Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Brittany England

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

When I sat down to get my left hand tattooed in 2016, I considered myself something of a tattoo veteran. Though I was just shy of 20 years old, I had poured every spare ounce of time, energy, and money I could find into growing my tattoo collection. I loved each and every aspect of tattooing, so much so that at 19, as a college student living in rural New York, I decided to get the back of my hand tattooed.

Even now, in an era when celebrities galore wear their visible tattoos with pride, plenty of tattoo artists still refer to this placement as a “job stopper” because it’s so difficult to hide. I knew this from the moment I reached out to the artist, Zach, to book my appointment.

And while Zach himself expressed a bit of reluctance at tattooing a young woman’s hand, I stood my ground: My situation was unique, I insisted. I’d done my research. I knew I’d be able to secure some sort of job in media. Besides, I already had the beginnings of two full sleeves.

And this wasn’t any old tattoo — it was a beautiful, starlike design on my left hand

My “little” hand.

I was born with ectrodactyly, a congenital birth defect that affects my left hand. That means I was born with fewer than 10 fingers on one hand. The condition is rare and estimated to affect 1 in every 90,000 babies born.

Its presentation varies from case to case. Sometimes it’s bilateral, meaning it affects both sides of the body, or part of a more serious and potentially life-threatening syndrome. In my case, I have two digits on my left hand, which is shaped like a lobster’s claw. (Shout out to Evan Peters’ “Lobster Boy” character in “American Horror Story: Freak Show” for the first and only time I’ve ever seen my condition represented in popular media.)

Unlike Lobster Boy, I’ve had the luxury of living a relatively simple, stable life. My parents instilled confidence in me from a young age, and when simple tasks — playing on the monkey bars in elementary school, learning to type in computer class, serving the ball during tennis lessons — were complicated by my deformity, I rarely let my frustration hold me back.

Classmates and teachers told me I was “brave,” “inspirational.” In truth, I was just surviving, learning to adapt to a world where disabilities and accessibility are usually afterthoughts. I never had a choice.

Unfortunately for me, not every dilemma is as mundane or easily solvable as playtime or computer proficiency.

By the time I entered high school, my “little hand,” as my family and I had dubbed it, became a serious source of shame. I was a teen girl growing up in appearance-obsessed suburbia, and my little hand was just another “weird” thing about me I couldn’t change.

The shame grew when I gained weight and again when I realized I wasn’t straight. I felt as though my body had betrayed me over and over again. As if being visibly disabled weren’t enough, I was now the fat dyke nobody wanted to befriend. So, I resigned to my fate of being undesirable.

Whenever I met someone new, I’d hide my little hand in the pocket of my pants or my jacket in an effort to keep the “weirdness” out of sight. This happened so frequently that hiding it became a subconscious impulse, one I was so unaware of that when a friend gently pointed it out, I was almost surprised.

Then I discovered the world of tattooing as a freshman in college

I started small — stick ’n’ pokes from an ex-girlfriend, tiny tattoos on my forearm — and soon found myself obsessed with the art form.

At the time, I couldn’t explain the pull I felt, the way the tattoo studio in my college town drew me in like a moth to a flame. Now, I recognize that I felt agency over my appearance for the first time in my young life.

As I sat back in a leather chair in Zach’s private tattoo studio, mentally and physically bracing myself for the pain I was about to endure, my hands began to shake uncontrollably. This was hardly my first tattoo, but the gravity of this piece, and the implications of such a vulnerable and highly visible placement, hit me all at once.

Luckily, I didn’t shake for very long. Zach played soothing meditation music in his studio, and between zoning out and chatting with him, my nervousness quickly subdued. I bit down on my lip during the rough parts and breathed quiet sighs of relief during the easier moments.

The whole session lasted about two or three hours. When we finished, he wrapped my whole hand up in Saran Wrap, and I waved it around like a prize, grinning from ear to ear.

This is coming from the girl who spent years hiding her hand from view.

My entire hand was beet red and tender, but I emerged from that appointment feeling lighter, freer, and more in control than ever before.

I’d adorned my left hand — the bane of my existence for as long as I could recall — with something beautiful, something I chose. I’d turned something I wanted to hide into a part of my body I love to share.

To this day, I wear this art with pride. I find myself consciously taking my little hand out of my pocket. Hell, sometimes I even show it off in photos on Instagram. And if that doesn’t speak to the power of tattoos to transform, then I don’t know what does.


Sam Manzella is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who covers mental health, arts and culture, and LGBTQ issues. Her writing has appeared in publications like Vice, Yahoo Lifestyle, Logo’s NewNowNext, The Riveter, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.