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My ears have been pierced since before I celebrated my first birthday. As a woman of color, this fact makes me completely unremarkable. Scores of little black and brown girls get their ears pierced as babies, although this experience is rarely depicted in pop culture. Instead, books and TV shows almost always portray ear piercing as a rite of passage that girls experience near puberty, an indication of just how white the girlhood presented in young adult fiction and sitcoms has been.
As one of the legions of women who don’t associate ear piercing with training bras and first crushes (or with anything at all, because we can’t remember the experience), I nearly melted when I caught a joke about baby ear piercing on my new favorite sitcom, Netflix’s One Day at a Time. The show, a reboot of the 1970s sitcom of the same name, chronicles a Cuban-American family in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood. Without talking down or preaching to viewers, the sitcom has covered all the topics once deemed too taboo for the dinner table: religion, racism, depression, politics, and sexual orientation.
I’m African American, not Cuban American, but much of the show resonates with me — from a joke about not wanting to be a CEO (Christmas, Easter only) churchgoer to an episode about racial microaggressions in Trump’s America. And then there’s the exchange Lydia (Rita Moreno) and her feminist granddaughter, Elena (Isabella Gomez), have about beauty in the episode “Bobos and Mamitas.” While Elena shuns makeup, believing it reinforces patriarchal norms, Lydia always wears it because she believes it makes her not only beautiful, but powerful as well. Lydia’s take on cosmetics prompts Elena to remark that she’s never seen her with a bare face.
“Yes, you have,” Lydia insists. “My baby pictures.”
“Even in those you have your ears pierced,” Elena says.
“Oh, without earrings I look ridiculous.”
On the surface, Lydia’s quip is supposed to be hyperbole, highlighting just how vain she is, but it’s also cultural for many folks of color. A few years ago, when I took a quick break with a Mexican-American coworker, we walked into a gift shop because I needed a greeting card. The next thing I knew my colleague was buying a cheap set of earrings.
“I forgot mine at home,” she explained. “I need some to make it through the day.”
At first, I thought she was a being a bit extra, but I knew it was a move my own mother might make. There’s a reason people of color joke that one should be afraid if a black or brown woman takes off her earrings. It’s a rare move, often only made when she’s decided to kick someone’s ass. As an adult who’s experimented with different hairstyles, glasses, and statement necklaces, I don’t always wear earrings, but I was taught as a child to have them on at all times. My mother once scolded me for daring to leave the house sans earrings. I was never to do so again.
She took the matter as seriously as if I were an asthmatic who’d left the house with no inhaler. Her reaction also reminds me that having my ears pierced at birth is just part of the story. For years as a kid, I wore tiny gold hoops that never came off. And when I graduated to more playful earrings and inevitably lost the backs, I learned to fashion parts of erasers into makeshift replacements. I followed my mother’s orders as seriously as if nude earlobes in public were the same as a nude body.
A veteran earring wearer by the upper grades of elementary school, it dawned on me that not all girls had the same experience. I attended a racially mixed school in suburban Chicago and remember when the first wave of white girls in my grade began getting their ears pierced. They’d show up to school the next day beaming, their pierced ears a symbol of maturity. I greeted their pride with indifference. “What was the big deal?” I wondered. It was hard to drum up excitement for a body modification I’d had practically since birth.
Their excitement did make me more curious about my own piercing experience, though. I learned that my doctor had pierced my ears, but for years my grandmother had been the family ear piercer, puncturing her four daughters’ and eldest granddaughter’s ears. By the time I came along, my grandmother’s advanced age had made her lose confidence in her ear-piercing abilities. This bit of news upset me — I wanted to be part of the family ear-piercing ritual like everyone else.
The family tradition of ear piercing isn’t unique to my family, or to any particular ethnic group. Reviewing One Day at a Time with a group of fellow Cuban-American women for Remezcla last year, editor Yara Simón mentioned how her mother pierced hers when she was just a few weeks old. Three of the four women reviewing the sitcom with her also said they’d had pierced ears as babies, with one joking, “I think I was, like, born with earrings on.”
