Gendering with Jewelry

February 9th, 2011 § 62 comments

Orange and Green


Plaid dress – thrifted
White button down – J.Crew
Tights – TJMaxx
Boots – Banana Republic
Belt – Gap Outlet
Pearl earrings – graduation gift from parents
Bangles and necklace – thrift and consignment shops


At the risk of sounding like a one trick pony, here I am again making use of a bright and bold necklace to brighten up an outfit. I found this bright orange necklace at my local consignment store when I went in to sell some old clothes and quickly traded in my store credit for it. And for the patterned orange bangle pictured below. As much as I love jewelry that has sentimental value, that comes from a special friend or family member, or that was purchased for a meaningful event, I also love the quick fix of a good thrift store buy. Want a bright bauble necklace or a brooch to add something new to your wardrobe? Want something kitschy or vintage looking? I love my local Goodwill or my consignment store for that quick and inexpensive fix when I’m itching for something new.


Like A, and like many of you have noted, I prefer keeping my big ticket item to a minimum. If I wear long, dangly earrings, I tend to forgo a necklace. Similarly, you can see that with all of my statement necklace outfits that I’ve been posting lately, I keep my earrings to small and simple studs. I also tend to wear either a bracelet or rings but not both on one hand. I love the “more is more” look on others but have a hard time pulling it off myself. So I stick to the “pick one” as my standard practice.

Orange and Green detail

And if I may get side-tracked slightly here, I loved how a couple of readers noted that they felt ‘naked’ without earrings and always wore some no matter what. I had to laugh reading that because I feel the same way. I wear studs everyday and I sleep wearing them as well. I only remove a pair to switch it out for another. I recently thought about why that is and I realized that I’ve never seen myself without earrings.

My parents got my ears pierced when I was still a baby (probably less than two years old) as is customary for Romanian girls. It’s a cultural norm in Romania for little girls to get their ears pierced and wear little gold earrings from infancy on. I am guessing that it has to do with another Romanian custom, which is to keep both boys’ and girls’ hair very short and androgynous for the majority of their childhood. As children are gendered through clothing and symbols, before maturity hits and their bodies begin to signal gender more, it comes as no surprise that one symbol – earrings – had to be enforced to compensate for the lack of another gendering signal – hair. It seems to me that in the American culture, hair is used much more as a signal for gender with children than jewelry.

Anyway, having grown up with “boy short” hair until around middle school but having always had earrings for as far back as I can remember, I feel perfectly fine wearing my hair pulled back or short (which is how it’s often been until early grad school)  while I feel strangely naked and “lacking” without any earrings in.

I’d be curious to hear if you’ve observed this phenomenon within your culture or others. I think the question of jewelry as a gendering object is a fascinating one in itself but even more so when it comes to children, who are much more gender ambiguous in appearance than adults. S.

Orange and Green

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§ 62 Responses to Gendering with Jewelry"

  1. Katie says:

    In my museum, we have a large collection of historic native children’s jewelry pieces, and all of them are gendered. Both genders will wear the pieces, but the designs are gender-specific. While the different patterns will indicate a child’s gender, it’s my understanding that the differences are not to distinguish gender to the observer, but because the variations in design are necessary as protections and medicines to the children. Also, many cultures will have colors, images, etc. that are “men’s,” or “women’s.”

    My own mother never had her ears pierced because, when she was growing up, “only immigrants had pierced ears” and it was not part of the Anglo culture her mother raised her in. And even today, my grandmother will comment that I look “like a Spaniard” or “like a gypsy” if I wear certain styles of earrings – very much a product of the WWII England she grew up in.

  2. Charlotte says:

    My grandmother never had her ears pierced, but my impression (and I should clarify again with my mother) was that “nice” women did not allow that kind of, well, penetration. It was important to be intact. What a statement to load on to some helpless earlobes!

    I was not to get my ears pierced until I turned 13 (more shades of sexual maturity perhaps?) but my aunt took me out behind my mother’s back and got them done when I was 6. What a storm THAT caused in the family home!!!

