Graphic by  Tara Steinmetz

Graphic by Tara Steinmetz



Whenever I mention to people that I recently got my nipple pierced, their instant reaction is usually a mix of curiosity and concern.

“Did it hurt?” they’ll immediately ask. I play it off nonchalantly, pleased by the boldness and air of mystery my piercing represents. And I can’t lie; I love the way they’re intrigued by my hidden piercing and the way I can shrug it off as if my doing it was the most natural thing in the world. And the best part is that they too seemed convinced that this funky, daring adornment was nothing out of character for me; in fact, it appeared to be just as obvious of a choice to them as I acted it to be.

As far as pain goes, usually they’re shocked by my casual response, but it was true; the piercing actually didn’t hurt at all. After months of being hyped up in my head, it turned out to be nothing. Three deep breaths, a small wince of pain, and it was over. The part I usually omit though, is that I refused to look at the piercing for over an hour after, despite openly admitting how shockingly simple it had been. I held my best friend Anna’s hand while going through a series of deep breathing routines until my piercer sat me upright in the reclining chair. But when she asked if I was ready to face the mirror and  see my new piercing, I abruptly refused. “No. I can’t look at it,” I kept repeating. I made up what I thought to be a logical excuse, claiming that if I actually saw it, I would somehow make myself believe that the piercing hurt more than it did.

Instead, I lifted up my shirt and let Anna look as I sat with eyes glued to the ceiling, not wanting to risk finding it in my peripherals. My heart still beat fast despite the worst being over, but it helped when she told me with a grin in her voice that the small silver barbell seemed like it was always meant to be there. Clearly excited by my bold move, she badgered me to look; I was being ridiculous and irrational. Who the hell gets a piercing and then pretends like it’s not there? I laughed off her comments and left the shop in a zombie-like daze, with only a vague notion of this mysterious piece of metal on my breast.

On the ride home, I again felt the need to justify that I couldn’t look at it. But why? The only one listening was Anna and she already thought my reasoning was absurd. I would have never admitted it then, but really this repetition was for myself.

Because fear of seeing my piercing was really only half the truth. Because ever since the piercer sat me up in that chair, there was a sense of panic in my chest that I didn’t want to acknowledge and that I couldn’t quite put into words.

I’d always wanted to be the kind of girl who I imagined could pull off a nipple piercing. I’d mused about it for months as something sexy and badass and kind of entertaining. A girl with a nipple piercing was sure of herself. She was the kind of girl who was a bit edgy and owned every inch of her sexuality. She was daring and confident and didn’t give a fuck.

But that wasn’t me. I was average. I wasn’t that bold, really, I just tried to be. I knew I’d changed a lot since coming to college– probably moving closer towards this girl that I wanted to be– but at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel like I was still my awkward, young, quite unsexy self only pretending to be different. I was waiting for someone to call me out: an unsure, naïve girl parading around with a nipple piercing.

When we had finally made it back to Anna’s apartment, all of these thoughts tangled in my head as I paced quietly around the kitchen in a nervous, rigid hobble. Finally and without thinking, a gut feeling sent me marching straight to her bathroom mirror. The piercing was there, whether I could fathom it or not, and I couldn’t avoid this fact forever. When I lifted my shirt, the silver metal glinted in the light. I smiled. Damn. I did it.

And Anna was right; it didn’t look out of place at all.

In that one hour I’d been drowned in overwhelming cognitive dissonance, and my brain was left feeling like mush.  My long-held perception of myself clashed with this piercing I chose to put on my body. But in directly confronting the piercing, I felt oddly reassured; I knew something was going to have to give for my brain to make sense of this reality I’d created. The piercing was material and concrete. It would take some getting used to, but that piece of metal wasn’t going anywhere. My thoughts about myself on the other hand? They were proven outdated and tired. Maybe it was time that they were forced to change.

With a physical marker making them unavoidable, it had never been clearer to me that in my head, there exist polarized versions of myself in constant battle. There is the imagined, idealized me, who is everything that I think I’ll never be, but wish so badly to become. Strong, badass, and independent: she makes decisions for herself, holds her own in a room, and sticks to her convictions unapologetically. For some reason, no matter how much time passes, she’s always out of reach, lurking somewhere in the future.

Then there’s the me that I perceive myself as. She is naïve and still a child. An introverted over-thinker, stuck in her own head. Maybe a little socially awkward, not the loudest one in the room, sometimes a bit too quiet.

It is natural that in moments of growing and redefining, the person that we wish to be and the person who we believe we are exist as two separate conceptions.

I think the reality of who we are lies somewhere in a spectrum in the middle of these two people.

We aren’t everything we hope to be, but at the same time we are always changing, hopefully becoming this person that we are striving for. This gap between our perceptions versus our actuality doesn’t mean that we are untrue to ourselves, but that we have some adjusting to do. Even as we evolve into someone we are proud of, we may not notice it happening. Something as simple as a piercing– and all the preconceived notions I had wrapped up in it– unraveled this, because for the first time this truth felt inescapably tangible.

When I got the piercing, no one else thought I was pretending or faking. In fact, I discovered that people’s impressions of my identity were much closer to what I strived for; they weren’t seeing the identity I let myself cling to for far too long. I know this logically. But altering how we view ourselves is nothing easy, no matter how much we want our brains to believe something different; the choice is up to me to challenge myself to carry this new posture from the inside, changing and accepting my growth little by little.

While the needle and small silver barbell that followed may seem like a tiny impulsive act, it is a lot more than that. If I asked myself three years ago if I was bold enough for a nipple piercing, I would have stared blankly in disbelief at such a question. And now here I am… my piercing is my concrete commitment to the me that I am becoming, the me that I want to be. There is no backing down or running away now; I have a physical reminder each time I look in the mirror. This is me and she isn’t going anywhere.