Like me, New York Times film writer Monica Castillo recalled thinking it was weird when she heard her white classmates’ “big ordeal” stories about trips to Claire’s for piercings, and Simón pointed out how she figured all baby girls had pierced ears until an episode of Full House taught her otherwise. I don’t recall that episode of Full House, but long before I knew what a sensitivity reader was I thought the Baby-Sitters Club series sorely needed one — all because of an ear-piercing storyline that rang false. In the book Mallory and the Trouble with Twins, several tween and teen babysitters ask their parents for permission to get first and second piercings. Among them is the only African-American sitter, Jessi Ramsey, the aspiring ballerina who had black girls dreaming of Swan Lake long before Misty Copeland’s rise to fame. Jessi gets her ears pierced only after fellow 11-year-old Mallory gets permission to have hers done. With a smirk, I took in this turn of events.
“An 11-year-old black girl without pierced ears? Yeah, right,” I thought. “She would’ve been had her ears pierced.”
But this isn’t necessarily true. While many girls of color get their ears pierced quite young, not all do. Oprah Winfrey is a famous case in point. She didn’t pierce her ears until 2005, when she was 51 years old. Evidently, she was too afraid to pierce them years before, which made me grateful that I’d gotten the task over with before I had any idea what was going on. Don’t get me wrong; I love Oprah. But watching her squeal and squirm before she had a plastic surgeon (yes, a plastic surgeon!) punch a hole in her ears, I couldn’t understand all the fuss.
I felt a similar disconnect watching Friends episode “The One Where Rachel’s Sister Babysits.” It originally aired in 2003, but I must have caught it in syndication at some point because another thing many black and brown folks have in common is not going out of our way to watch Friends. And this particular episode of Friends is the show at peak whiteness. Christina Applegate guest-stars as Rachel’s spoiled, shallow sister Amy. Left in charge of Rachel’s child, Emma, Amy gets the baby’s ears pierced, and Rachel and Ross flip the hell out.
I get it. Amy grossly overstepped her boundaries as an aunt by piercing Emma’s ears without permission. But Rachel and Ross never make this point. They are simply horrified by the sight of an infant with pierced ears. They act as if no baby girl anywhere ever had her ears pierced.
Ross makes a stunned gasp when he see Emma’s lobes. “Please tell me those are clip-ons,” he says. And Rachel decides to kick her sister out
As the drama unfolded, I couldn’t drum up the emotions I knew the show expected from viewers. Pierced baby’s ears sending a family into crisis? I just couldn’t. And the gender dynamics in the episode were foreign to me as well. As soon as Rachel discovers her sister pierced Emma’s ears, she fears Ross’s reaction, going so far as to pull a hat over the baby’s lobes to conceal the earrings.
I never once thought to ask my mother if my father objected to me getting pierced ears as a baby, or if my grandfather objected to her getting pierced ears at the same age. This is a matrilineal practice, and the opinions of men on the issue are really irrelevant. But One Day at a Time’s Elena might argue that the tradition itself simply exists to impose gender roles, and therefore patriarchy, at birth.
After all, when Rachel complains about Emma’s pierced ears, Amy retorts, “Well, at least now people know she’s a girl.”
It’s clear that pierced ears serve this purpose, but it is also an ancient practice. When I think about my grandmother piercing her daughters’ ears, I wonder if my great-grandmother pierced hers, and who pierced my great-grandmother’s. How far back does this practice go?
It might just be the only female kinship ritual practiced on that side of my family, which is why I balk at a British petition calling for an end to the custom because it purportedly constitutes “child cruelty” and “serves no purpose other than to satisfy the parent’s vanity.” To reduce ear piercing to vanity is to dismiss the fact that it has been in practice for millennia.
To be sure, it’s impossible to know how much pain I felt getting my ears pierced as an infant, which is why I opted to get second piercings in college. It felt as painful as a pinch. Then I had my navel pierced, which was slightly more painful but not that unpleasant. Still, none of these piercings seem as meaningful as my first. They simply don’t connect me to anyone or anything in the same way. They didn’t give my mother, or hers, any stories to tell.