A few months ago, a couple of friends and I were celebrating the end of a year-long work project that had been really tough. We were going out for dinner to wave goodbye to the whole thing and get very, very drunk while doing so, but then one of them was struck by a marvellous idea: “Hey, why don’t we all get something pierced?”
My other friend was up for it. I am terrified of needles and even more terrified of pain, but there was absolutely no way I was going to be left out. Forty-five minutes later, I was sitting on a bed while a woman drew a tiny blue dot on my earlobe. She held up a mirror and asked if that was in the right place; I met my own terrified gaze and nodded firmly. While my friends squealed in delight, she lifted the needle to my ear and in one motion pushed it through.
The pain of the piercing was immediately overwhelmed by the most incredible feeling of power. I opened my eyes, hopped off the bed and stared into the mirror on the wall. Where there had been two holes in my left ear, there were now three. And I had done that. I had gone to a shop and picked out a stud and told a stranger to put that hole in my ear. Me. My focus shifted from the tiny, gold heart in my ear to my eyes in the mirror. They weren’t terrified any more. I felt, for the first time in a long time, in control.
Look, I know this might be an overreaction to getting one tiny stud in my earlobe, but I spend a lot of time feeling like my life is out of my control. I live in the place I have to live for my husband’s job, I travel only to the places my bank balance will allow and, at work, I report to my boss. It was nice to claw back a little bit of my own agency, even if it was only in this tiny way.
When I impulsively change something about my body, it’s a tiny 'Fuck you' to a universe that makes me feel like I have no say in my own life
And I think it meant so much because I especially never feel like I’m in control of my own body. My anxiety and depression mean that I feel sick, shaky and like I’m floating 3ft above my own head most of the time, and almost two decades of dieting, bingeing and self-harming with food means that I feel like my body is something separate to me, something that’s out to sabotage me at every turn. For the past two years, I’ve been desperately trying to lose weight and have consistently failed, permanently feeling like my body and I were involved in a war that I had absolutely no hope of winning. It was the boss and I was just trailing behind it, doing what it said and hoping not to be crushed by its weight.
So, this piercing? In one way, it was me showing my body who was in charge. I may not be able to change my jeans size, but I can put a hole through my ear, goddamit. But in another way, it felt like a peace offering. Dieting and exercise feels like punishment, like my body and I fighting with each other and never finding a common ground. This piercing wasn’t punishment – it was collaboration. It was something we could both enjoy. It was a way for my body and I to feel beautiful without having emotionally fraught conditions like “Will that skirt actually do up?” attached to it.
When I thought about it, I realised I have a history of doing something drastic to myself when I feel out of control. I got my ears pierced when I was 12, 20 minutes before a piano audition I was convinced I was going to fail (I was sadly right about that). I got my tattoo 20 hours after the brakes failed on my car and my trip to travel around the world crumpled just as easily as the bumper of the car in front of me – and, actually, the car in front of that. A few weeks ago, when I was not coping with life very well, I poured two boxes of dye over my head and went from the redhead I’d been for the past eight years to a brunette. And, each time afterwards, I’ve looked at the change in the mirror, met my unafraid, steely gaze and smiled.
When I impulsively change something about my body, it’s a tiny “Fuck you” to a universe that makes me feel like I have no say in my own life. If I can only work within the narrow parameters the world will allow me, then I’m going to push those parameters to the very limit. Every piercing, every hair dye, every new lipstick or bold item of clothing that I know no one else will like is a tiny rebellion, but a hundred tiny rebellions can build up to something big. The world may be able to halt my dreams and stop me achieving my goals, but it cannot take away my ability to put a piece of steel through my ear and feel like a totally different person afterwards – and that, sometimes, is all I need to know.