It’s been a week and as it turns out, I do have to remove the top double helix piercings—the two crescent moons.
“Do I really have to take out the ring?” I asked sadly.
“I don’t want to sound dramatic,” said the piercer. “But it just doesn’t look healthy.” This was a gentle way of saying no, you cannot keep it right now. “Your other ones seem fine though,” she added, thoughtfully examining them.
“Yeah, it’s just that one that I snagged with a hairbrush,” I muttered bitterly.
The site looked better than a lot of complications I’d seen on other people who eventually recovered, but nonetheless I slipped onto the chair to allow her to remove the crescent moon stud anyway, knowing I could not tolerate picking clumps of dried blood out of my hair anymore.
“I’ve removed both,” the piercer informed me as she cleaned. “The uppermost and the one directly underneath it.”
I had suspected she would, but my heart still broke for the second time. “Is that really necessary?”
It was. Even though the uppermost piercing was the only problematic one out of all four in the cartilage, the perfectly healthy helix piercing directly below it was close enough that it had grown upset with how weepy and bleed-y the piercing above was. Blood from the damaged piercing had been seeping into the healthy one directly below, interfereing with its own progress no doubt.
Great, I thought, every opening in my body is too empathetic to function.
If I’d known early enough to have acted more quickly, I might have saved the second in time. Now the design was …off. I had at least, the lower double helix, two white gems. All of the piercing on that ear (aside from the lobe, which I had when I was 10) were suffering from both the damaged piercing and my harsh attempts to salvage it artificially rather than letting it close.
“When can I come have it repierced?”
“I’d say no sooner than six weeks, but I’d have to look at it then, to make sure it’s completely healed and we’re ready to retry.”
“I won’t snag it this time,” I promised quietly into universe.
I’m rather stubborn. But out of a gentle (if devastated) deference for my body I was aware, as I left the shop, that my ear was singing with relief. The hypergranulation I’d induced the fateful day I decided to brush my hair roughly enough to practically yank out the ring had created a discomfort I hadn’t registered until it was removed.
Dear reader—you’re going to either laugh or marvel at my foolishness—I only ever comb my hair because brushing coaxes the curls to frizz, but that day, that day I’d found a brush so pretty—an iridescent dark green brush that transformed into spills of teal and purple when tilted, like an oil slick—that I’d run it, transfixed, through my dark hair …forgetting my pierced helix.
What else could a mermaid have done?
I’m spending time with a very close friend tomorrow—incidentally, with Inas, who coauthored this article—and I am glad for this fortunate timing because all I need right now is to lounge around her apartment in a curvy midi-dress.
Almost two years ago, I (finally) visited a chiropractor. “Good news,” he said. “Your back pain isn’t spinal. It’s muscular. You’re 25; WHY are you so tense?”
“Average citizens are advised to save water when the enormous agricultural industry consumes 70% of the world’s freshwater and wastes it on excessive irrigation and crops unsuitable for the environment.”
“So have you considered exercise?”
He wanted to see me twice a week. I would not go, because my copay was $60, and I was not going to pay that twice a week. I saw him twice more and disappeared, and when his office called, three times to get me back on track, I said my schedule had shifted to unpredictability.
“Your waist is very curved,” he’d remarked.
“That’s why you have back pain.”
“For… having a curved waist?”
“I’m going to align your hips.”
I suppose if I wanted, I could sleep on the floor; that always fixed it for about 24 hours, but truthfully I did not want to eye the underside of my bed. There’s a universe down there. The chiropractor had assigned excersizes, some of which were incidentally yoga positions, but I did not dedicate time to them either, anymore than I dedicated time to glazing myself in body oil every night in response to my incredibly dry skin.
“Look how glossy my hair is even though it’s dry,” I said.
“Nahida!” She grabbed my shoulders. “Nahida are you under the impression that just because you’re pretty you don’t have to take care of yourself?!”
She sank her face into my dashboard.
“Do you know how much work it is to massage oil into your whole body?” I demanded.
“Get someone to do it for you. I’ll volunteer.”
I laughed at this.
This amazement toward my body and its failings (I am being overdramatic of course) was still all before snagging my helix on a hairbrush. Behold my pierced cartilage:
And the culprit:
This incident was highly unlikely because of how infrequently I brushed my hair. My mother has many an instance of chasing me around the house attempting to comb my hair. (“How is it somehow always still in place?” a classmate had once complained.) So I am extra angry about this. As a result of the snagging, the uppermost piercing isn’t healing properly, even though the remaining three are very healthy. Around the top cartilage piercing, I have granulation tissue–the new connective tissue that should form at the base of the wound–forming around the earring. It is very baby soft. And it needs to be shrunk back down to staying inside the wound where it belongs. (“Did I comb my piercing inside out?” I speculated in amazement.) If saline soaks and tea tree oil fail to accomplish the task, the earring–and I can feel my heart breaking in my mouth as I think of this–will need to be taken out.
