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"I don't know." I shrugged. "Maybe my septum or my nostril?"
"But you'll look like a bull! What has gotten into you? You're so conservative!"
Little did my mother know that I had yearned to escape conventionality for quite some time.
I grew up in a modest Christian background where people believed that personal style was reflective of one's proximity to God.
I grew up in a modest Christian background where people believed that personal style was reflective of one's proximity to God and demonstrative of one's demeanor. Any woman who entered the church sanctuary in jeans knew that she had to sit in the back or be subjected to the judgmental eye of the elderly church women. I always wore a skirt or dress because I didn't know anything different. My mother was raised the same way, and her mother before her. You have a standard that's coated with love and admonition, and it's dictated to you so you listen. If a woman had piercings, they were through the earlobes and nowhere else—at least based on what was visible.
During my younger, more tomboyish years, I wore fitted hats, tight jeans, and Timberlands because that was en vogue in early ‘00s. But once my hips started to spread and I went up two notches in bra size, my mother became concerned with me looking like a well-kept young woman. There shouldn't be a hair out of place. My shirts should always be ironed and my dresses should have no wrinkles. Any deviations from these standards would signal to an onlooker that I was lazy, lacking pride in my appearance, and lower-class.
I knew that my mother did all of this in order to protect me. As a woman—and especially as a black woman—I could not expect the world to treat me kindly, and maybe if I made myself as attractive as possible, any kind of backlash would be impeded, or at the very least filtered. As soon as I entered into my teens, my spaghetti strap shirts and ripped jeans gave way to argyle socks, cardigans, and plaid skirts—and I liked them all.
But while I felt fancy in my proper attire, there was another side of me that wished I could be more free. My favorite black female beauty icons were Lisa Bonet and Cree Summer because of their free-flowing natural hair, their loose, sunny clothing, and their overall bohemian lifestyle—not to mention their nose rings. They seemed so beautiful and so calm, and I wanted to be like that, although I knew that in my regular, waking life, this was not possible.
I could only move easily through the world when I was wearing an outfit that covered me from my sternum to below my kneecaps.
Once you start wearing a certain type of clothing, especially as a woman, people form an impression of who you are as an individual, and it's a hard one to break. Furthermore, once you realize that others have this impression of you, you start to become committed to its maintenance until you begin to believe that it summarizes who you really are. In my case, the look was prim, proper, conservative, and modest. There was nothing edgy about me. The only piercings I had on my body were my ears, and I was only a couple months old when I had them done.
Even in college, I may have experimented once or twice with wearing bare midriffs and skin-tight dresses, but I always felt uncomfortable and I knew that discomfort showed in my interactions with people. I could only move easily through the world when I was wearing an outfit that covered me from my sternum to below my kneecaps, or to my ankles. And while I tried to play around with make-up, there was no style that made me feel like I was showing a side of myself that had been patiently waiting to be revealed. With each application, I felt more confused about what I was doing with myself. What was I trying to prove? Every enhancement felt cheap and contrived.
After I graduated from college, I poured all of my energy into becoming a writer. The more I dreamt about my artistic career, the more aware I became that it is as uncertain and non-traditional as it is exciting and adventurous. As a writer, I use my imagination as a form of liberation, so why couldn't I do the same for my body? After years of admiring black women with piercings, I realized my admiration wasn't going to subside, so why not actualize it?
I knew my piercing wouldn't define my sense of self, but rather expand it.
By this point, I'd done my homework. I meticulously researched online to see how different piercings would look on my type of face, and to learn about the stereotypes associated with those who have them. Some of what I found gave me pause: "bitch," "attention seeker," "punk," "alternative," "trashy." But I wasn't going to let anonymous people's voices impinge upon my right to decide how I want to look. I knew my piercing wouldn't define my sense of self, but rather expand it.
Last September, again in the car with my mother, I finally made my choice. We were on our way to a southern Christian wedding and we had enough time to stop on South Street, Philly's piercing capital, before heading to the Philadelphia Airport.
"Are you sure you don't want to do it?" my mom jokingly asked. "We have enough time, you know. I can tell that you want one."
"Fine. Pull over." I couldn't suppress my smile even if I wanted to.
When it was time for me to fill out forms at the tattoo and piercing shop, the cashier, a young, black girl who had two nose rings and a septum piercing, gave me a punch card and said, "If you get five piercings, you get the sixth one free." I did a double-take.
But when I settled into one of the rooms in the back and felt that needle pierce through my skin, the weird stinging sensation was tinged with pleasure. I sniffled and the tears flowed out of my eyes, but it was all over before I'd fully ascertained that something had penetrated my body.
Here we were, two religious women standing in the middle of a shop filled with tattooed and pierced patrons, heavy metal playing overhead, finding the beauty in what we once feared.
"All done!" the massively-tattooed piercer said and guided me to the full-length mirror on the adjacent wall from where I was sitting. My diamond was about a tenth of the size of a penny but at that moment, it felt huge. I kept touching and poking at the jewelry, thinking the hole might cave in and destroy my nose altogether. But God, was it pretty.
Out in the lobby, my mother's eyes widened. "You look beautiful," she gushed. "You're making me want to get one myself!" Here we were, two religious women standing in the middle of a shop filled with tattooed and pierced patrons, heavy metal playing overhead, finding the beauty in what we once feared.
For days afterwards, I would wake up, shower, and feel as if my face had been pierced all over. My skin was highly sensitive. I'd pinch at my cheeks, touch around my mouth, and run my fingers over my forehead, trying to find the difference, but once I skimmed my nose, I'd always feel a rough, hard surface and realized that the piercing was still intact—shiny as ever. When I looked at selfies with my new addition, I didn't recognize myself. The piercing seemed so out of place.
Style requires inspiration; it can never come entirely from one's own creativity. For a time, I worried that I was trying to copy people very different from me when I pierced my nose, but now I think I was cultivating my own look. I still wear dresses and skirts when I enter into a sanctuary. I don't like cleavage and am very particular about how much leg I show. But my nose ring is an aberration. It's a break in a pattern: you may have an idea of who you think I am, but my piercing tells you that I'm going to undermine it.
Like many type A women, I tend to place others above myself. I'm entirely too concerned with being likeable even to people who don't care about my feelings. But my piercing reminds me that I can and should have fun with my body. The nose ring is the only thing that I have on my person that was not directly influenced by my background, and perhaps that digression makes all the difference.