At our childbirth prep class on Sunday I bravely asked the visiting pediatrician the question my husband wanted answered, but was too shy to articulate: When is it appropriate to pierce the baby’s ears?
We had already covered how soon a baby can fly in an airplane, and spent 10 minutes on the pros and cons of circumcision, so it seemed like the right time to ask. Besides, I suspected asking would be doing my fellow moms-to-be a mitzvah. I was the only non-Latina mom in the room, and I had a hunch that some of the other ladies were banking on the fact that their infant daughters’ ears would be pierced as a matter of course before they left the hospital.
The pediatrician smiled, “Great question; you can do it any time after the baby has had her two month vaccines. Generally, we tell people to wait until the third month and call our office to schedule a ‘beauty visit’.”
Murmurs of shock rose up around the room. “In my country, they do it in the hospital on the second day,” said the Venezuelan woman in front of me.
“We already have her first earrings,” said the dad behind me. “I guess we can take them out of the hospital bag.”
My husband had also assumed that Amalía’s ears would be pierced in the hospital, as is common in Nicaragua. “If you wait until later, she’ll be afraid it will hurt,” my mother-in-law explained when I said that I didn’t think that happened in hospitals here.
Having researched the topic online, I’ve also read that some people feel it’s better to pierce the baby’s ears before she can pull out her earrings. And then, others argue, without earrings, “How will people know it’s a girl?” (I’m not so worried at this point about people knowing whether or not my baby’s a girl, but I know this issue troubled my mother; a platinum blonde as a kid, I didn’t have visible hair until about the age of two, and my mom was reduced to scotch taping bows to my bald head. Until I was old enough to pull them off, I guess.)
“I always joke that half the time, I’m a beautician,” the pediatrician continued once the rumble of shock died down. “I resisted it for 10 years, but the truth is, in Miami, everyone wants their baby girls’ ears pierced.”
A glance around the room at the perplexed mothers-to-be confirmed she was 100% right. Latina babies have pierced ears.
As a former beauty editor, the whole incident got me thinking about cultural norms of beauty. I love me some earrings, and I’m willing to get Amalía’s ears pierced once her doctor says it’s OK, but I feel a little guilty making this choice for her instead of letting her grow up and make it herself. On the other hand, we’re making dozens of choices for Amalía every day, from the types of diapers we plan on using to where she’ll sleep to her very name. (Plus, older kids don’t always make the smartest choices–I know plenty of 36 year olds who regret the tattoos they were so proud to get at 18.)
Since Amalía is, in part, Latina, (to be specific, she’s Greekaraguan), I figure earrings are as much her birthright as the filakto, the protective amulet I plan to pin to her little outfits once she’s born. A number of mothering blogs have taken up the discussion of ear piercing, with some women falling on the side of rejecting the girly habit as antiquated and others claiming it as a cultural birthright. A Cuban blogger waxes nostalgic about violet baby perfume. (Part of me loves that idea and part of me wonders what kind of dynamic I’m setting up if baby wears earrings and perfume every day and mama only manages to get it together to do so a few times a week.)
And then there’s the practice, among some Indian cultural groups, of lining a baby’s eyes with kohl, both to protect them from the glare of the sun, and to save them from buri nazar, the evil eye. In my travel memoir, North of Ithaka, I describe a middle-aged Greek woman I’d met who showed me a small scar on her temple where her parents had burned her with a coal after she was born, to make her imperfect and deflect the Evil Eye. We won’t be doing that to Amalía.
At least the earrings, I reason, will belong to Amalía; she can grow up and wear them or sell them on Ebay if she wants. It’s a bit like the 16 adornments Hindu brides are meant to wear…these don’t constitute dowry; they belong to the woman herself. If she chooses to walk off into the sunset one day wearing all of them, then she takes her portable bank account with her in her ears, nose, etc.
Of course, to me, there’s also a little something subversive about piercing my baby girl’s ears. I wasn’t allowed to get my ears pierced until I was 10, and the event took place at the Rob Roy hair salon (a salon? Please! Why wasn’t there a doctor in the house for my beauty visit?). The worst part is, get this: My seven and a half year old sister got her earrings pierced the VERY SAME DAY. Sure, I probably agreed to the joint piercing, feigning maturity, but the memory still burns. (When I discussed Amalía’s potential ear piercing with Marina, my sister, a month ago, I mentioned this, and she said, “I knew you still had to be mad about that.” Of course; I know injustice when I see it.)
Still, it could be worse. My maternal grandmother, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, was raised to believe that only loose women got their ears pierced. She spent much of her life searching for clip-on earrings that didn’t hurt.
And what of Joanie, my own mother, who perpetrated the unfair ear piercing of my sister and myself? I can’t judge her too harshly; she too is a victim of cultural norms of beauty. She waited until her mid-40s to have her ears pierced. By then, her own mother had passed away and would never know what her daughter had done in the line of beauty.