It was just once, I thought helplessly. I only snagged it once. (It was pretty bad though, the way the bristles had moved into the piercing and dug with the motion; I was not at all surprised that they had sort of turned it inside out.) My body was usually so good at healing itself.
I’ve been thinking about appropriation–not just cultural appropriation, but of a variation of appropriation that is equally if not just a little more sinister: the appropriation of appearance. This is something that is bodily, involves policing the autonomy itself of women of color, and results in valuing the woman wearing the imitation more than the woman whose body inspired it.
There is, in other words, a kind of appropriation that is merged with white supremacist ideals of beauty, and how, in order to remain the standard, these ideals have relied heavily on disparaging physical features of people of color that are otherwise “objectively” attractive. For example, the first thing that comes to mind are caricatures of black women’s/men’s lips as drawn by racist white artists. Because these lips are stereotyped to be fuller, they’ve been exaggerated in political and cultural cartoons/”art” to ridicule the entire black race.
But fuller lips are more appealing. And as a feature, they are not just appealing on women; they’re equally as appealing on men. I would even be so brazen as to argue that people who are attracted to men tend to prefer full lips on men–if not for the aesthetic, for the sensation. It’s bizarre then that this was one of the features chosen to be mocked. To be a little more impudent, I would go so far as to allege that it’s jealousy.
There’s historical evidence for this being a petulant act of jealousy. The hair of women of color, which tends to be thicker, more voluminous & abundant, and has the ability to hold a variety of styles with less effort, is constantly under attack as “frizzy”, “unkempt,” and altogether “unprofessional.” Consequently women of color are compelled to change our hair, sometimes at devastating (financial and personal) costs. And because most salons charge extra (typically an extra $10) to the list of provided services for women with “more hair,” not measured only in length but thickness (read: mostly just women of color) we’re not just driven to appeal to white standards of beauty but simultaneously discouraged from “raising our statuses” with these additional costs. But as Cassandre explains, black women were banned in the 1800s from showing their hair in public–not because it was unsightly but because it was too attractive:
Apparently, women of color were wearing their hair in such fabulous ways, adding jewels and feathers to their high hairdos and walking around with such beauty and pride that it was obscuring their status. This was very threatening to the social stability (read: white population) of the area at the time. The law was meant to distinguish women of color from their white counterparts and to minimize their beauty.
While women of color are discouraged from wearing their hair without flattening, thinning, chemically treating, or otherwise travelling great lengths to force it to comply with the settled string-yness of white hair, white women meanwhile seek out all means possible to thicken their hair–because, of course, white people quietly know what is actually attractive, and a function of institutionalized racism is convincing women of color that they aren’t, while white women transform themselves to have these very features. The shelves of any store selling shampoo are lined with products promising to provide volume. It doesn’t stop at hair either, of course–the descendants of white artists who parodied the lips of black men and women in outrageously racist cartoons are the first clients for lip injections that imitate the very feature they publicly disparage.
And a woman (most likely a white one) might angrily and defensively claim that I’m stretching it by including this, but, I kid you not, a white woman once tackled me in a drug store because I had picked up the last jet black mascara.
She was blonde.
So were her eyelashes. I was 17 at the time and aghast at the fact that I had just been tackled. Why do blonde women insist that their eyelashes have to be full and voluminous and jet black? Stunned as she flew out of nowhere into my vision and pried the mascara from my hands, I cried, “That doesn’t even match your hair!” It was a cruel thing to say, I realize. But by the mercy of all that is heavenly, she just, like, physically assaulted me. For mascara.
It’s characteristic of both women and men of color to have fuller and longer eyelashes, but that’s something desirable, that isn’t as prominent as hair or lips, and is thus never attributed to race. There’s a lot about “the problems with Asian hair” or “the problems with Black hair” but never about “the problems with white eyelashes.” White people, you’ve got to stop tackling me at Rite Aid with your eyelash issues, seriously.
One of the (obvious) reasons it’s so irritating that white people will often reply with, “But light skinned women tan their skin all the time!” in response to black women bleaching their skin and using harmful lightness creams is that a white woman who has tanned her skin to be the same color as a woman of color’s natural skin will be valued more highly for her beauty–even though it’s only an imitation. I don’t mean to sound all, “But are they REAL?” about this, but it’s a clear and disturbing indication of how harmful cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to appearance, is when a white woman attempts to thicken her hair, tan her skin, inject her lips, and assault a woman of color for her eyelashes and still walk out considered more beautiful. This phenomenon has all of the symptoms of a kind of appropriation: when these features/customs are worn/practiced by a white person, it’s “stylish, worldly, and beautiful”; otherwise, it’s something that needs to be altered and suppressed at all costs.
