It started with her hair. My daughter, who turned fourteen yesterday, was born ten weeks early – in India – and she wasn’t expected to live. She was so unwell and working so hard at staying alive that her hair would not grow; all the ‘hair-growing energy’ was going in to just keeping her alive. So I made a vow; I vowed that if her hair grew (meaning if she lived), I would never have it cut.
As she grew older, she was quite happy to keep her hair long. Two years ago, it was long enough for her to sit on. Last year, she started to wonder what her hair would be like short. I reminded her that I had taken a vow not to cut her hair until she was 18. (In case you’re wondering, this ‘vow’ was one of those immature bargaining with God type things that a lot of us indulge in when we think we have little or no control over a desired outcome. I happen to believe in God, so I really felt like I had entered into some sort of sacred agreement to which the other party had kept up their end, so I needed to keep up mine.)
To be honest, though, I started to question whether or not I had any right to have made any promise regarding my daughter’s body, or any bits of it. As soon as they were able to understand, I explained to my children that their bodies were theirs and theirs alone. In more recent years, we’ve discussed the issue in terms of bodily autonomy, bodily integrity and consent. Yet, there I was, clinging to my notion that I had the right to decide that my daughter’s hair was my business. It wasn’t.
While I never thought my daughter’s body was mine, I certainly thought I had guardianship of it until she was 18. I was wrong about that, too. I have always believed in what I term ‘incremental independence’ – giving my children their independence from me as each of them displays a need and an ability to function in a less dependent way. I have a duty and a responsibility to protect and care for my daughters until they are able to do so for themselves. As and when they can display their ability to care for, and make decisions around their bodies – from brushing their teeth, to showering themselves, to choosing their own clothes, to deciding if and how they want their hair cut – they are empowered to make, and act on, those decisions.
So when, in July of last year, Ishthara came downstairs delighted with herself and a full 18 inches lopped off the end of her locks, it was not my place to do or say anything other than ‘Wow! That is a really dramatic change. Shall we get a hairdresser to even it up a little?’
Then, a few months ago, she started making noises about how much she wants her belly-button pierced. My initial reaction was ‘not on your Nelly’ (thankfully, I didn’t say that – I just thought it). Then, I asked myself why I was so opposed. So I did a bit of research. As long as all the obvious things are observed – a sterile, single-use, medical-grade needle, a licensed practitioner in a clean shop, high standards of hygiene, good wound care and guarding against infection afterwards – then there is no medical contra-indication. Unlike a tongue, labia or nipple-piercing, there is no overt sexual connotation associated with a belly-button piercing, so I couldn’t object on the grounds that it was inappropriately sexualising her, either.
For her 14th birthday, therefore, I accompanied my daughter to a studio where she had her belly-button pierced. She was so excited beforehand, she could she could hardly see straight! I was delighted that she chose me to go in and hold her hand (instead of her BFF, who was with us). I am happy she’s happy – after all, it’s her body, it’s her choice, and she needs to learn that I mean what I say when it comes to issues of bodily autonomy, so she will continue to trust me, and continue to trust me with things that are important to her. Like everyone who identifies as a woman in Ireland, she needs to be told that she can be trusted with her own body. Those messages start at home. Choice – and the exercising of choice – begins at home.