Three weeks ago my daughter got her ears pierced. I have been processing that fact for three long weeks and I am nowhere near finished. I know some of my hardened friends out there will say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just getting her ears pierced!” But for me, it is a seminal moment in my life as a parent because of what it represents to me about my daughter’s changing identity. Since she was about 5 years old, my daughter did not want to appear “girlie.” She eschewed the color pink and only wanted to wear clothing that was sporty. She spent the vast majority of her time in a variety of soccer jerseys and Adidas tracksuit pants. She shunned dresses and tights and begrudgingly only put them on for synagogue and important family occasions. She kept her hair in a low ponytail with a middle part, generally acknowledged to be the most unflattering of all hairstyles, ever.
In the beginning, I was so conflicted with her approach to clothing. On the one hand, shouldn’t I be proud that my daughter internalized my constant messaging about not conforming to society’s narrow expectations of how a girl should dress and what she should look like? Shouldn’t I be patting myself on the back that I had single-handedly stemmed the tide of social pressure for my daughter to look and act a specific way? But on the other hand, I recognized the impact of my own socialization about how girls should look and felt disappointed that her unflattering soccer jerseys and 1970’s ponytail did nothing to highlight my daughter’s beauty. I wanted to show off to the world, the world I was so busy rejecting for objectifying women and girls, that my daughter did indeed meet all of their narrow standards of attractiveness. I knew all this about myself, I saw my hypocrisy and I felt deeply ashamed, but I couldn’t help feeling this way. The only thing I can sheepishly say on my behalf is that I kept my mouth shut around my daughter.
However, over the past five years I not only grew accustomed to having a daughter who shunned the expectations for how, as a girl, she should dress, I became proud of her strength to withstand the pressure to conform. She was the living embodiment of what I have only aspired to since my years at Wellesley. I was so grateful to be raising a person who says in her dress and her actions – I don’t care what you think. I’m going to do this my own way.
Then one day recently, we were walking down our block, stomping through yellow and red leaves on our way to the grocery store, and she uttered the telltale words: “I’m ready to get my ears pierced.” To her credit, it wasn’t a total shock. We had discussed that there was really only one window of time when her soccer schedule allowed for her to take the required six weeks to let her ears heal. But it was always a hypothetical conversation and I honestly never thought she’d actually do it. When she informed me of her decision, a wave of sadness came crashing over me. I realized that I didn’t want her to get her ears pierced because I wanted her to continue to push back on society’s expectations to look and act a certain way. She was actually succeeding in a way to which I could only aspire by defining for herself what is cool and what is beautiful, whereas I am still profoundly influenced by outside expectations of beauty. What did it mean that she was taking this small yet somehow monumental step in doing what other girls do? Did it mean she was going to start conforming in other ways too? Most alarming in my mind, did getting her ears pierced signal a step down the slippery slope toward looking at herself and find herself lacking in the many ways that I and all of the women I know do?
These were the thoughts ricocheting around my mind as I watched the lovely woman at Claire’s pierce my daughter’s ears with the little white plastic “gun.” These were the concerns that flooded my brain as we subsequently celebrated her milestone that afternoon in what I deem a profoundly womanly way, by buying new books, popping in and out of clothing stores and trawling the aisles of the pharmacy for cotton balls and shampoos. I kept stopping to look at my daughter, her hair piled in a stylishly high bun to keep it away from her freshly pierced ears, her US Soccer beanie hat shoved in her coat pocket to prevent any accidental brushes with her sensitive earlobes and her new cubic zirconia studs sparkling in the weak winter sunlight. She looked like the beautiful epitome of the typical ten year old American girl in 2018 and God help me, my heart broke a little.
In my conflicted sadness I worked up the courage to ask her the question I’d been dying to broach since she made the decision to take the plunge: “Why did you finally decide to get your ears pierced?” And her answer restored, in one foul swoop, my pride in her singularity and faith that my daughter would continue to chart her own course, ears pierced and all. “Last year everyone was telling me to get my ears pierced and I didn’t want to do it, because it was what THEY wanted me to do. This year everyone has left me alone about it and I realized that I really wanted to do it, but I wanted to do it on MY terms.”