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or possibly a fourth earring?

I thought after my post last week that took on the fairly weighty question of identity, I’d turn to something comparatively lighter this week and talk about body modification. Why? Well, it’s actually something about which my personal feelings have changed substantially over time … in that as a child and young teenager I was pretty categorically opposed to any bodily alteration, and today I find myself trying to decide where exactly my second tattoo should go, and whether or not a nose or nipple piercing is a wise investment.

Mostly, my youthful opposition to such things was a pretty simple matter: I was not a fan of pain. I was not anti-girly things as a child (though I insisted they went hand-in-hand with traditionally unfeminine things; more on that later). I was in love with my grandmother’s clip-on earring collection, for instance. But pierced ears sounded to me like the quintessential example of a bad time. Voluntarily allow someone to punch holes in your ears with a staple gun type thingy? I think not.

But the summer I was twelve this friend of mine visited from Canada, a fellow homeschooler from whom I learned a lot of worldly things. Such as what exactly a hickey was, and why it would be uncool to ask your mother what it was, or allow her to see that you’d received one from your boyfriend with the purple hair. Actually, the hickey-and-hair incident wouldn’t happen until we were a year or two older. The summer of 1994 we were thirteen years old and still spending our lazy afternoons reading through the vast canon of L. M. Montgomery and arguing over which of the young men in the cast of Swing Kids made our hearts flutter most fervently (I had a soft spot for Arvid myself). The point, though, is that my friend was, to my mind, a more worldly adolescent. While I was not entirely sure I wanted to be more worldly myself, I also knew I wished to impress upon her the fact I was not un-worldly.

Which is where pierced ears come in, insofar as she convinced me that to grow any older in our sophisticated day and age without pierced ears was simply not to be tolerated. And therefore, I screwed up my courage and we trouped down to a local jewelry shop to have the deed done. (The shop is still there on 8th street and still pierces ears, I saw the sign in the window when I was back in Holland last May). I wave brave, and it hurt less than I anticipated. Though I didn’t repeat the process until the summer of 2009 when, almost completely on a whim, Hanna and I went into a Claire’s in Downtown Crossing here in Boston and added to the collection (two more holes in my left ear, one additional one in the right). I can’t say I do a lot with them, since I can’t be bothered to change out the rings, but I do take pleasure in the fact that I’m a professional librarian with five ear piercings.

there will be a no. 2
I’m just not sure where, what or when

And now a tattoo. I’ll be upfront and say I harbored, for way too long, social prejudice against tattoos as something tacky and faintly unhygienic and frighteningly permanent. In my early twenties a friend of a friend got an ankle tattoo for her sixtieth birthday and I thought that maybe I could picture something like that … far into the future … when I had a better sense of who I was, and what I might want to say with ink worked into the very fabric of my skin. Maybe.

But in my mid-to-late thirties, my opposition started to melt. In part due to exposure to some exceptionally gorgeous ink on friends and acquaintances. I won’t lie: beautiful tats are much more visible here in Boston than they were in West Michigan. I see them on co-workers, professional colleagues, the coffee shop baristas, commuters on the T. When you see that much beautiful art around you, it’s hard not to start thinking, “If I ever … then I might …”.

I figured completing graduate school was as good a place as any to start. You can read all about why, what and how here.

Maybe I grew into myself faster than I used to imagine I would. Or perhaps I’m more comfortable with the notion that we are continually changing but that it’s okay if our bodies carry the scars of our previous selves: joyful and visible ones as well as painful and/or invisible ones. Chosen as well as involuntarily acquired. Human-created rather than physiologically made.

I’m still wary of body modification, in part because I’m just not that into pain and also because I try to be as accepting as I can be of my body as it is, rather than attempting through intervention to make it conform to my own (or to societal) expectations of how a body should be.

But ink, particularly, is something I’ve grown to believe can serve to celebrate the body as it is. After all, it draws attention to one’s physical presence, and insofar as it is a self-chosen form of visual symbolism communicates aspects of ourselves that go far beyond what we have been trained to assess when we visually assess our fellow human beings on the street. Tattoos demand that we be understood not just as bodies of a certain shape, skin color, weight. They also demand that we be understood as bodies. As physical presences that have been purposefully decorated in ways that are meaningful to the individual body in question. Tattoos are a way of tying our metaphysical, meaning-making selves to our corporeal, physical, taking-up-space selves. Much of their power, I would argue, comes from the fact that they are an art form that bridges that boundary between metaphysical and material being-in-the-world, and grounds that bridge-building in individual human flesh.

Not sure where I’ll be inking (or piercing) myself next, but you’ll likely hear about it on this blog. So stay tuned!