Piercing Politics: Deconstructing Beauty Norms

Design by Emily Farag.

“Are we actually going through with this?” asked my longtime partner in crime, Kelli Hsu, as we strutted into Santa Monica’s Ancient Adornments piercing shop that we impulsively selected. “Hell yes,” I declared as our restless energy overpowered the store’s mellow environment. I was determined to leave the shop that day with a new piece of metal penetrating my skin, but the question of where on my body still remained.

After a conversation with the owners, we settled on the septum piercing. We had always been fascinated with the septum piercing, which rests below the middle of the nose and above the cupid’s bow. However, anytime either one of us vocalized this — especially around cisgender male company — we were discouraged from getting one. Men bombarded us with presumptuous and misogynistic comments such as “You’re too pretty,” or “Don’t ruin your face,” or “You’ll regret it” which made us hesitant. My friends and I often hear men critiquing women who have any face or body jewelry. I internalized this disapproval, allowing these men’s comments to morph my perception of my own aesthetic preferences in society; this barrage of gendered assumptions deterred me from piercing myself. Deconstructing these comments reveals the social conditioning that shapes the gendered perceptions we have about this type of body art.

Piercings have a historical connotation of deviance, as they break unspoken social norms and standards in the puritanical U.S. The politics behind piercings encompass gendered rules that cohere with the gender binary. At the core of these comments regarding women’s appearance is society’s need to police individuals for violating social expectations by deviating from traditional beauty standards. Corrupting the delicate female face with a metal ring disrupts this image of the conventional woman that is marketed to us through the media and advertisements.

Piercings haven’t always been stigmatized across all spheres of time and place. Delving back 5,300 years into antiquity, piercings were common means of self expression, wealth, and power. Men as prominent as King Tut and Julius Caesar wore earrings to signify their social status. The gendered connotations of piercings have evolved, as piercings are no longer associated with such positions of high power. Rather, they are seen as symbols that set marginalized groups, such as bikers, apart from normative society.

Jewelry has historically been used as symbolism in religion and cultural rituals. Hinduism associates various meanings with the nose ring, including marital status. Aztecs and Mayans partook in ceremonies to pierce the tongue in the pursuit of closeness with God. The rise of an American subculture of body art may reflect these ancient aesthetics, but the attitudes associating social deviance with piercings have developed within our contemporary context.

Earlobe piercings are traditional markings of gender on girls as young as infants. Statistic Brain Research Institute estimates 83 percent of women have their lobes pierced. On the flip side, men are not encouraged to have pierced lobes due to its relationship to femininity, as well as a racialized stigma that deems male piercings “hood.” The hip-hop and rap industry influenced this racial stereotype because of how common it became for black men in these communities to have piercings, such as Chris Brown and ‘Lil Wayne. However, Our modern understanding of body jewelry has recently been evolving and breaking the barriers of traditional beauty standards. Celebrities and professionals such as Zendaya, Lenny Kravitz, and Justin Bieber are pierced, proud, and successful despite violating normative piercing rules.

Senior geography major Cecilia Bartels said she resents cisgendered men who have bluntly told her that they do not approve of her tongue piercing, as if it were their right to voice their opinions regarding her body. Another UCLA senior, sociology and gender studies major Caitlin Cunningham, recounted how her ex-boyfriend prohibited her from piercing her nipples because he did not want to see her “perfect” female body altered.

Why is it so normalized that men can voice their opinions on what a woman’s body should and should not look like? With advertisements constantly presenting what a picture-perfect, modern-day woman must mirror, the resounding message of what our roles — particularly our bodies’ roles — should be is crystal clear. The damaging effects of this normative policing is evident in the slow but constant creation of irrational belief systems that convince individuals of who they can and cannot be. This then seeps into accepted societal norms that essentially set mental limitations on women’s self-expression. Among women, there is a collective sense that we need to please others —  by meeting unattainable beauty standards, by being kind, by serving partners emotionally and sexually, and so on. At the root of feminist frustration are the constant pressure placed on the way we are perceived and the world’s perpetual need to remind individuals to partake in this impression management.

With the popularization of piercings in the 21st century, why are such conservative attitudes toward this subculture of body art still so common? 1960s fashion shifted the previous misconception that only gypsies and pirates were pierced, and the trend has withstood the decades. All the same, the human tendency to simply label individuals and groups is partially instinctive, therefore, simplistic generalizations remain. Numerous people proudly show off their body art, yet many employers continue to see piercings as unprofessional and unacceptable —  37 percent indicated that they would be less likely to promote an employer with visible piercings. What seems to be a matter of employers’ inability to abandon conservative attitudes becomes an issue of discrimination.

Living in Los Angeles and going to school in an environment that fosters individuality and emphasizes identity, it is much more common here than in conservative areas of the country to see people displaying body art of all types. Still, The act of piercing can still hold negative connotations within spheres like family and particular cultures. Despite my parents’ progressive attitudes, my mother still expresses how much she dislikes my new septum piercing. My Indigenous Zapotec grandmother living in Oaxaca, Mexico (who prayed to God that I would find a partner soon) would be in utter disbelief that I have altered my appearance with metal jewelry.

Upon hearing this disapproval, I used to get the sinking feeling that the world perceives my actions through this lens of normative gender roles. And unfortunately, the majority of what we do within a society that sees gender expression so narrowly will be perceived this way. Ultimately, I embrace the fact that I am viewed as deviant. I felt empowered once I finally grasped that the way I present myself to the world and modify my body is mine. My body is here to serve me and please me, and it is my prerogative to fight against oppressive beauty standards in whichever way suits me. Although readjusting my ring makes me look like I’m picking my nose, and my eight year old brother believes I resemble a bull, I am doing just fine since making this “drastic” alteration.

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