My ears aren’t pierced. This is usually my fun fact during party icebreakers or introductory small talk.
My parents made an attempt, once, when I was too small to remember and too naive to fear pain. The cries of the child in front of me, being bounced up and down in her father’s arms, unnerved my own protective mother.
“I can’t do this to her,” she said. “I can’t let her go through that.”
My ears remained untouched. And they have remained that way.
This shouldn’t be the shocking revelation it’s often taken to be. As an observer of hijab, you can’t see my ears most times of the day anyway. Like my hair, they are part of my veiled femininity and inaccessible to the ordinary passerby. There are occasional lamentations or denouncements of that decision and choice, but most of them don’t linger on my hidden lobes and what may, or may not be, dangling from them.
Surprisingly, though, this small aspect of my body often becomes an issue of debate. Like everything else about a woman’s body, this too cannot go by without judgment—and none of it, on the “for” or “against” side, takes me into account so much as whether or not I am appropriately performing femininity.
One of the biggest examples of this is my aunts’ displeasure with my unpierced ears. Being of marriageable age, I’m constantly deluged with daydreams about my future wedding, from hypothetical sari patterns to whether or not I will submit to a line of kohl around my eyes. Even more pressing, though, is their anxiety about whether or not I will wear the fabulously gaudy and heavy jewelry expected of a traditional Bengali bride.
That jewelry, of course, centers around piercings, from the path that rests in a bride’s nose to the earring it connects within her ear.
This concern often touches on my anxious biracial nerves. How else can I prove that I am Bengali enough if I do not honor my culture’s wedding traditions as reverently as my American dreams of a white gown and veil? Out of everything else, this cultural pressure does hold a great deal of sway.
When I was first born, my late paternal grandmother presented my parents with a small set of gold earrings to adorn my lobes when the time came. My mother wears those now. It feels like another way in which I’ve failed to be the ideal Bangladeshi girl, who embodies beauty with every jingle of her bangle-laden arms and can mince delicately in a sari.
(On the other side of my family, my African-American grandparents were always more concerned about whether or not I was eating well, instead of how my bare lobes might not attract a man—which makes living with them somewhat easier.)
However, when the request is dissected, it becomes less cultural and more patriarchal in tone.
After all, if I do not wear the nath and have my ears prepared for the finery—am I truly the bride my potential husband deserves? Can he show me off to our community and society with bare, unadorned lobes?
The implication of being incomplete or unfinished needs to be acknowledged and named. My unpierced ears haven’t barred me from employment, prevented my achieving good grades or are what I am questioned on by prospective partners. The issue stems from a lack of compliance with societal expectations.
If you look at the cultural issues behind the nath, it only gets dicier. Some superstitions claim that, if a wife doesn’t wear a nath to block the air she exhales, she may make her husband sick. That aside, the usual beliefs—that traditional jewelry is a more tangible way of being able to hold onto money in times of financial insecurity—can be fulfilled with bangles and rings alike. Why do I need to get a needle to my face or ears to soothe anxieties?
I’ve had my lack of earrings chalked up again and again to a lack of interest in “being pretty,” “dressing up” or “making an effort to look nice.” Insert heels or makeup or exposed hair before these accusations, and it is obvious that it is less of an issue with how I feel about my appearance and more of what others expect of me. It is about a lack of conformity with gender roles in a way that threatens how society feels about women’s bodies, and how pressured those women should feel to please society at large.
My ears are not pierced because my mother could not tolerate me enduring pain in the name of fulfilling this conformity. That, too, was a challenge to the system. Being able to stand up against assumptions about how your daughter’s body should look, how much it should weigh and what she dresses in is never easy.
Being able to see the patriarchal influence on these pressures, though, does not make it easier for me to shake them off. If anything, it further complicates my own feelings about my ears and whether or not, if ever, I should pierce them. When I browse through cute earrings or eye the waiting stool at the local Claire’s—I wonder if my desire to consider piercing is self-motivated or societally influenced. Do I really want those pretty studs because they might look good on me, or will I end up realizing it was just my desire to assimilate?
Is it really aesthetics or will the system win if I give in?
Ironically, once again, a patriarchal perspective has muddled the waters of my piercing debate. My father has been a firm advocate for years that if I pierce my ears, I lose an aspect of myself that is unique. There will be no going back once that little hole is made in my skin. It is an argument that doesn’t sound unlike other complaints about changes made to a woman’s body, but it has haunted me every time I was on the cusp of making an appointment to get my ears pierced.
This, too, is about gender roles in a way that makes me uncomfortable. After all, if I take the perspective of my being the cool, unpierced girl, I position other women as lesser, succumbing to a misogynistic system that only I was able to resist and rise over.
This is a decision that I made for myself. It shouldn’t have to be a big statement, or a potential deal-breaker in the way my Desi side of the family attempts to conflate it.
For now, my ears remain bare. Whether or not that bothers anyone is their problem.