“So, when are you getting her ears pierced?”
I didn’t respond. My eight-month-old daughter was licking crusted-up cereal off the floor and I fussed around her, hoping the question would go away.
“You know, you should have done it when she was a newborn. I hear they don’t feel so much pain then. Now, of course she is teething so I can understand why you don’t want to cause her any more discomfort.”
My relative was being sweet and understanding.
But she did not understand at all.
The truth is I was not so worried about the pinprick of pain or rusted implements or bacterial infections – none of the things that people attributed my lack of enthusiasm to.
“I don’t think I will get her ears pierced at all. Not until she tells me she really wants it done,” I said.
This was too much! The poor woman had to intervene!
“Oh no no, that is not a good idea at all. For one it will hurt her. Trust me, she will cry her eyes out when she is older.”
“That’s OK,” I replied. “We’ll see when the time comes.”
The woman’s smile faltered. “She is going to hate you, you know. All her friends will have piercings and nice earrings and she’ll be the only one who won’t. She will resent you.”
I took stock of the situation. Should I tell this woman the real reason? Would she take it as an affront?
I smiled blandly as if my wont, but here’s the real reason.
The reason I will not get my daughter’s ears pierced before she is old enough to request it is because I refuse to have holes punched into her body just so that she can meet some ideal of feminine decorativeness. There is a world of difference between cruel practices such as female circumcision or foot binding or forcefeeding and getting a baby’s ears pierced, but think about it. They ARE along the same continuum, albeit at opposite ends. They all involve encroaching upon the child’s bodily integrity so that she may be made more attractive – to men eventually.
In my culture at least, no one would think to ask me to get a son’s ears pierced. So, why my daughter? So that she can practice being bejewelled and bedecked for her wedding day? Even those who agree that Barbie dolls and traditional fairytales set terrible examples for young children, do not question the assumption that a young girl ought to have her ears pierced as early as possible. We think nothing of mutilating our little girls just because it ‘looks pretty’. To whom? Why? “No no,” you might argue. “It’s cute is all.” But then why isn’t it cute for most little boys? Conceptions of beauty and cuteness or whatever evolve for certain reasons. They are rooted in culture, gender expectations, in age-old power equations. “Oh but I do it for myself,” say those who enjoy adorning themselves. Good for you, but you enjoy it because you’ve internalised that beauty depends on how you decorate yourself, and wellbeing in turn depends on beauty.
And what if the child wants her ears pierced when she is five or six or 13? Then so be it. For all my feminist ideals, I can’t prevent her from assimilating the gender codes she sees around her. At most I can downplay the importance of appearance (also hard because she is an extraordinarily pretty child and that is what everyone focuses on), but I can’t prevent her from making her own decisions and supporting them if they do not cause her real harm. But at least my conscience will be clear in that I didn’t make a baby cry and bleed, however little, just so she could flaunt overpriced markers of femininity.