“Why do you want to be a ‘wild’ girl?” my grandma asked when she first saw my septum piercing.
“Wild” isn’t a totally accurate translation. The phrase she used describes activities I’m too tired to find exciting anymore, like sneaking onto rooftops with strangers or throwing up perfectly into a red cup without spillage.
And at 28, a septum piercing doesn’t feel like an act of rebellion to me so much as a salve to scars left by global beauty standards.
The ring is small, barely visible in person and pretty much invisible in photos. To show it off requires an amount of confidence and self-reassurance I’ve only admired in others, because for me, the ring isn’t a statement as much as it is a pacifying distraction from what I couldn’t stop thinking of as a bulb on my face.
By definition, beauty is the aesthetics of which pleases or satisfies us. What gets left out is that beauty is taught; society informs us which beauty gatekeepers to listen to.
From a young age, we’re taught how to define beauty by creating comparisons. In fairy tales, there’s the old witch and the young princess. The young princess represents youth and softness in physical form. The old witch has poor skin and often an unseemly nose that’s described as large.
In these stories, beauty is taught as a universal truth. In reality, beauty is a measurement set by gatekeepers who determine and influence who or what gets seen. Regardless of how my grandma says I’m beautiful, in the same breath she’ll mention what she believes makes me less so.
Fortunately, her beauty rules, and anyone else’s, don’t apply to me now.
But it wasn’t always like that. When I was 14 years old, in the late age of MySpace and early YouTube, I knew there were rules to getting certified Pretty™. They were most explicit in the K-pop forums I visited, specifically an ulzzang thread where commenters idolized “every day” people for being pretty. (Ulzzang literally translates to “face best” and is a term for influencers known for Helen of Troy-grade faces.)
These posters shared photos of themselves and inadvertently ignited keyboard wars. Commenters detailed down to the pore what they thought made a face beautiful and why one face was “better” than another — and who got surgery and who didn’t.
“Natural” beauty always won, but at the time, the criteria were very rigid: pale skin, double-lidded eyes, V-shaped jawline, tall nose bridge, petite nostrils. What I didn’t see at the time was that this standard of beauty was built on the standard of “How white do you look?”
If you consider the monopolization of fairy tales by Disney, the cover girls on widely circulated magazines, and the top 100 lists by People magazine, whiteness is still a large unspoken metric for beauty. There may be princesses of color slowly becoming movie leads, but this still leaves out generations of women who grew up defining beauty with fair-skinned princesses.
One Mulan who only comes out during Chinese New Year isn’t enough for a young girl to stake her sanity to. One cartoon can’t guide a girl as she navigates what it’s like to be beautiful as an adult.
Reading the conversations online wreaked havoc on my self-esteem and pushed my ability to see my face as mine for years. I spent my high school paychecks on cheap Japanese gadgets, like a plastic massage roller that promised to bruise my jawline into slimness. My eyes never felt big enough, my head never small enough.
The thought I never grew out of, even in my mid-20s, was that my nose was too big. Up until last year, I used a purple plastic clip that promised to give me a nose bridge, or at least a refined nose tip, as long as I stopped those airways for 30 minutes every day.
The world isn’t going to move fast enough to alleviate the scars that beauty standards have caused when we were young. But undoing what you were taught isn’t so easy, either.
My process took a series of fortunate learnings, like when I took an anti-colonialism class and realized whiteness dominated all my examples of success; after being with friends who focused on affirmations, not comparisons; when I broke out in hives nonstop and realized that if I defined beauty by standards like clear skin or large eyes, I’d be miserable for the rest of my life.
That took five years, and the industry is still lacking in beauty representation. Waiting for the media to catch up, for the general public to stop commenting on how fat people should live, how skin should look or shine, how women should move through the world… I don’t think that’s time we have to waste. I’d rather live freely, even if that means making changes on my own terms.
Still, after I reshaped my expectations around health and body size, the distress around my nose didn’t go away. That’s the thing about dysmorphias; they don’t go away via willpower. My nose can still trigger thought spirals that cause me to pinch my nose and think about it nonstop.
The thoughts remain with every selfie or conversation up close. Sometimes I stare at other people’s noses, wondering how much “prettier” I’d look if I had their nose. (Writing about this for the first time was difficult and resulted in me staring at the mirror for almost an hour.)
But this septum piercing helps with that.
It’s put a spell on me, allowing me to look at my face in full. I don’t feel the need for surgery like before because the ring carries the weight for me. There are days my thoughts slip, but my septum piercing calls my attention back with a glint. I remember not to listen to the voices that say I should be different. Instead of flesh, I focus on gold.
Christal Yuen is an editor at Healthline who writes and edits content revolving around sex, beauty, health, and wellness. She’s constantly looking for ways to help readers forge their own health journey. You can find her on Twitter.