Growing up, growing old, and getting pierced

When I was fifteen, I got my belly button pierced.

At the time, I really wanted to be a dancer. I was dancing four or five days a week, at an open studio where there were often professional dancers in my classes. When I looked around the room at the best dancers, the ones who I knew were doing commercial work, they all had one thing in common: they had navel piercings.

So I begged my parents to let me do it too. I whinged, and wheedled, and cajoled, and complained. I tried the door-in-the-face technique, saying that I wanted to get a tattoo, so that a mere navel piercing would seem reasonable by comparison.

Eventually, some time around October, they yielded (it had taken three full years of begging for us to finally get a dog, so evidently my game had improved). My mom and I researched reputable piercing establishments in Sydney, made an appointment, and went off to the piercing and tattoo parlour for a bit of parentally supervised (and subsidized) rebellion.

The woman who was going to be doing the piercing had me lie down back in a chair and lift up my shirt. She cleaned the area around my navel, and then explained how the piercing was done: she would squeeze the flesh just above my belly button with a pair of calipers, and drive what, to me, looked like a metal kebab skewer, through it. Then she’d slip the bar with the little white stone through it.

I remember cringing a little as she described the process. I remember my mom cringing a lot. I knew it was going to hurt, and honestly, as the woman described it, it sounded pretty gross. But I have a high pain threshold, always have, and I knew from getting my ears pierced a few years earlier that the pain would be localized and it wouldn’t last long.

As the calipers came out, and were squeezed around the skin, though, I started having second thoughts about whether or not this was really a good idea. When I saw my mom cover her eyes and turn away, I started having third and fourth thoughts. Did I really want to do this?

But I had lobbied so hard! I had been so insistent! I couldn’t give in now, and admit that I had been wrong and my parents had been right. Plus, this was so rebellious! This was taking me one step closer to what I wanted to be!

So I stayed put, and in went the metal kebab skewer. That night, I went to dance class, and every time the little piercing brushed against the inside of my leotard, it hurt. Bending at the waist to tighten my jazz shoes hurt, too. But soon the pain subsided, and from time to time, during class, my shirt would splash up and reveal a little sparkle, and I would smile.

Now, nine years later, I still have the piercing. But I’ve been looking at it in the mirror lately (yes, I have literally been navel-gazing) and wondering if it isn’t time to think about taking it out and letting the hole heal over. I don’t want to be a dancer anymore. And even if I did, a navel piercing wouldn’t take me any closer to or further from that goal. And at a certain age – probably not twenty-four, but some time soon – the piercing is going to stop feeling age-appropriate.

The more I think about it, though, the more the piercing feels like something I want to hang on to, because it feels like a symbol of my relationship with my mother. In the most basic sense, of course, my navel is a remnant of my very first ties to my mother. My belly button is a reminder of where I come from, of how I got here, nourished by Diet Coke and ox heart tomatoes and whatever else my mother ate while she was pregnant with me.

But the piercing feels like a symbol, too. I thought I really wanted something, and I convinced my mother to help me do it, and we both had doubts about it, and I forged ahead and did it anyway. And it hurt, and then it was fine. In a controlled environment, with both her support and her squeamishness, I rebelled. I made a choice about my own body and my own future. It wasn’t the choice she would have made for me, but it was what I wanted.

That’s what growing up is. That’s what it’s meant to me.

The more I think about it, the more appropriate it seems that my navel should be the site of that kind of a symbol. That day, my relationship with my mother changed. We cut the metaphorical cord a little. Or maybe we just changed the cord tension.

Now, we live on opposite sides of the world, and we don’t see each other every day (the upside of this, for her, is that she doesn’t have to see my pierced navel every day). The tension in the cord is different now than it was when I was fifteen, necessarily, and it’s going to keep changing as I keep growing up and as she grows older. And one of these days, I’m going to have to take the bar out of my belly button.

But I think I’ll keep the piercing for now. It’s my little physical reminder of where I’m going, sitting just above my little physical reminder of where I came from. And of course, it’s my little physical reminder of the wonderful woman who made both those things possible.

I love you, Mom. Happy Mothers’ Day.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • fyoumudflaps

    Cute