“Did it hurt?” My 5-year-old asked me as I looped a sparkly purple earring into my ear on New Year’s Eve. She had been coveting those earrings since I got them, holding them in her hands like they might impart some kind of secret to being a grown-up girl that she was desperate to know.
After her question, she reached out to touch the hole on my other ear, her brow furrowed in slight horror. I knew she was grossing out at the thought of a piece of metal going all the way through someone’s body. As tough as she is, my child is the wimpiest of wimps when it comes to thinking about anything sticking into her skin. Her brother loves to torment her into hysterics by talking about needles jabbing under fingernails or into eyeballs. This makes for a super-relaxing car ride for all of us, and yes, big brothers are annoying.
“It hurt for just a second,” I told her. She still didn’t look convinced.
Because of her needle phobia, I have often wondered if she will ever choose to pierce her ears. I’m thinking that the promise of girly, shiny things will be too much of a temptation when she’s about 12 or 13, and and then she will trudge into the piercing shop as if going to the executioner. I’ll have to make sure they do both ears at once because I’ve had visions of her completely freaking out after the first one gets done like her cousin did. (That should be a fun day for all of us, and maybe this gets to be her dad’s job.)
It would have been so easy to pierce her ears as a baby or toddler. So easy. There wouldn’t have been much awareness of what was going on, it would have been over fast, and I would have been able to avoid the drama that will be my preteen daughter and her hysterical phobia of needles. Had we done it then, she wouldn’t even have a recollection of it today.
But I feel that I would have been taking something important away from her, something that every female child should realize is hers right from the start: her choice. Her body is not mine, and I don’t think I have the right to make permanent alterations to it. After all, I wouldn’t give her a tattoo, shave her head bald against her will, or pierce any other part of her body. And I won’t pierce her ears either. I also understand that some cultures are different from mine and that ear-piercing is important to those cultures.
Maybe the process of altering our bodies should be difficult and scary. Maybe she should have the gift of remembering how she faced her fear instead of a blank spot in her toddler mind.
I vividly remember getting my ears pierced at the local mall when I was 12. I was terrified. They gave me a ratty old bear to hold onto that I somehow knew I was too old for, but also weirdly appreciated. I remember the sound of the piercing gun and the sharp shock of pain. I also remember the gold stars that I picked out, the skin-pulling sensation of twisting the metal in my ears every day, the sting of the antibiotic cream three times a day. I made the choice for myself, and I was ready to face all of it.
I want my children to have the same experience. I want to be able to look them in the eye and say, “This is your body, your choice, your pain. You get to own it all.” I want them to know that I don’t see their bodies as an extension of mine, that they are an entirely separate people with power over what they do to themselves. Bodily autonomy is the gift I want to give them, not the gift of some sparkly gems from the mall.