Lately, I’ve been enjoying perusing my friend Jenny’s Blouse of Garbage blog, where she discusses her adventures in eclectic second-hand outfits from a feminist perspective. I find her musings interesting not despite but because of the fact that this type of analysis is fairly foreign to me [as well as because I also love thrift stores and buy there almost exclusively.] Much as I love to overanalyze everything else, I’m not normally one to think too hard about what I wear. Not to say I don’t care about or put effort into looking good; just that “looking good” is synonymous with “looking how I please,” which doesn’t require much extrapolation of the theoretical. I suppose if I had to give my “style” a name it would be something like nerdy androgynous punk, but that’s a very broad category. Aside from some concerns about looking professional in academia (when I can be arsed) and such things, you’re equally likely to see me in kids’-sized black jeans, combat boots and a badly-tied tie, or an argyle sweater vest and khakis. Whether it means anything, I admit I really don’t care. It means I like it.
However, my piercings are something a little less transient. I can’t wake up one day and wear them or not depending on my mood; unless I decide to let them heal over, they’re here to stay, and if I do get rid of them (assuming they would even close up) I’d have to redo them all to get them back. Given that fact, I know many people are more than a bit befuddled by my insistence on poking holes in myself. I get questions like: How long have you had them? Are you going to get more? Really, you did them yourself? Doesn’t it hurt? but what some people also ask and, I think, more people would like to ask is: Why? Meaning, why would you want to go through blood and pain in order to have a bunch of metal rings sticking out of your flesh?
As much as I’d love to be (and often am) a smartass about it, it’s really a legitimate question from those who are unpierced, or who have only undergone the sole piercing that is popularly endorsed in our mainstream culture, the rite of passage into femininity of the dual earlobe studs. Generally, if you submit to any amount of pain and tissue damage, it’s for a specific reason, whether it’s a blood drive, surgery, or sexual gratification. When we get to ornamentation, we’re on sketchier turf. Liking the look of it might justify a nostril stud, perhaps, but once you cross a certain subjective line– which I think I long ago hopped over whistling– it seems reasonable to inquire whether there is something more at stake. So, with the bar set by Jenny’s frank consciousness of intentional style, I am challenging myself to provide a serious answer to a serious question.
Yes, all of my piercings are home jobs, with the exception of the industrial in my right ear, which I splurged to get professionally. (For the record, I’ve had no more or less trouble with infections in that one versus the ones I did myself.) They’ve come to be during the last two years or so, with the most recent additions being the second and third lobe piercings on the right ear. Yes, I will probably get more, although my ears don’t have a lot of blank canvas left. Right now, my project is stretching some of my lobe piercings; currently they are at a 10 gauge and I plan to get them up to a 2g or so.
As for the pain, honestly, no, it doesn’t hurt, not to me. No more than popping a bad zit. The main difficulty in pushing a big needle (most of the time, 12g– gauge sizes, for reference [20g is about the size of a typical Wal-Mart-ish lobe piercing]) through my skin is overcoming the visceral resistance to the act. The first few times, there was definitely something goosepimply about feeling the point penetrate the layers of tissue: for a lobe piercing, a sort of tearing sensation at each bevel; for a cartilage piercing, three “pops,” skin, cartilage, skin. I learned that the skin is surprisingly resilient, and doesn’t suffer itself to be punctured quite so readily as you might think. When you pierce yourself, you don’t have the leverage and dexterity that a second party does, so making that hole, the moreso the larger it is, requires a surprising amount of force and, hence, tenacity and concentration.
After pushing past this weirdness a bit, it oddly has become one of the most satisfying aspects of the experience. Hear me out: it’s not a masochistic thing; I’m not into that. It’s about mastering my own body and mind. When I pierce myself, I am in control. I am responsible for making the decision, steadying my own hand and breath and eye, pushing aside any reflex reservations, and making that needle go where I want it. If there’s blood, it’s me who cleans it up. And when all is said and done, each time I look in the mirror I know that I alone am to thank (or blame, though I haven’t had that experience) for what I see. There’s definitely an adrenaline rush involved, but it’s also empowering in a deeper sense.
