Kitty was 17 when she got a tattoo as an act of defiance… Now a 42-year-old mum, she tells why she’s had it cut out
- In 1997, aged 17 Kitty Dimbleby, got a painful and traumatising tattoo
- The UK-based writer reveals that as soon as she was having it she regretted it
- Now, after 25 years she is body confident and has had the large tattoo removed
Lying on the bed in the clean, bright procedure room, I can’t bring myself to look down. The skilled surgeon and nurse chat to distract me and, thanks to a local anesthetic, I feel no pain, just an occasional pulling sensation.
I am in Birmingham, at a plastic surgery clinic chosen after hours of research online. But I’m not having a tummy tuck or a boob job. I am having a tattoo surgically removed. I want this throwback to my challenging 1990s youth gone.
The procedure is not for the faint hearted. I feel sick with nerves, in a way that takes me back 25 years to when I had the tattoo done.
It was 1997 and I was 17, my best friend gripping my hand as I lay on the plasticcovered bed. I felt vulnerable and traumatised, with my stomach exposed in front of a strange man who was covered in piercings and his own artwork.
Conversation was beyond me. When the tattooist asked one last time if I was sure, I nodded, mute. Then the buzz of the needle started. The first few seconds were fine, as if my body hadn’t quite registered what was happening. Then the pain hit — a burning, like a razor scratching deeply over and over. I am generally good with pain but it took my breath away.
Deep down I could also feel a sharp stab of regret, but I buried it. I brazened it out, breathing deeply, making jokes and trying not to look as the tattooist wiped blood and ink from the wound he was creating on my poor body.
I had chosen a black cat design, a nod to my name and my childhood moggy. It was four inches long, leaping to the left of my belly button, on the only patch of skin not covered by scars from the multiple surgeries I’d endured since childhood.
You see, while I know now that the decision to get a tattoo at 17 was foolish, it was not an act of typical teenage rebellion. It was an attempt to reclaim my body, to accept the scars I loathed after years of stomach surgeries. I was defiantly changing my appearance on my own terms, rather than being forced to accept changes because of my health.
I told my parents that evening. We were in the kitchen of our family home, a farmhouse outside Bath. I waited until both had poured a glass of wine before asking, my voice tight with nerves: ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’
My mother took a swig of her drink.
‘The bad news.’
‘I’ve got a tattoo.’
Mum looked pained before asking what the good news was.
‘It’s in the middle of my scars.’
She burst into tears and pulled me into a hug. Dad joined us.
They immediately understood the significance of my act. That I was trying to be brave and (if you like) wave two fingers at my ‘real’ scars.
Born with a plethora of problems, I’d had lengthy operations to save my life and spent many months in hospital. How could a teenage girl begin to like the body she felt had let her down? Instead, I raged against it.
Yet each year, it seemed, I outgrew the tattoo more. Yes, initially I felt ‘cool’ but over time I began to feel just a little bit foolish.
I grew furious that I couldn’t wear a crop top or bikini without inviting strangers to make judgments not just on my body but on my personality. Then, as tattoos became increasingly ubiquitous, I stopped feeling special or original.
Multi-millionaire celebrities can get away with having full-arm ‘sleeves’ of tattoos (David Beckham) or multiple body daubings (Angelina Jolie) but, in the real world, having an inking leaves you open to silent assumptions.
I made sure it was always covered up. And over time, that stab of regret became a constant nag of irritation. Now 42, I am more body-confident than I have ever been. I don’t give a damn about my scars — I’m proud of them because they show how much I survived. But did I want the world to see my tattoo? No!
Fading to grey and misshapen after my two pregnancies, it was more blob than feline. My children couldn’t understand why I had ‘drawn on myself’ and I didn’t like the example it set. I felt ashamed.
I am not alone — tattoo removal is at an all-time high. According to the British Association of Dermatologists, up to a third of people with tattoos regret them. One person in nine in the UK has undergone tattoo removal, while 38 per cent of those with tattoos have considered the procedure.
‘Tattoos are a statement of who you are at that point in time. But who we are changes as we go through life,’ explains Jane Ogden, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Surrey. ‘So a tattoo can be a constant reminder of the past, which can cause anxiety and make people very miserable.’
In years to come, will Brooklyn Beckham still want the eyes of his new wife Nicola Peltz tattooed on the back of his neck? Singer Ariana Grande certainly regretted having ‘Pete’ tattooed on her ring finger when she broke up with comedian Pete Davidson.
As for me, I was certain removal was the only answer. But how? Most people are familiar with the idea of a tattoo being lasered off rather than surgically cut out, as mine eventually was.
About two years ago I did start laser treatment, naively thinking it would be straightforward. I was wrong. It hurt almost as much as getting the tattoo — and four sessions later (at about £80 a go) the only real change was more fading. It looked even worse.
So I researched tattoo excision, where the tattoo is cut out and the unmarked skin is joined together. It leaves a scar but one that will fade. Size and location are key factors but if your tattoo is small enough, it takes only one session under local anesthetic.
Although it is expensive — £1,400 — the certainty made it worthwhile for me. I got in touch with Staiano Plastic Surgery, the nearest clinic to my home in Bath to offer the procedure.
The clinic receives about three enquiries a day for surgical tattoo removal and does approximately three procedures each week.
Surgeon Jonathan Staiano explained in detail what would happen, warning me that the scar would be as long as the tattoo and would take a year to fade to my normal skin colour.
Jonathan drew an outline around the tattoo, then got to work. It took 45 minutes and I didn’t look until the end, when Jonathan showed me what he’d removed — the flap of skin with my sad little cat on it. It was gruesome but fascinating. Happily, I said goodbye. And that was it; the scar was taped up and I was free to leave.
I was warned to take it easy, but I didn’t listen and went back to my busy life. By day three I was very sore and had to spend a day in bed. The bruising lasted for weeks and I wasn’t able to return to my normal exercise regimen for over a month. But even though I was uncomfortable and my stomach looked as if it had been punched by a heavyweight, I felt overwhelming relief.
Four months on, my newest scar is still red but it will fade. Already I can look at my stomach and feel empowered, not embarrassed.
My husband, who diplomatically never commented on the tattoo, says he much prefers the new look, finally confessing (after 17 years together) that ‘the cat was a bit rubbish’.
I am now packing a bikini for my summer holiday, proud to show off the scars that tell my story of survival and no longer ashamed by the ugly, faded tattoo that held me gripped in the past.