    • admin says:

      Charlotte – I love that metaphor :) about the ear pierching. It’s so funny to see how in one culture the same act is a gendered ritual while in another culture it signifies ‘looseness’ and ‘tawdryness’. Poor earlobes, indeed! S.

  3. Juno says:

    I never thought about the gender implications, only the class ones. Where I grew up – North American, mid-Atlantic, suburban, white, middle to upper-middle class – ear piercing was only gaining widespread acceptance when I was about 10. I remember my mother coming home with pierced ears in the late 70s and that she was worried that my dad would be angry. A few years later, I had to BEG and BEG to be allowed, and was one of the last girls in my 5th grade class to be permitted to.

    She was from the Midwest and had been raised to considered ear piercing a sign of ethnic identity, and had to really overcome a lot of social programming to see that for my generation it was just something you DID, rather than a sign of failed middle class assimilation. Which seems really weird to me now.

  4. Rebekah says:

    I worked in an elementary school last spring, and was amazed by how many little boys now have earrings in both ears— usually large rhinestone or CZ studs, sometimes paired with little mohawks. When I was young, I never saw ANY men or boys with two earrings, and even one was a bold move. Now, a number of male celebrities have two earrings.

    In the film version of “The King and I,” I notice all the Siamese princes and princesses wear big ol’ glittery earrings. The king wears a left earring only. Historically significant, or a costumer’s whim?

    I like the look of earrings on guys. If we’re going to stab holes in babies, why be sexist about it?

  5. Frances Joy says:

    In Puerto Rico, the doctors pierce a child’s ears before they’re sent home from the hospital after birth. I’ve had mine pierced since I was two days old. It used to be a way to tell if a baby was a boy or a girl, but in the last ten to fifteen years, doctors ask parents of both boys and girls if they should pierce their ears. Gender roles are still very strict in Puerto Rico, but there’s a lot more leeway these days regarding the appearance aspect of gender. Men here shave their legs, get their eyebrows done, and do other traditionally “female” things without anyone questioning anything. Definitely an interesting shift that I’ll be thinking more about.

  6. Carlin Sharpe says:

    I had my ears pierced at 12 or 13 (which was defiantly a coming of age thing, but there were no other connotations within my family related to pierced ears). But oddly enough my Dad took me and got one of his ears priced at the same time. I have always been kind of please that I did such a gendered marking act with my Father.

  7. Alex says:

    My ears were also pierced when I was a baby, which I think is fairly common among Italian-Americans. I didn’t actually grow up in an Italian-American community, so I’m not sure how pervasive it is or if it’s something that later generation choose to do. (If anything, I was raised in a Jewish community, and technically Jews aren’t allowed to pierce their bodies.) My hair didn’t really grow in until I was almost 4 years old – so I guess the pierced ears did help gender me for a while, although I don’t think that was the intention!

    Looking back to elementary school, I do remember ethnic differences on this matter. I specifically remember that the Latina girls had their ears pierced young, and I remember having white middle-class friends who weren’t allowed to get their ears pierced until 12 or so (when I was allowed my second piercing!).

  8. Jane W. says:

    I’m fascinated by the practice of short hair on children in Romania–I’m 1/2 Romanian, and my extremley assimilated family is obsessed with long hair. Like other commenters’ families, my Romanian relatives also viewed piereced ears as “too ethnic” and I didn’t get mine pierced until I was 13. The one gendered practice that they did drill into me was the importance of having a shirt that buttoned on the “correct” side. When I was in Jr. High and oxford cloth shirts became fashionable this was a source of some conflict.

    • admin says:

      Jane – how funny! I had no ideas that shirts could be buttoned “on the wrong side” :) Love your 1/2 Romanian perspective on this, thanks!

  9. Erin says:

    I have a different angle on ear piercing. My mom worked in a pediatrician’s office and saw many young girls and baby girls w/ horrible wounds after having their earrings ripped out one way or the other. So I was not allowed to have my ears pierced until I was out of elementary school (thereby being too old to jump rope one of the horrible ways an earring was ripped out) and until I was old enough to be responsible for caring for my ears and the earrings. (I can only wear gold earrings due to allergic reactions to metals so it was expensive to replace earrings if they got lost.)