I wrote this elsewhere but am posting it here for two reasons. Firstly, I want to link you to this article written by Chally stating that white people don’t have a monopoly on genetic variation and I want to talk about it. (Actually, I’m just going to grab this opportunity to link a few essentials Chally has written lately: read this one, and this one, and this one.) And secondly, last week a (white) woman informed me that she was wondering why some Latina women have such white (“I mean really, really pure white,” she emphasized) skin even when they were “mixed” and disclosed that she had decided to conduct research on the matter through which she had “discovered that there is a biological ingredient in a specific chili pepper pertinent to their diet that results in whiter skin—”
“Do you also wonder why white people have such light skin?” I interrupted rudely, forcing what I had attempted as a polite smile.
She looked startled and laughed nervously.
Enter Chally’s article. White people do not have a monopoly on genetic variation. As Chally writes, they’re depicted as blonde, green-eyed, tall, petite, brunette, stocky, brown-eyed, Roman-nosed, slim, tanned, raven-haired, violet-eyed, snub-nosed, pale, blue-eyed, red-headed… But everyone else? One generic look each. And if “other” races deviate from their assigned appearance, their features are measured on a scale of whiteness. I’ve occasionally been told I have a white woman’s mouth and chin, and it always disturbed me. These are my features, and if I identified with a race they would be the features of my race. White people also happen to have them. That doesn’t make them white. It’s not a deviation from my race.
What’s worse is that someone is denied that background if xie falls outside the idea of what a person of that race should look like. (As mentioned in Chally’s article—yes, there are red-haired, blue-eyed Kashmiri people! And yes, they are still Asian.) But that’s how you get the stereotype that all people of one ethnicity look the same and are interchangeable and easily confused with one another. The vast, expansive differences are simply not acknowledged. People train themselves not to see the differences, are taught to expect everyone to look the same, and so they comfortably never see the differences. They don’t have to recognize or confront them or leave the comfort of their prejudice.
And that’s exactly why they deny you are the ethnicity you insist you are when you disclose it to them if you don’t look like their idea of that ethnicity. (“No way! You must be mixed!”) And that’s why they get so uncomfortable when they can’t figure out what ethnicity you are when you don’t disclose it. They need a label so that they can sum up your expected characteristics in all other areas. They are used to categorizing people together like that and erasing individuality and personal identity by assigning essential physical racial attributes and reducing you to them. If you’re not white, and they can’t figure out “what” you are, they suddenly don’t know how to behave.
I’ve had people desperately guessing at my ethnicity when viewing photos of me. “Arab? Brazilian? Moroccan? Indian? Mexican?” and even trying white ethnicities, “Spanish? Greek? Italian?” even though I clearly don’t look white, because white people are given the most variety in attributes. “You still have their skintone!” (No. I have mine.) Most people are convinced I must be mixed. (I’m not.)
If you’re unfamiliar with this little routine (since it’s been a while since I’ve written a post like this) long story short(ened): the majority of Muslims believe that one cannot perform the ablution ritual before prayers with nail polish on her fingernails because the polish creates a barrier between her nails and the water, thus rendering the cleansing ritual incomplete. However, when a woman is menstruating, she is not required to pray, and so there is no need for her to refrain from wearing nail polish. Unfortunately (and unIslamically) menstruating women are culturally viewed as shameful and unclean, and so there is supposedly some kind of element of shame in “advertising” that we are menstruating by wearing nail polish.
Which of course compels me to wear nail polish when I’m menstruating, because LOL I can do it and cis men can’t. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’m a woman, even when it’s painful. (If you want the longer explanation of the attitudes in the Muslim community toward menstruating women, can read about them here.)
My nails this week are pastel, although I am usually not fond of wearing pastel colors. It’s a varnish called “lilacism” but it should really be called “lavenderism” because the undertone of the blue is lavender, not lilac. (Lavender has a blue base; lilac has a pink base.) It’s actually kind of grown on me; I find it sort of cute in a really grotesque way:
I’ve been thinking a lot about participation in what has been regarded as “feminine culture” and what that means—both in terms of the boundaries established by patriarchy to limit femininity, and in terms of the defense mechanisms emerged to survive those limits. While I’ve written about modesty quite recently, I’d also like to examine why we perform femininity the way we do, and why we comply with certain defining or limiting systems.
In the meantime, I’ve decided that since I’ve already ventured past the dictations of what is acceptable to wear according to how I look (pale colors like this blue are said to be unsuited for the skintones of women like me—more on this later, possibly) I thought I might as well veer off one of my most staple looks and go with a lipstick that is *gasp*! other than red. So I bring you… pink.
I am also wearing bright eyeshadow with bold lips, which supposedly no woman is supposed to do EVER. I hear because it makes us look like whores? If I want to look like a whore then DAMMIT I WILL LOOK LIKE A WHORE. (What exactly is wrong with looking like a whore? I have nothing against sex workers anyway. Just their “clients.”)
In case you’re wondering if I deliberately posed with the fish face, the answer is ‘no.’ This was snapped just as I realized I’d forgotten something. Yes, that is my =O face.
The necklace I am wearing, which you can get just a glimpse of there, is a locket from Khadeeja, a gift that I absolutely love. I’ve always wanted one exactly like it.
The best kind of performance of femininity: the kind that symbolizes a strong friendship.