Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
I was 16 when my mother took me — after weeks of endless harassment — to get my very first facial piercing: my right nostril. I already had my ears done and thought getting my nose pierced would be cute, subtle, and slightly edgy. I was a little worried about the pain, but as soon as I entered the piercing parlor, I knew that there was no point in turning back. And honestly, I’m so glad I didn’t.
My mom thought getting my nose done was innocent enough, but ignored my subsequent requests for more piercings. I knew as soon as I turned 18, I would collect quite a few of them. And over the next decade, I somehow managed to accumulate a total of seven body piercings (not including the five I wear in each ear): a lip ring, two nose rings, a Monroe, a belly button ring, and two surface chest piercings. From the first time the needle permeated my skin through the seemingly endless healing process, the incredible creative agency I felt when it came to my piercings was exhilarating. And as a 6-foot-tall black woman, the pride and power I feel over my body is complex, but extremely important.
Black women constantly oscillate between being invisible and hyper-visible daily. When we are invisible, we aesthetically minimize our blackness to appease the dominant and pervasive narrative of white beauty. Downplaying or erasing physical blackness includes everything from hair straightening to skin bleaching — and this Eurocentric mindset has become dangerously embedded in the black community. The other side is hyper-visibility, when our bodies — our hair, our skin color, our facial features — are discussed, dissected, feared, ridiculed, and replicated. In a culture where there is so much social currency invested in black women not loving themselves, embracing and being proud of who I am is often viewed as a radical act.
My piercings represent the confidence and pride I feel about my own hyper-visibility, although I didn’t realize how much they meant to me until I considered getting rid of them as my 30th birthday approached. For me, turning 30 meant taking time to reflect on my personal and professional accomplishments, the people around me, and the goals I had set in place. But I found myself confused by what it meant to look like a 30-year-old. If it was, in fact, the definitive age to come into adulthood, would I have to sacrifice my piercings in order to look the part?
My physical appearance has always been a source of contention for everyone from complete strangers to family members. For some reason, people feel the need to frequently provide unwarranted commentary about how I look. From remarks on my height to guessing my weight to discussing my skin tone, my body and the space it occupies has always been a catalyst for conversation that I never been comfortable with. For years, I worked hard not only to embrace it, but to reclaim it. Getting body piercings, along with shaving my head, were and are extremely symbolic of a freedom that I never really knew that black women could have, one that rejects the notion of one-dimensional beauty that is exclusively centered on whiteness and proximity to whiteness. Society will always place the onus of assimilation on the heads of black women, and it is up to us to continue to fight against it.
And so not only did I decide to keep all of my piercings, a few weeks after my birthday, I got another one: a septum. I tried to be as modest as I could be when I selected the ring (I asked for the smallest one possible). It was done on a whim; very little thought was put into the actual piercing itself. However, beyond the painful two-month healing process (whenever I wiped my nose, it felt like it was on fire), there weren’t any negative consequences. I now work in liberal environments where my supervisors don't care if I'm pierced; several of my friends already thought I’d had my septum done. That temporary feeling of insecurity was just that: temporary.
Besides, I figure that if people are going to stare, I might as well give them something to look at.