CW: bodies, trauma, rape, rape culture, body modification, consent, coercion, violence, assault, police mention, racism, transmisogyny, sexism, ableism, healing
I’ve always loved body modification- tattoos, piercings, weird hair. I have my ear lobes stretched, and have for a long time. I have 17 tattoos, and have had pink, purple, blue, white, and red hair. At various points in my life, I’ve pierced my eyebrow, labret, lip, nostril, ears x like a million, bellybutton, and nipples. I also have my septum pierced. I think part of it is that I like to shock people (it weeds out those who are judgmental based on appearance really easily), I like to set myself apart from the preps (as any Good Punk does), and I simply appreciate the aesthetic. As a sexual assault survivor and a person in recovery from an eating disorder, I have also found found an immense amount of healing through the choice to modify my body in a way that suits my aesthetic in a way that is permanent (tattoos), or semi-permanent (piercings and hair). I get the choice. I get to consent. As an artist, I get to treat my body as a canvas. My body tells my stories in a way that I can always hold with me. I can see them, and I know they are real, even when I’m not sure what else is. I like the way I look because I love my body modifications. Modifying my body has been a hugely liberating, empowering, and healing process for me.
I grew up in a Suburb of Toronto that has since become a Big City. Then, I lived in a mid-size University Town full of hippies, anarchists, and students. For a period of time I also spent a lot of time in the Toronto Punk Scene. In all of those places, I found my people. I had a community of people who, like me, considered their bodies art forms that told their stories. To them, the ways I choose to modify my body weren’t overly shocking. In fact, my modifications really weren’t particularly radical at all. After I finished my undergrad, I moved to the Small Town where my partner had grown up. in this Small Town, there is a vibrant music, theatre, and art community, and on top of that, it seemed like the ideal place where we could slowly build our careers and raise our one-day, hypothetical family.
In spite of the vibrant arts community and the small, but mighty radical community (which looks a lot different than the radical communities of the University Town and Toronto Punk Scene), I began to run into the problem my preppy parents had always warned me about: the vast majority of people in this Small Town took one look at me and identified me as not only a New Girl, but a Freak. In the 3 years I’ve lived here, I have grown to be a part of this community, and I have a lot of love for it. But I have also experienced violence based on the way I’ve chosen to modify my body.
Now, I should note here that I chose to modify my body, and I chose to settle in a Small Town. There are many demographics of people who experience violence based on things that are not choice, but are visible and significant parts of who they are. As a white woman, I do not experience the violence that people of colour face in my community, and systemically. When my Small Town’s police association chose to launch a “Blue Lives Matter” campaign to make money to benefit the police, I had the privilege to make noise about how inappropriate that was without the fear of being harassed or attacked. As someone who is identified as cis by others, I do not experience the violence that visibly and openly transgender people face in my community. I can use a public restroom without people following me in and inquiring about my genitals. As a person who, more often than not, passes as able-bodied (even though I’m not), I do not experience the same types of violence as people in the community who are visibly disabled and/or who use visible mobility aids. I am able to shop in the stores downtown. The level that these acts of violence exist on are systemic, and they thrive in my Small Town. The violence that I am talking about regarding my body modifications does not diminish the fact that there are people in my community who experience violence on levels that I am privileged enough to never have to experience.
That being said, I am a disabled, mad, modified femme who has experienced violence that is rooted in these subject positions and the power structures they exist in in the context of my life and the social world around me. I could write a million essays on gender-based violence and ableism and madness (okay, I already have and will continue to), but this essay isn’t about those things directly as much as it is about the violence I’ve experienced because I have chosen to modify my body. Even more specifically, this essay is about my septum piercing being a site of violence. My horseshoe-shaped, silver, 16 gauge septum ring.
Sometimes these acts of violence are subtle. Sometimes they’re off-handed comments about how it looks weird, or about how other people don’t like it. I know it may seem like a stretch to consider those things violent, but when one thing about you is a constant source of harassment, that begins to feel a lot like emotional abuse. And that shit feels violent.
It felt violent when a manager told me I could have the job if I took out my septum ring because it made me look like a freak.
It felt violent when another manager brought up that, although she liked my look, some clients may not feel comfortable receiving counselling from me because of my septum ring, and that this has been an issue in the past.
It felt violent when people came into bars I used to work in and told me I’d be so pretty without my septum ring and that I should take it out.
It felt violent when family members told me the same thing.
It felt violent when a youth I was working with told me I was stupid for having a septum piercing.
I could go on for a while, but I won’t bore you. I will share the most explicitly violent thing that happened regarding my septum piercing though:
I was working with a youth who loved candy. We went into the dollar store to buy some, and I lead him to the candy aisle. We were intercepted by a middle-aged woman who reached out, grabbed my septum ring, and held on to it tightly while telling my client that this was the best way to “keep my under control”. Shocked, I reached up, held onto the woman’s wrist, and gentle peeled her fingers off of my face. She continued ranting about how I needed to be controlled with a piercing like that, and then reached up and grabbed it again. I blocked her with my own arm, turned my back to her, and made space for my client to pass by me. He was scared and shocked and had a lot of questions I didn’t know how to answer, like, “why did she do that to you?”.
The escalation of violence regarding my septum ring lead me to take it out (that, and because I felt as though my manager had a point that that particular form of body modification may isolate me from clients, which is the last thing I want, wrong or not). I no longer felt safe wearing my septum ring in public. I felt exposed, vulnerable. I like the way I look with it in, so I continued to wear it at home, but took it out when I was in public. After a few months without it, I put it back in today. I’ll still take it out for work, but on my days off, I want to try it out again.
The fact that anyone feels as though it’s appropriate to police what anyone does with their body or their expression of self feels really fucked up to me. It feels like a violation. The fixation on the way other people look fosters such a toxic culture of alienation and unattainable perfection. It took me a long time to learn that perfect isn’t a thing, and that my stories and how I choose to tell them (including my obsession with embodying them) are a hell of a lot more authentic that meeting a beauty standard set out by anyone but myself. But my believing that didn’t stop that act of violence from happening to me.
I mean, let’s call it what it is. Rape culture. Rape culture is all about coercing people into believing that they’re living authentically and that their identities were formed through consensual experiences. Rape culture it about deciding what is best for other people, touching people without their consent, maintaining control, and stripping control away from people who may question the authority of hegemonic society. Rape culture is why a middle-aged woman felt it was reasonable to grab something that was attached to my face and tell my male client that violating my personal space, body, and choices was the Right Thing to Do.
And I’ve gotta tell you, it sure did feel similar to being raped. I mean, obviously not in such an intense way, but my brain did the trauma thing. I remember freezing and thinking, “she is holding something that is attached to my face and she’s won’t let go” and then snapping into flight mode the same way I remember freezing and thinking, “he is inside of me, and he won’t listen to me saying no” and then snapping into flight mode.
I wish I could say that this essay is a call to action. A call to respect other peoples’ choices regarding how they express themselves, physically or otherwise. A call to get consent before touching people. A call to respect the boundaries of survivors regarding their own healing (and to give people the benefit of the doubt if they choose not disclose their survivor status to you). But it’s not. It’s just one of my stories.