Earlier this week I had to get a surgical procedure done (more on that later, I promise), and the nurse prepping me for it asked that I take my piercings out. I declined at first, insisting that I didn’t know how to take them out–which wasn’t exactly true. The truth is, I could take them out, but I didn’t know how to put them back in. I’d taken my piercings, including my nose ring, out a few months before for a different surgical procedure (again, I will write more about this later!), and couldn’t put them in for about four weeks afterward.1 After the nurse explained that in certain emergency situations, the life-saving maneuvers the doctor would have to perform would in fact burn my face if I left the piercings in, I agreed to take them out.
It’s been a few days and I’ve gotten most of my piercings back in, except for my septum piercing.2 And though I’ve (mostly) cooled off from the initial removal, I’m still disappointed every time I look in the mirror and see it’s not there.
My negative reaction to that lack goes beyond realizing what a pain in the ass it will be to put the ring back in.3 I mean, as the nurse muttered to one of her colleagues, all I have to do is stop in a piercing shop and ask someone to put it back in–no big deal.
No, what really upsets me is that from now until I get back into a piercing shop, the face I’ll display is not the face I want to show. To me, anything I put on my body–from piercings to haircuts to makeup to clothing–is a form of self-expression. Rather than seeing these things as a way to cover myself up, I see them as a way to reveal myself–the self I imagine myself to be. Adding something new to my outer shell, as it were, carves out space for my inner self to fill. It’s like carving more detail into a marble slab to make it look more like what you envision(or something less pretentious). For instance, wearing heels, blue eyeliner, and red lipstick might feel more like my “authentic self” on a given day than wearing something simple and no makeup.4 And I’ve spent years setting the money and time aside to add piercings to my ears and my face that have made me feel more like myself every day. So you can imagine the sense of loss I felt at having to remove them.
And yet, even with this mindset, losing the piercings for a week or two can’t be that upsetting. After all, I still know who I am inside, regardless of what I look like. It’s not like I have to convince myself of who I am, so why do I try so hard to display it outwardly?
I try so hard because, as much as I’d love for this not to be true, or for this truth to hold less bearing, my outward appearance is performative. It’s as much for others as it is for myself. In general, anyone who interacts with me–is introduced with me, hangs out with me, passes me on the street, interviews me for a job, dates me–will look at me, and make judgments based on what they see. That’s not always a terrible thing–the fact that my appearance can say so much about me is part of what gives me so much joy in curating my appearance. But our (admittedly natural, and helpful for navigating a complex world) tendency to make judgments based on appearance is also what makes misjudgments, or a discrepancy in appearance that will lead to misjudgment, so upsetting. I like being a person who has multiple nose rings and wears dark lipstick, and I want people to know it! If people see me without those things, it feels like they’re seeing (and judging) an inaccurate version of me.
Now, since I felt so strongly that a Rachel without her septum ring was the wrong Rachel, I started wondering–what would be the right Rachel? One with her piercings in place, of course, but what else? What do I want my appearance to show about me? What part(s) of my inner self5 do I want on public display?
Something that’s become an increasingly important part of my identity is my sexuality. It’s been less than a year since I’ve thought of myself as bi (and less than that since I’ve been out), and I’m still trying to figure out how to outwardly express that. I’d never had to think about what sexuality it looked like I had, since my sexuality didn’t differ from the norm–as defined by society–that an observer would assume automatically. Basically, I didn’t need to do anything to make anyone think I was straight–they were already thinking it. Right now, I’m thought of as straight unless I specify otherwise, and a lot of that assumption is based in my appearance. I don’t do anything with my appearance that is so outside of societal norms to force anyone to take a second guess.
For a while I’ve wondered what the apparel equivalent of coming out might be. Do I need to wear more menswear? Baseball hats? Flannels? Should I be putting on more unusually colored eye shadow, or less? Do my piercings make me look more or less queer? At what point does something unusual cross over from trendy or quirky into identity-signaling?6 If I find my sexuality important to me, and want other people to know what it is, how do I signal it?
Or should I not try to signal it at all? One could argue anything I do to my appearance to leave “clues” to my sexuality7 would be buying into and perpetuating stereotypes of bi people. I should focus on displaying that part of my identity through word and action, and let everyone else do the work of associating my particular appearance with bisexuality.
While on principle I think the second option is correct–ideally I should express myself in whatever way is the most comfortable for me, and everyone else should add my appearance to an ongoing list of examples of what a white, queer, middle class American woman looks like–I still find the first option to be a tempting shortcut. Our first impressions of other people are so often inaccurate; it would be a blessing to show people the right version of yourself before you even introduce yourself.
I suppose the reality of the situation is somewhere in between those extremes: We curate ourselves to reflect our identities, using clues based in our own tastes as well as archetypes–and people as often as not make quick judgments so off base it seems like a waste of time to even try. Bearing that in mind, perhaps it can be just as enjoyable to help others dig through the layers of my outward appearance and understand the self within as it is to add them on.
1 And believe me, I tried to put my nose ring back in just about every day of those four weeks. Finally, after a half an hour of swearing, crying, and mangling the ring with pliers, I got it back in–and vowed to never remove it again.
2 Again, not for lack of trying. I did actually get the ring in my nose, but seeing as it was the same ring from the aforementioned mangling a couple months ago, the additional mangling required to get it in my nose this time left it in a state that was simply unacceptable to be seen prominently displayed in the middle of my face. I took it back out.
3 Not to mention the inconvenience of having to spend money on a new, non-mangled ring (which is admittedly my fault for doing so much mangling in the first place).
4 And, of course, on other days, the sneakers and no makeup look may resemble how I’m feeling more accurately than the more done-up look.
5 Which, admittedly, is not, never was, and never will be a constant thing–so read “inner self” as “self perception of my personality and/or soul as of this current, ever-changing moment,” or something to that effect.
6I realize this might not be the right term (or even a term), but I hope its intended meaning is clear: something seen as a purposeful symbol of one’s status.
7Meaning anything I do with the intention of displaying my queerness in general, and especially anything I do to display it that I wouldn’t do otherwise.