Is it wrong to pierce a babies ears? In this piece, I write about my experience of having my ears as a small child and the impact this had.
As a small child, I was moved to a Central American country because of my parents job and I lived there for a number of years, masquerading as a proper little Catholic school girl, attending nursery and then moving up into the school proper. I stood out like a English sore thumb when I arrived: I was pale and subdued with bone-blonde hair, blue eyes and un-pierced ears and wore a Ladybird dress and neat patent Mary Janes, neither of which coped very well with the dust and sand of the Chihuahuan Desert. My naked earlobes caused the local people the most concern though: they marked me out as a gringa far more than my blonde ringlets did.
The culture in Mexico both then and now is to pierce the ears of newborn girl babies, performed as soon as possible after birth because presumably it is easier than trying to catch and pin down an older, more mobile, and less compliant child. In most cases, babies actually leave the maternity clinic with pierced ears, the procedure carried out just days after their birth because a newborn will not tug at her sore ears nor interfere with the earrings. Once done and with screams quietened- sometimes after sucking on a honey-dipped finger- these baby girl children received their first gold in the form of tiny sleepers or gold studs and the giving of these in the months leading up to the birth is a common gift.
I was four when my parents decided to pierce my lobes, roping in a nun from my school to do it and I was understandably reluctant to have this nun grab me by the tender flesh of my ear and pin me face-down onto her black serge lap so she might push an ice-cold needle through my lobes. A cork from the freezer was held against the back of my ear, providing the necessary resistance for the needle to push against. The nun then threaded each hole with a length of black cotton and tied the ends of the threads into two small loops to keep them open. A few days later, the threads were replaced by plain gold studs: my parents probably thought that earrings engraved with an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe were a bit too ‘catholic’, although these were a popular choice among my friends who were accustomed to life under divine protection and called upon the saints to see them through the most unremarkable of life events.
This dour nun was far removed from the gentle Bride of Christ you might have watched in The Sound of Music and she demonstrated a firm grip and an even firmer countenance as she trapped me deftly between her knees to examine the shape of my ears whilst my parents held onto my thrashing arms. I briefly contemplated biting her plump little kneecap as she bent my head forwards then decided that the risk of Hell On Earth- as opposed to going to the real hell afterwards- was too much of a risk. I had already spent too much time locked in the dark and chalky art supplies cupboard for various minor classroom insubordinations (like being, um, four) and I wasn’t planning on spending more time in there with sore throbbing ears to boot.
Post piercing, all I was allowed to wear was a tiny, uptight gold stud whilst my Mexican friends wore dramatic, passionate, ear jewellery that afforded them a bigger and more decorative space in the world. I was envious of my friend Susie’s black curls, brown skin and the chunky pair of carved gold arracadas hoops that danced in her ears: standing alongside her, I felt like a half-erased drawing. My discreet British-style studs rendered me a half-hearted participant in a rite much bigger than me and as a child, I squirmed over my competing cultural definition. My envy confused me, wrapped up as it was with resentment at my parents. I had failed to separate my feelings about the frightening method used to pierce my ears from the longer-term consequences and cultural significance of remaining the only un-pierced girl in my school. At times I hated my parents for forcing me to go through such an ordeal, I disliked the hassle of caring for my pierced ears yet I longed too, for something a little less waspy. Alone in my room at night I would remove the studs and ‘lose’ the small gold ball that screwed onto the sharp post which threaded through my ear. The next morning, my mother, or Maria our housekeeper, would triumphantly produce one of many ‘spares’ and reinsert the earring, accompanied by scolding slaps and harsh words. It became a daily and unpleasant ritual until Maria sat me down and explained that when I was old it would be up to me but for now, I had to submit. She was sure that an extra cup of atole might be in line for little girls who weren’t put on earth to turn her waist length black hair prematurely grey. Maria was just eighteen.
Arracadas do “Tesouro Bedoya”, expostas no Museo de Pontevedra.
My early teenage years were marked by a nascent feminism and I began to consider the psychological implications of having ones pain rewarded by jewellery and a sugary finger. I thought about the fact that I underwent the same procedure without ‘enjoying’ the benefit of being too young to consciously recall it: it was very hard to forget my feelings of terror at being held down without real explanation of what was to happen and then the pain of piercing; this nun was not blessed with dexterity. I found it hard to shake off the fear I felt when I realised that I had absolutely no say in it. The fact that ear piercing was performed by a nun made it even odder.
I lost interest in my earrings in adulthood, refusing to wear them as I started to regain jurisdiction over my body and began to reject everything that reminded me of my powerlessness in the face of my parents actions. It was in defiance of all that came after: the parental neglect and abuse; the ongoing disregard of me as a person separate from themselves which was heralded by their turning a deaf ear against my pleas to leave my own ears alone. Eventually I let the holes close up until all that remained was a thickened piece of tissue, a minute bulls-eye in the centre of my lobes. Slightly darker in colour than the rest of my ear, these were a stigmatic reminder of things done and it became apparent that they would not fade and the damage would never be completely invisible. I had my own daughter and left her ears alone although when she was twelve she went through her own push-me pull -me as she tried to decide of her own accord whether to pierce. Six years later I had my son and left his ears alone too.
Funnily enough, I’m now in my forties and lured (again, ironically) by the thought of the flash-trash clink of Creole gilt hoops as I shake my head. I imagine white-gold stars thickly clustered along the outer and upper part of my ear. There’s Halston-fabulous slim needles made from silver and platinum which I imagine swinging and catching the light as their wearers dance and laugh. I’m still drawn to what some call the Chola style, drawn from first- and second-generation Mexican and Mexican-American girls who wear gold chains, large hoops and stop-the-traffic red lipstick with an attitude that both reclaims and flips this formerly abusive term on its head. I like the Chola’s blend of strong femininity and toughness which spits in the face of the fact that these girls probably had little choice as to whether their ears were pierced or not. But I’m not Mexican or Mexican-American, no matter that I once lived there for a while and despite the fact that the Chola has evolved from a culture I am familiar with. There’s a line of authenticity to be drawn in the sand somewhere, probably starting with the fact that Chola abuelas (grandmothers) seem to be quite thin on the ground and I am nearer the abuela than I am her daughter or granddaughter.
Following fashion writers like Pandora Sykes on social media has exposed me to a different way of wearing ear jewellery where joyful, witty and intelligent fashion also possesses agency and self-determination. Pandora is young enough to be my daughter but her take on personal style has helped to liberate me from my old resentments and fired me up to search for fresh ways of decorating what my husband describes as the world’s tiniest adult-human ears.
The mysterious language of the ear piercer intrigues me too. There are piercings called the tragus and the anti-tragus which sound like a Greek myth on the scale of Perseus versus the Gorgon. The conch and the rook are embedded into the shell-like curves of the inner ear lobe whilst the daith sounds like something a nun might whisper in the stillness of her cell-like bedroom.
I’m ready now. I am eyeing up the anatomy of my little ears and wondering what they can take. As I get older, I can see that a jewelled ear (or nose!) can defy time in unexpected ways, can allow me to retrace old paths with bigger, more sure-footed steps. This time it will be my decision.