I spent last Saturday morning at a tattoo parlor with my teenage daughter. But don't worry; we weren't there for a tattoo. (I do have some standards.) We were there to pay someone to shove a 16-gauge needle through the cartilage of her ear.
A month before this day, my soon-to-be 15-year-old asked if she could get a piercing for her birthday. We were in the car, idling at a stoplight and I was scrolling through work emails on my phone. "Sure," I said, figuring I'd fight this particular battle at a more convenient time.
But given that this is the same kid who emailed me a Power Point presentation of her Christmas list -- complete with live links to the requested merchandise -- I should have been prepared for the marketing blitz that ensued.
First, she slyly appealed to my nonconformist spirit. She wasn't following the crowd, she explained, in fact none of her friends had their cartilage pierced. She'd be a trailblazer!
Then she offered a pre-selected list of desecration facilities in our area. Given that we live in a fairly sleepy suburb, I was surprised at the selection. Within an hour's drive we could choose from Sin Alley, Art Freek, Fat Ram's Pumpkin, StingRay, Chameleon, Redemption, Regeneration, Inflicting Ink, or my personal favorite, Sacred Additions (with the reassuring tag line "Professional Tattoos").
After de-mystifying the procedure through geographic familiarity, she escalated to a kind of aversion therapy: an hour and a half of exposure to increasingly gory videos of complete strangers getting various appendages and extremities pierced. Her coup de grâce was the forced viewing of a horrific procedure called 'corset piercing,' where metal rings are pierced into the back, ribs, chest or throat and then attached with a ribbon to pull the skin together. It was nauseating and had the desired affect, making a little cartilage piercing seem downright quaint. So off we went to Pins and Needles.
I was secretly hoping for something that looked like a medical facility, but Pins and Needles is located in a rundown strip mall next to a convenience store. Standing outside was an exhausted looking young mother lighting a cigarette. Flick, flick, flick went her lighter and when no flame appeared, she took a break to yell at her kids. The toddlers stared at us as their mother scooted them out of the way so we could enter.
Predictably, we were greeted by a fully-inked young woman. I tried to meet her eyes but was distracted by the sunlight shining through the 2-inch holes stretched into her earlobes. I peered at the jungle-themed diorama of her throat, wondering how they safely tattooed a snake over her jugular vein.
There was something incongruent about this circus freak asking me for my daughter's birth certificate. "Original only," she specified. "It has to be the long form. With a raised seal." She needed legal evidence that, 1) I was in fact this child's mother, and 2) I was allowing her to permanently alter her body.
She Xeroxed the information and handed my daughter a form questioning whether she suffered from a list of illness ranging from AIDS and tuberculosis to latex allergies or warts. And then we met the young man with the needle. He had piercings in all the requisite places: ears, brows, nose, lips -- and some not so expected: cheeks, neck, collarbones. He was kind of bedazzled.
But he washed his hands carefully and as I watched him stretching on a pair of surgical gloves. My eyes settled on one of the tattoos in the kaleidoscope of ink on his forearms -- the word "mom."
In a strange coincidence, I discovered I know this young man's mother. She's a friend-of-a -friend. I know that he loves her and she loves him, and that she accepts his ink-splattered arms and jewel-encrusted face as symbols of self-expression. I hadn't wanted to admit it, but the hardest obstacle for me to overcome in allowing my daughter to go through with this was the fear of what other mothers would think of me. Being personally judged worried me more than the sketchy location of Pins and Needles or the stories I'd read on WebMD about infected ears that had become "cosmetically deformed."
But what really mattered was this: just as the piercer was about to sink the needle into my daughter's cartilage, she reached out to me and wordlessly grabbed my hand. Five seconds later the needle was out, her shiny fake diamond was in and she let go. We did it.
Follow Suzanne Hegland on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SuzanneHegland