Monday, January 30, 2006

Parental Approval - And Piercings

The biggest fights I've ever had with my parents have been over my appearance. There was one particular fight in high school that I remember vividly. I had received a large bag of hand-me-downs from my mother's friend's kids in New York. In the bag was a long, green, Indian cotton skirt. That night, I planned my outfit for the next day around that skirt and a pair of white long underwear. This was in '85 or '86, when it was cool to wear long underwear so that it was visible under skirts and jeans (in the case of the latter, the underwear would show through numerous holes and tears). Within a year or two, this fashion caught on with the masses in the form of leggings, but long underwear was more hardcore.

I walked down the stairs in my outfit the next morning, and my father hit the roof. I was caught completely off-guard. The gist of his complaint was that 1) underwear of any sort that was visible was "vulgar," and 2) what I wore ultimately reflected on him since I was his daughter. In essence, then, in my teenage mind, I was being told that my body was not my own; it was up to my parents to make decisions about what I wore and how I appeared. Now, most of us probably would agree that parents do have some responsibility for ensuring that their kids meet basic standards of decency. But you have to understand that I was not wearing a Madonna-style bra and bustier with fishnets. We're talking LONG UNDERWEAR. And a mid-calf-length skirt. Certainly not provocative in the least - think "homeless-chic."

But my father was caught off-guard, as well, as I did not go down without a fight. I was furious at the thought that he had - or at least, believed he had - the ability to dictate my dress, and even more angry at the idea that I was being policed because of how he imagined my dress would impact on him (i.e., "what will the neighbors think?"). Dad never imagined that I would react with such rage and tears, and he has said in later years that if he'd known how upset I would get - how much it all mattered to me - he never would have made such a big deal out of it.

A second blow-up occurred when, shortly before senior pictures were taken, I decided to cut my hair. I'm not going to argue that what I did was my best look - I basically achieved the effect of crossing a Mohawk with a mullet, and in my case, there was a little French poodle, as well - but I liked it. My parents, however, were convinced that I had done this specifically to sabotage my school picture the following week (I didn't - I hadn't even realized at the time that the pictures were coming up), and their response (after yelling) was to refuse to order the picture. (I'm not sure I even showed up for pictures, since they had made clear that we wouldn't be purchasing any. It never occurred to me to buy one for myself, which is too bad - I'd kind of like to have it today). That fight was so bad that I left home the next morning promising them that I would not return, and indeed, I was trying to find a place to stay before my mother finally held out an olive branch.

I was in college before I got my ear pierced (just the left one). My father was clearly disappointed in me for, as he said, "mutilating" my body. He also didn't appreciate my expression of individuality in having just the one pierced (this was before it was common to see just one earring on a person, or a different number of holes in each ear). A few years later, when I got the other one pierced, he had the same response, until my mother and I pointed out to him that I was actually conforming to societal standards by having the second ear done.

You may have guessed by now that my parents are very concerned with appearances. On top of this, my father cannot stand any type of permanent modification such as piercing or tattooing (I shudder to think what he'd say about serious forms of modification such as tongue-splitting). I think, of the two, tattoos are the worst in his mind, and just mentioning that someone has a cool tattoo will prompt him to give a lecture to anyone within earshot. On this, my mother concurs, although she is usually the one who is likely to come around and even compliment the new look at some later date.

So, I'm 37, and I want a tattoo and a facial piercing, and I'm kind of afraid to get either. I still cringe at the thought of the "I'm very disappointed in you" lecture that I know I would get, a talking to that still, to this day, has the ability to make me feel ashamed all the way to the soles of my feet, even if I've done nothing wrong. I am saved only by my own indecision, because for the last 10 years, I have been unable to make up my mind as to what image or words I want permanently on my body - or where exactly a tattoo or facial piercing should go.

But, I'll tell you a secret. Yesterday afternoon, on a whim, I ducked into the Piercing Pagoda and added two piercings to my right ear. Vanilla as these piercings are, I have to admit to feeling pretty radical! I like to think of the event as one more step toward being able to shrug off parental disapproval. As I sat in the chair waiting for the young woman to pull the trigger, I looked down at my kid playing happily on the floor. To him, it was perfectly natural that Mommy would get her ear pierced. He didn't care which hole went where or what went in it, and I was even tempted for a brief second to ask him if he wanted his own piercing. He's a kid who knows his own mind, and we have disagreements often over who gets to decide what we're going to do and in what time frame. For the moment, though, I can draw a deep breath, hopeful that at least he and I won't fight over his hair or his clothes.

And if we do, I hope that he will be able to hear my concerns. And then make up his own mind.


blacksweatpants said...

some parents disapprove of one's garb; others lose hope altogether. at least you didn't have to promise your mother that you'd wear a dress at your own wedding.

plain(s)feminist said...

Well...I *did* wear white in order to preserve family harmony...