Laura Diaz de Arce
When nurses take my blood, I have to close my eyes and breathe. It’s not that I am particularly scared of needles, I just realize that I have a natural inclination to panic when I see a needle piercing my flesh. It’s a fine line, really; I know that this is being done by my own volition or permission, that it is a sterile situation, and that I will heal. Still, the instinct is to flinch. Even if I can passively and indulgently watch when blood is drawn, the initial piercing is always a discomfort.
You would think that as a person with a history of self-mutilation, cutting and casual suicidality, piercing would be something that I have some interest in. It is not. I’ve known people very, very into piercing and seen its place in the kink and fetish communities. These include live piercing demonstrations, such as hook and suspension. Not my thing, personally, but I understand the appeal from a number of points of view.
Piercing has a deep sexual appeal.
There’s the blatant act of penetration, the use of pain and body fluids that appeal to a number of sensibilities. It’s violence, but it’s safe violence. And it’s a violence that can end in ornamentation. So yeah, I get why some people love it from that angle.
My ears are pierced and I love wearing earrings. There have been times I’ve contemplated additional piercings. A second set of ear piercings or a nose ring, most often. Though I’ve been open to other body modification, this is one area that I have been too scared to traverse. My ears were pierced when I was three months old before I could form long-term memories. I don’t remember the process of the piercing, and thus it fills me with a certain amount of dread. As far as I’m concerned, my ears have always been pierced. I have always had earrings. This minor body modification has been a constant, like a beauty mark. In effect, the actual process of piercing feels like a horror.
I would credit this fear and a lack of a memory of it to the reason why I’m not riddled with piercings. My piercings were always there and I never had to make a serious decision to get them, only to maintain them. This was not really the case for everyone I grew up with.
In late elementary school and middle school, I learned that not everyone got their ear piercings before their baby teeth had fully formed. At the time, I did not ascribe this to cultural difference, more to the neglect of some parents for not properly piercing their children’s ears when they were young, or to some odd, puritanical beliefs. It struck me as strange that thirteen-year-olds were now having to make the decision to pierce their ears, shuffling their way to Claire’s in the mall and getting punctured by a piercing gun. To my memory, these were my white girl friends, finally given permission from their mothers to get piercings, taking this opportunity as it came.
They rarely stopped at just earring piercings, though.
I guess once you’ve already dealt with the short-lived pain of a piercing, it holds no more fear for you. Cartilage piercings were popular, as well as a second one in the earlobe. But the most memorable were the number of girls I knew with tongue piercings and belly button piercings. These were the early aughts and midriff shirts were all the rage. The belly rings of the day were, well, tacky by today’s standards, but I remember being enamored with how ostentatious they could be. At the mall, I would linger by the piercing pagodas and kiosks and look at the belly jewelry. My favorites were the “droplet” style that had hanging jewels or metal flowers.
I never felt thin enough to get a belly piercing, and as a child in braces, the idea of a tongue ring sounded like more trouble than it was worth. But I remember the girls around me getting them. I also remember all these pre-teens ending up with infected belly-buttons and tongues, the most horrifying case being one of my classmates having to have the tip of her tongue cut off. She used that as her personal “Fun Fact” for class introductions for the first day of our 7th grade peer counseling class, proudly sticking out her tongue to show off the square edge, her voice edged by a lisp. It was unclear if the lisp preceded the tip of the tongue extraction.
Still, it wasn’t until much later that I realized that there was a cultural difference in piercings.
Latinos, we do it in the first year. Whereas it seems white people wait until puberty.
Whenever this topic comes up online now, it seems to turn into a cultural conflict. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen “feminist” white women berate Latinx women for daring to pierce their children’s ears. In many cases, this has been compared to mutilation, and this includes comparing it to female genital mutilation.
First off — no.
Secondly, let’s get into the fact that white women lecturing women of color about their traditions and implying they are savages (as is often the subtext in these conversations) are less-than-stellar optics. Not to mention that these “conversations” are generally less about protecting children from mutilation and more an expression of racism, in part because their concept of piercing exists in a different cultural consciousness than it does for other cultures.
There’s been some stuff written about how piercing and infant head shaving may have been an indigenous set of practices that were incorporated later into Latinx cultures. That may be the case, but when out of curiosity I asked my mother why she pierced my ears so early, her answer was simple: “I didn’t want you to remember the pain.”
That’s it. My mother didn’t want me to go through pain, or to remember it, or to have it traumatize me. I’ve asked other Latina moms about this and their answers have been similar. She had my piercing done in a sterile doctor’s office and took over the care of keeping my earlobes clean and infection-free. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother cleaning my earlobes with a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol. She would regularly clean out any dried, crusted skin from the area, keeping it from infection or discomfort. I had been warned that if I didn’t regularly wear earrings, the holes would close, leading me to have a few pairs that I reserved for sleeping.
I desperately did not want to end up having my ears re-pierced.
To construe my mother’s actions as some sort of torture or tool, or to equate our cultural practice as something gruesome or a form of abuse, misunderstands the motivation of the tradition. This could be due to some fundamental misunderstanding of what piercing means to each group. I mentioned how piercing is pretty ubiquitous in kink cultures and among fetishists. A lot of these were in a White Western context, and I can’t help but wonder if some of the reticence from piercing has to do with how intrinsically it is tied to sexuality here.
It strikes me as curious that the age at which girls can start piercing their ears is also when they are hitting puberty. That is not an age for wise decision-making. If any of the missing tongue or poorly-done cartilage piercings are any indication, perhaps most people should wait until they are older and have a better handle on hygiene. It leads me to wonder if white people see piercings as a way of communicating sexual availability in a very traditional sense. As a symbol of “womanhood” when for many of us it is not.
From my experience as a Latin American, we view personal adornment differently. Earrings aren’t necessarily tied to anything sexual as much as they are part of a “proper” appearance. It’s about being appropriately dressed or well put together more than anything else. On the other hand, I understand why people equate it with mutilation without consent. For that, I don’t really have an answer, except to say that a piercing is a small thing, and you can just not wear earrings if you don’t want to.
In my case, my parents made a lot of poor decisions raising me (as all parents do), but this was not one of them. I’m glad that I didn’t actually have to make the decision to pierce my ears or freaked out about it. If I don’t want to wear earrings, I don’t. The lobe piercings are small, inscrutable. They are generally invisible.
Yet, I have the opportunity to wear fun jewelry, to look well-put together if I want. And it’s a practice that is generally mild of consequence, one I support. I have gifted earrings to my nieces in support of it. And if I should ever have a kid, well, I probably would pierce their ears. To give them the option of pierced ears without the memory of the pain.
Now if only I could get past my own fears to get that nose piercing I want…
Laura Diaz de Arce is a South Florida writer still learning to make peace with her own body. She writes for Book Riot regularly. In 2018 she was published in Tragedy Queens by CLASHBooks. She also published a collection of short stories, Monstrosity. Send her llama gifs on twitter @QuetaAuthor.