As you might know or guess if you’ve read my other posts, I have a history of controlling and dysfunctional relationships, in which manipulation of my appearance and body image played a crucial role. The recoil from these abuses involved a good deal of dysfunction and control issues in my relationship with myself, including overconcern with my yo-yoing weight (which still has not been resolved) and difficulty engaging emotionally with subsequent physical intimacy. Piercing is one of the ways in which I have chosen to reclaim my physicality and reconnect it to my intellectual and emotional self. I pierce alone and only alone, and I do not ask anyone to approve of it. It is a marking of my territory: thus far, and no farther, is the interference of the external world allowed. From here on in is mine exclusively, and having previously suffered through what it’s like to relinquish that boundary, I will fight to the death to defend it. I am not exaggerating.
This also explains the timing of some of my piercings. They tend to crop up when I’m going through tough times, particularly with regards to things over which I feel I have little control, such as my mental health, obligations, and the judgments and actions of others. They are, in effect, like battle scars, bringing back to me– via both the exercise of control and the physical act of piercing– the knowledge of coming through and out the other side of some very low places. They serve as intense tangible reminders of the emotions surrounding their creation, like a roadmap to a challenging and painful period of my life, and an assurance that none of what I’ve suffered and learned will be forgotten or overwritten.
There is other symbolism, too, at play, and much of it involves the type of paradox, the demolishing of binary paradigms, that I so relish. At the risk of sounding Freudian, in piercing, I both penetrate and am penetrated, and while this has never been a conscious motivation, it is a successful analogy for my antagonistic relationship to gender roles and my sometimes flamboyant flouting thereof. Earlobe piercing is, as I mentioned earlier, a culturally sanctioned representation of femininity, to the point that bald baby girls are violated by involuntary piercings to identify their gender. As with many punk tropes, taking that same act to an extreme that is now practiced without regard to sex, gender and orientation (thank His Noodly Appendage that the elaborate gay/straight symbolism of the nineties is no more) is a more explicit and confrontational rebuke to that tradition than simply ignoring or bypassing it. It’s a cultural appropriation, a centerpiece on which to build a controversial conversation.
In that same vein, there is also the visual relationship, and sometimes clash, between that ever-present hardware and whatever else I happen to have donned on a given day. What does being pierced mean to those around me when it combines with conservative academic wear? Does it paint me as an enigma? A hypocrite? Confused? A rebel gone square, a square gone rebel? Does it garner interest and respect, or head-scratching and judgment? What about when those same piercings coexist with a Star Trek tee and sneakers, or the combat-boots-and-tie outfit mentioned above? Do they render me unique, or a stereotype; edgy or outdated? I’m sure that each of these answers is different for every person whose path I cross, and while I will never be privy to most of their thoughts, simply knowing that they are provoked is satisfaction enough. I don’t know the answers myself, because surely there are no real answers; new and always subjective ones suggest themselves to me daily, stimulating a dialogue even within me, the piercer and the pierced.
Another paradox is the hardware’s status as both armor and vulnerability. As metal– specifically grey gunmetal, not a more innocuous sterling or gold– and generally, by deliberate choice, aggressively shaped in spikes, points, plugs and pincers– they send a pretty emphatic message of: “Fuck you looking at? Back off or I’ll kick your ass; despite my non-threatening build I’ve got the willpower and the pain tolerance, asshole, and I’m not too prissy to use it.” At the same time, they are technically injuries, empty spaces, and vulnerable to attack by someone close enough, whether by intention or accident. The wrong tug or strike can cause bleeding and inflammation that lasts for days, but the metal can also act like brass knuckles to whatever or whoever lands the blow. This predisposition to hurt and be hurt is representative of my relationships to others, and, let’s face it, of everyone’s relationships to others. Allowing someone proximity, physical and emotional, is a dangerous but courageous choice, for some of us– particularly autists– more than others, and the contradictory purposes of piercings illustrate that difficulty with non-verbal eloquence.
I’m certain other significances are to be found in self-piercing, as in anything, some in my deliberate or unconscious motivations, some purely in the eye of the beholder. However, I hope this exploration will serve as enough of a non-ironic manifesto to satisfy the critical and baffled. By all means, I don’t expect you to like or identify with my choice, but if you do elect to listen to what I have to say and consider it in the genuine spirit with which it is intended, then I tip my hat to you as open-minded and worth the disagreement.