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April 16, 2009

Birthday Present to Myself

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 11:26 pm

This morning, I put on Becky’s birthday present to me – a beautiful steamy pendant handmade from the head of a spoon and a handful of gears, small clock parts and such.

Then I took out my tongue piercing and my nose ring. For good.

Much like getting these piercings in the first place, which I did on my birthday six years ago, I have a number of reasons both political and personal for removing them today. I may try to write about it more articulately in the future, but for the time being I’m just thinking.

I’m thinking about cultural appropriation, queer identity, body autonomy, and the ways that I mark myself as a radical. I think facial piercings can be a sticky issue within radical communities, especially for white anti-racist allies because, if nothing else, so many of us have them – or have respected white friends and loved ones who do. It’s much easier to, say, critique appropriative white youth for getting tribal or kanji tattoos, because far fewer of us have them ourselves…

I have both. The kanji for love – ai – tattooed on my hip and a Samoan tapping around my right ankle. And each one has deep personal, historical and spiritual significance to me; the first is a memorial, the second a statement of faith. I don’t regret them. But I recognize them as problematic, in part because I didn’t even think about issues of cultural appropriation when I had them done. Likewise, each piercing was, for me, a powerful ritual act of reclaiming related to issues of identity, body, sexuality, rites of passage and inner strength…but the fact that I had reasons for getting pierced beyond “looking trendy” or “being hip” doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t think about those reasons within the context of my white privilege. I didn’t have to.

Nor, over the past six years, have I given much very much thought to what having that jewelery signifies, suggests, or contributes to in terms of culture, ethnicity, and racial politics… In fact, I’ve semi-consciously veered away from discussions about cultural appropriation and body modification, because I’ve been afraid of what I might find there. But an unexpected conversation the other night got me thinking on the surface and now…I’m thinking about it.

Regardless of our personal investment biases, however, facial piercings are also a sticky issue within radical community because they’re not, in fact, as cut-and-dried a form of appropriation as something like white people wearing dreads. (And even THAT isn’t totally cut-and-dried, but there seems to be fairly general consensus about it.) Facial piercing is a thing that cuts across cultures, having been practiced in some form by almost every society, including European ones, since ancient times. As Epilady points out in this thread:

[…] Claiming that all body modification automatically equates to appropriation elides the European pagan traditions wiped out by Christianity and urbanization/capitalism. Body piercings, painting, tattoos, and braided or dreaded hairstyles all have been utilized by European peoples for millenia. The Picts, for example, got their tribal name because they were covered in highly graphical tattoos.

This is not to say that I don’t completely agree with you about appropriation, especially when we’re talking about dreadlocks or Asian character tattoos, for example. But it’s extremely problematic to imagine that white European-origin people all arose from the primordial ooze wearing polo shirts and carrying cell phones.

If someone told me she’d gotten a particular piercing to honor her Celtic warrior foremothers, I could get behind that. But that’s not why I got my piercings. I don’t know why I got them. Or, rather, I know what getting each piercing meant to me, but not why I chose that particular act for the rituals I needed. So, I’m thinking about that.

Another thing about facial piercings, and this is where it gets the stickiest for me, is that there are definite historical and contemporary links between body modification and radical queer identity.

On the one hand, I understand that this is itself an artifact of privilege. When we white people are oppressed along some other vector – such as gender, sexual orientation, class – we often appropriate the symbols of Other cultures in attempt to claim our own Otherness. We are inscribed in a dominant/default ‘whiteness’ that erases our diverse European ethnic backgrounds and their respective traditions of resistance. So it’s not surprising that, when we need to resist other oppressions, our own lack of cultural connection plus the sense of entitlement granted to us by our whiteness encourages us to grasp for whatever nearby symbols of resistance we can see and steal. Working-class punks start wearing mohawks. White women appropriate an indiscriminate melange of goddess mythologies. And maybe some Queer kids get labret piercings without giving much thought to their history as a Native American status symbol. Then future generations of otherwise-oppressed white people see those things as signs of our community’s resistance and adopt them blindly.

At the same time, facial piercings aren’t exclusive to white Queer folks. And even if their adoption into Queer culture is rooted in cultural appropriation*, this doesn’t cancel out the fact that facial piercings are often a marker of Queerness and that they have a contemporary historical association with Queer identity. Nor are And because of the particular ways that Queer identities, especially Queer womens’ identities, are erased in our culture, it is a major struggle for us to be seen as Queer – even by people who are looking right at us. Other Queer people included. On my way to work today, I walked by a woman with a close-cropped haircut and a Northface-esque jacket who could have easily passed for ‘sporty’. It was only because of the complex way her ears were pierced (and the fact that she had buttons pinned all over her messenger bag :P), that I read her as Queer.

Likewise, the scariest thing for me about taking my piercings out is the fear that now, even more often, I’ll be read as straight by random strangers, my family, and my own friends. I’m only recently starting to understand the depths of my own complicity with the erasure of my sexuality, and that’s a subject for a whole other post – but suffice to say that giving up one of the very few things that, even in the most minor maybesortapossibly way, visually marks me as Queer is really tough for me and it’s kinda freaking me out. But I didn’t get my piercings as a way of claiming my Queer identity either. Not really.

