By Anne Hollander
(892 words; posted Monday, July 8; to be composted Monday, July 15)
Now that we have dismissed corsets as ridiculous instruments of torture, we can safely entertain a vogue for flesh-piercing jewelry. As the man said, “Il faut souffrir pour être belle.” In other words, to look as though you have willingly undergone a bodily ordeal gives incalculable force to your erotic attractions. Tattooing and piercing are among the most ancient of such practices; piercing, as recently revived, is among the most violent.
T ender nipples stuck through with gold rings, sensitive tongues punched through with barbells that make a noise against the teeth, penises pierced for rings that go fore-and-aft or sideways, rings for the clitoral hood and labia both inner and outer–all these have been common additions to the chic ensemble since about 1992, hidden away behind clothing or lips. But more and more nostrils and eyebrows are joining earlobes as handy flaps to carry holes for an array of public adornments. The other day, I felt obscurely pained to see a pretty girl on the subway with a big silver ring in the middle of her face, hanging from a hole in the central partition of her nose. The effect was notably different from the off-center charm of a gleaming stud in one nostril or a row of thin rings edging the flange of an ear. Those things all seem part of fashion’s usual piquancy. This wasn’t. Somehow this girl’s massive bangle made her genial face seem masked, slightly–but distinctly–dehumanized.
Bodily ornament originally was undertaken to create the self, to deck the outward being with the inward knowledge that trouble must be taken and nature distorted in careful ways and at personal cost, so as to make forever clear the gulf between a responsible adult and an infant or a beast. Dramatic arrangements for doing this are famous–the head-flattening, the neck-lengthening, the tooth-filing, the lip-stretching–all the irreversible ways of completing the human body that were called “barbaric” by restless people bent on scientific understanding, political and intellectual enlightenment, or plain old empire, holy and profane.
It was those restless people who eventually invented fashion around the 13th century, their fabrications marking the body not with received wisdom but with doubt. The modern European self was created on the theme of perpetual subversion–that nothing was absolute, that the truth could be obscured and rediscovered, that all advance could be reversed and recommenced, that any empire, including God’s, could collapse and reform. And that effort should be made, and money spent, to keep this idea in plain sight on the surface of the body.
What really lasts are sex and death, as Woody Allen once reminded everybody, and fashion endures because of those. Fashion was born to stand for both unslaked personal desire and unappeased personal dread; it reflects our modern devotion to the fragile trajectory of an individual life. The one thing it must never do is look safe. Outrageousness has always been provided by the young, but hitherto most commonly with hair. Hair seems suited for nothing else: Its variable thickness of growth has apparently no reference to climate, and its practical value seems to be its malleability for purposes of erotic appeal. Hair revolutions are no longer as outrageous as they have been in recent decades, though; nor are skimpy garments. So we have turned to objects that make holes in faces and bodies–unique or multiple, public or intimate, ferociously unnatural, undeniably captivating, and faintly horrifying.
A big central nose ring goes beyond outrage. It comes from somewhere else, from the non-fashion universe of eternal certainties and unbreakable cycles, where bodily sculpture is applied with finality to signal a fixed social and sexual identity. During the past seven centuries of Western modernity, the most extreme bodily modishness always was reversible. Shaved hair could grow back, pinched waists fill out, flattened breasts swell up. But a great big hole through the septum does not close up without leaving a disfiguring scar.
W estern fashion has always included earlobe piercing for both sexes, a small talismanic reminder of what has been called the “folk order.” But earlobe tissue heals very easily, and mainstream male fashion abandoned earrings early in the 17th century. Shakespeare wore them, but Jonathan Swift did not; even the Marquis de Sade did not. Much later, during the progressive first quarter of this century, pierced ears for women became utterly unfashionable, a sign of Victorian bondage as abhorrent as whalebone corsets and the double marital bed. Almost two generations of 20th-century women lived with unpierced or healed earlobes, until ear piercing became almost universal for both men and women in the 1960s, just as if it had always been there.
Maybe it was a prophecy. Perhaps the era of fashion is over, or soon to be. These holes now mark a generation of which the parents cannot confidently say, “They’ll grow out of it.” Tight corsets never really hurt anybody–the fainting and the displaced organs are long-exploded myths–but fatal infection is a serious current horror. Punches and needles carry a lethal threat; an injury that rips the flesh is real injury. The pierced generation may simply be acknowledging the deadliness of the times we live in, suggestive as they are of earlier epochs in human history. Perhaps, like the girl on the subway, they’re just waiting to be led by the nose.