When I was a teenager, my first instinct every summer was to cover my arms as much as I possibly could. I wasn’t excited to sunbathe or style cute outfits – my biggest worry was what I’d look like with my arms out. Chubby since childhood, I started loathing my arms when I reached adolescence because they were chunkier than other girls’ my age. I was consumed by what others would think, the fear that I’d get called fat, and that I couldn’t enjoy summer like everybody else. I’d spend summers wearing cute sleeveless dresses, but always under a kimono or cardigan in order to conceal what I saw as my worst feature.
I'm not alone either. Many women, regardless of their size, dislike having the tops of their arms on show. According to a Mintel study as reported by Good Housekeeping, about 25% of women don’t like the look of their arms – which means a whole lot of us are struggling when summer dressing comes around. Psychologist Nova Cobban says that our body image issues are down to a complicated mix of things. “Our beliefs around how we should look can start as early as childhood with messages from family, school, friends and now of course, social media,” Cobban says.
“We tend to get fixed on parts of our body that we feel are the most out of alignment with what we want to see in the mirror – and believe that if it was different, we would be different,” she continues. “It becomes the problem that prevents us from being happy, or making a change, or finding love.”
By my early twenties though, I began getting tattoos on my arms, which sparked a change of heart. At first I only did it because my tattoos had meaning – my first being a rain cloud to symbolise overcoming a bad mental health patch in university. But I quickly became hooked and booked my next one as fast as I could, still unaware of the positive effect they would have on my self-esteem.
Next, I got a sunflower on my forearm before transforming that into a half sleeve of flowers, bees and dragonflies, and a Moon tarot card on my other arm. I was around a year into getting inked when I noticed my newfound acceptance and contentment with my body. Soon ditching the kimono and loving my arms like never before, I can thank my ink for allowing me to embrace sleeveless tops during the summer months.
This year I’ve gotten three more tattoos, including a planchette at the top of my right arm – an area I’ve been most self-conscious of. With this new addition that I want to show off, I wear vests and short sleeves even more than before. Having ink all over my arms allows me to feel at one with them and I can accept them for what they are. While past me would have opted for fad diets and quick fixes in order to find acceptance in my summer body, now I don’t need to because I accept the way I look. And when I do wear a kimono, cardi or jacket, I do it to make a fashion statement.
Getting tattoos to finding peace in the way you look isn’t a quick fix, nor will it work for everybody. Cobban explains that this is very subjective. “Tattoos can boost confidence for some and lower it for others,” she says. “They’re another form of clothing, an expression of who you are, but a permanent one – so as you change, the tattoo does not.” So it’s important to make sure you’re getting tattoos for the right reason. “The key is making sure you are deciding from the right headspace, one where you feel happy and healthy," Cobban says.
Oriona Robb, a London-based personal stylist, says that if you’re still feeling nervous about showing off the tops of your arms, there’s no shame in wearing things that are semi-covered. “Wear three-quarter length sleeves to make your whole body look more balanced, and floaty, see-through sleeves that end at the elbow, forearm, or wrist.” The goal is to keep cool while also giving yourself a confidence boost.
Thanks to years of building my tattoo sleeve, and ultimately finding confidence within myself, I love not feeling the need to hide under some kind of sleeves. As a plus-size journalist and blogger for almost a decade, I'll now buy funky flared trousers to wear confidently with cute vests, dresses that don’t have sleeves, short-sleeved tops and crocheted camis. As a teenager, I never would have believed I'd step away from the hatred I had for my arms.
One thing Cobban says really resonates with me: “Ask yourself how you are using your time and energy and whether this is taking you towards your values or further away from them. If you are focused on how you look in a bikini, it might mean you won’t have fun, you may hide away from social occasions that you enjoy.” As I've experienced, this reluctance can take us away from what we really want and what will feel good this summer.
Thanks to my tattoos, I’ve gone from shying away in the summer months, hiding behind a kimono and wishing the hot weather away, to showing off my arms with pride. While tattoos are subjective and very much a personal choice – and embracing your body is a minefield that's different for everybody – I am proof that our warped beliefs around our bodies can definitely be overcome. While embracing my body and summer is still fairly new to me, I’m taking it day by day and growing my confidence in the process – one sleeveless 'fit at a time.