Except for one. When I turned 19, I had two rings punched through the cartilage of my right ear. It was the most horrifically painful piercing I ever got – I still remember the crunching sound. It literally took years to heal. In fact, I still sleep on that side with my forearm folded under my head, a habit formed to keep my ear from touching the pillow. I was barely out of high school and had only the most nascent political consciousness, but I chose my right ear because that was the one gay men had traditionally pierced. And it was a gift from August who – despite our perennial antagonism around politics, our respective psychological issues, our various power imbalances and the many ways these things make having a healthy relationship hard work for us – has been my strongest, longest-standing, and most loving ally and supporter throughout my entire adult life. That one, I’m keeping.

And I don’t want this to seem like it’s some kind of “sacrifice” for the sake of “political correctness.” I got my piercings as a way of self-reclaiming. And I kept them as a way to mark me as a radical. But, in a certain way, I use them as a crutch. When I pierced my cartilage, I remember telling a friend that it was kind of a relief, because I no longer worried about people thinking I was “normal”. I didn’t have to worry as much about my hair color or my clothes, because it would be harder now to mistake my identity – however awkwardly I articulated it then. And I think that was really valuable, even necessary, for me at the time…

I needed these piercings before. But I don’t really need them now. I just like them.

And I think that, in a certain way, not having obvious but potentially-problematic markers of difference will encourage me to develop new, more conscientious ways of reclaiming my identity. And I hope that it will also force me – if I care about being perceived as radical – to foster that perception more strongly through my words and actions. And perhaps through other choices I make about my appearance, my aesthetics, my consumption practices, etc.

And perhaps this is a rite of passage in itself. By removing, with a few flicks of my fingers, something I’ve believed to be an integral part of my identity for the past six years, I’m hoping to pass deeper into the understanding that radical movement isn’t about being a radical, in some kind of stable, static sense. It’s about constantly becoming radical by doing radical work. If I really felt like I was doing everything I could to fight for social justice and dismantle oppression, then I don’t think I would feel too concerned with what people on the street thought of my politics; and more than that, I think I would have more faith in my own decisions – about how I present myself, about how I spend my time, about where I choose to live, etc.

Of course, I don’t feel like I’m doing everything possible – because I’m not. And, in fact, I never will be. But I hope to spend my whole life learning how to do more and doing it. With that in mind, it IS important to have external symbols, static markers of radical identity, to remind both myself and others of my commitment to justice and community – because so much of oppression works by infecting those of us who oppose it with insidious self-doubt. But those symbols don’t have to be stolen from other people. My communities and I can create our own.

I’m not saying that piercings are inherently stolen. And I’m not saying that I will never have any kind of piercing again, or that I believe no other privileged people should have them. I don’t believe that all facial piercings on white people are appropriative or politically unjustifiable. I’m not even saying that MY piercings are appropriative. I just don’t know for sure that they’re not. I’m thinking about it. I’m listening and reading about it. And while I’m doing that, I’m keeping my jewelery in my pocket rather than in my face.

That’s my birthday present to myself.

I knew all of this, not in so many words, but I understood what I was doing when I took them out. But I expected to feel differently. Maybe I expected to feel clear, focused and liberated the way I did when I got them put in. Instead, I felt conflicted, confused, sad. I stood at the bus stop and cried a bit in the rain.

But then I came here and wrote this. I feel like anything that makes me cry a little more and write a little more is probably a step in the right direction.

It’s rambling and embarrassingly wordy, filled with the kind of unwieldy, hyper-academic clauses-within-clauses-within-clauses that I’ve been trying to eradicate from my writing, and feels like the roughest of drafts and isn’t what I had intended to write at all. But I’m going to post it anyway because I promised myself I’d publish something, and this is the thing I wrote.

I’m feeling better, since I wrote it. A little clearer, a little more focused, a little more uplifted. I have a little better understanding now of what I’m not understanding. And while, at the bus stop this morning, I was mourning the loss of some small expression of self… I can feel now that my truest self isn’t something I’ve given up, it’s something I’ve yet to become.

Happy Birthday.

[* And maybe it isn’t. Body piercing is also used by some survivors of sexual abuse to reclaim a sense of ownership over their bodies. There’s a relationship between piercing and kink that is far more complicated than as simple identity signifiers. (Not that identity signifiers are simple.) And there are also connections for some people (I was one of them) between body piercing and self-injury – which is an extremely complex, fraught topic that I don’t have space to get into here, but one which I want to validate as one of many possible coping mechanisms and something worth talking about. And there is frequently overlap between all of these experiences and the experiences of Queer folks.

There is so much going on here and there are so many different reasons why someone might undergo any type of body modification – and ultimately, I want to validate all peoples’ right to make whatever choices are right for their own bodies. This is why I’ve tried to keep this focused on my experience of piercing, without making assumptions that my reasons correspond with anyone else’s. I feel like I haven’t done the best job possible with that. I may try to rewrite this at some point.]


1 Comment »

  1. A fascinating discussion is worth comment.
    There’s no doubt that that you need to publish more about this topic, it might not be a taboo matter but usually people don’t discuss such issues.
    To the next! Best wishes!!

    Comment by baby nursery set — February 11, 2013 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

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