piercings and tattoosShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Brittany England

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

When I walked into my house with a tapered haircut for the first time, the front door opened and my father greeted me with “I am upset. I don’t like it. Why would you do that to your hair?” For years, I talked about cutting my hair but my father commanded me not to because he “wants me to look like a girl.”

My whole life has revolved around this “like a girl” statement: dress like a girl, act like a girl, and cook because I’m a girl so that I can “find a husband.” Once, I told my father that getting married isn’t a priority and he forced me to promise I would never say that again.

Throughout my upbringing, my parents have preached, “Stay away from bad people.” As strict Catholic Nigerian immigrants that translates to: Never come home with any bodily modifications from haircuts to tattoos to piercings or we’ll disown you.

To them, drinking, smoking, partying, and having tattoos and piercings would bring shame to the family reputation. Nigerians are all about family reputations — to the point where it matters more than their child’s emotional well-being.

My parents’ constant pressure, restrictions to my freedom of self-expression, and disregard for my feelings played a major role in worsening my anxiety and depression.

My body was an expectation dumping ground for my parents and a grave for me — I had to liberate myself

The next time I returned home, I had a cartilage piercing. My parents didn’t notice for two days until Sunday morning after church. I was standing next to my mother at the cash register when she found out. She was stunned and upset. She couldn’t believe that I had the audacity to bring my ear home. After my mother told my father, he said that I must call my mother before I decide to do anything. Ever since then, every time I come home, my mother inspects my ears.

My next endeavor was a tattoo. Tattoos are the ultimate taboo. A tattoo would devastate the family reputation — my parents would be blamed for “allowing” me to do it — and hurt my chances for finding a husband, ultimately burning a fragile bridge for my relationships with my parents. But I still always wanted one. When I was down in Philadelphia visiting a friend, the idea came up as a joke. Then it became reality.

Using Canva, an online graphic design tool, I made a tattoo design inspired by Danez Smith’s — one of my favorite poets of all time — pennants “I forgive who I was.” I got the tattoo on my upper thigh and to this day, that tattoo brings me an immense amount of joy. It’s an everyday reminder of my bodily freedom and a powerful stance against my anxiety.

Here’s the most recent of my liberations: nose piercings. Nose piercings are forbidden in my home and in Nigerian culture. You’ll be seen as a rogue child. Throughout my freshman year of college, I wore a fake nose ring because I was terrified of my parents. It’s considered a death sentence in my home. But when I found out it was possible to hide a septum, I knew I had to get it!

Every day, when I wake up and look at my septum, I feel closer and closer to my deepest truth and to myself. The septum piercing brought me out of the heavy shadows of my parents’ unhealed trauma — and my growing depression. I found myself, a free-spirited nonbinary lover, under the rubble of their anxieties about the family reputation and their stagnant cultural taboos.

I am whole and here and free

All of these bodily revolts were steps toward complete autonomy over my body. For years, my parents forced me into existing solely according to their expectations and erased my sense of self. But now, my body belongs to me.