the functions that tattoos worn by women with breast cancer or endometriosis have in constructing identities for the wearer and conceptualise the respective illness. Drawing on previous literature on multimodal communication, tattoos and illness, we analyse a sample of 59 different tattoos for their ideational function in constructing identities. A social semiotic analysis shows that lexemes, images, type fonts and intertextuality work together to construct dominant identities for the women wearing the tattoos: as a fighter or warrior, or as a sufferer. The first, metaphoric, identity shows hybrid gendering and constructs the illness as an adversary, while the identity as sufferer often has religious overtones, particularly for breast cancer tattoos. Subversive identities centre on despair or rationality, and as such constitute an alternative to social imperatives of either staying strong and fighting the illness or accepting one’s fate. We close by discussing in how far the tattoos do justice to the complexity of living with an illness and how our research shows the need to include visual stimuli in medical consultations.

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