    I used to think my mom was crazy and such a worrywart for making me wait but now that I have a daughter of my own I have to say I plan to follow in her footsteps. Lol! When I watch my daughter play I see many instances where an earring could get ripped out. I’ve seen blankets and such get caught on my niece’s earrings (her mother had her ears pierced at 3 mths old) and the frantic, “Wait wait wait! Don’t rip it out!” moments when that happens. I figure why risk it? When my daughter is old enough to care for her ears and the earrings, I’ll take her to get her ears pierced. Well, that’s if she decides on her own if she wants her ears pierced. I am not going to force something on her that she doesn’t want.

    • spacegeek says:

      I feel exactly this way and expect my children to wait until they are 12-ish to have pierced ears. I also feel that any body modification that is permanent should be done when the person is “old enough” to know what they are asking for. Hm. Might have to wait til they are 25 then! J/K!

  10. Charlotte says:

    Interesting–I never got my ears pierced in France (my father thinks it looks cheap, and my mother was adamant that “self-mutilation” was not allowed in her house until we were old enough to fully decide, which was 18). I always thought I would get it done at 18, but “just never got around to it” until I moved to the US (I’m not going to unpack that one now!)
    Anyway, what amuses me is that contrary to everyone else, I associate pierced ears with American culture rather than with my own. All these 80s movies with the huge neon pink plastic earings, Madonna, diamond studs for socialites, etc… Was it all an illusion? :)

  11. admin says:

    Wow, thank you all for such awesome comments to this post! I’ve loved reading about your ear pearcing stories from childhood and from such varied cultural perspectives.

    On a side note – my husband and I were talking about this and agreed that we would NOT pierce our child’s ears (any gender child) and that we would allow them to make that decision and get them done if they should so desire later in life. I guess I’m abandoning my Romanian roots that way, but I really don’t feel the need to mark my child’s gender through any obvious use of symbols (be it jewelry, clothing, etc) and we mostly dislike the ‘body modification’ aspect of it, done on a small child.

    My cousins in Romania still do it with their baby girls and I don’t have any objections to it, but I guess leaving that culture has allowed me to see other ways of doing something and making my own calls on what parts of the culture I want to keep and what to discard. (Although I’m not abandoning that practice on grounds of it looking “too ethnic” or “too loose”). :)


  12. This is really interesting. My mother, as any good Argentine girl would in those days, had her ears pierced in the hospital, when she was born. However, she thought that custom was barbaric and wouldn’t let me get my own ears pierced till I was 15.

    Thinking back to when I was a child (in the 80s), I definitely used earrings as a gender marker. If I couldn’t tell a person’s gender immediately (as a little girl, I definitely used long/short hair as a marker, although I’ve always loved short hair on women), I would be able to tell by the earrings or lack thereof. That changed pretty quickly, though!

    I’m still not sure what I’ll do when and if I have a daughter. At least for now the point is moot!

  13. I actually did a whole post on the earrings/nakedness issue, as well as the baggage from my mother that failing to wear earrings brings to mind:

    As a child in the South, ear piercing for little girls is very much a rite of passage–however, the time marker is different than others. Unlike being marked from birth, as is customary in many other countries, or having it done at the onset of full puberty in your teens, girls in the South get theirs done at some point between 6 and 9 (average, I’d say). It’s such an interesting time for gender identity–there’s a lot of research that shows that this period is when children begin overcompensating for gender in order to help themselves determine it (hence the proliferation of princesses and pink, football and blue in many children of that age group). I had never realized that the ear piercing timeline where I’m from falls right into that developmental period. I remember BEGGING my mother to let me get it done, as all of my friends begged their mothers. Very interesting!

    • Amy says:

      I’m an IDIOT and put the wrong link up there. As I can’t figure out how to delete/switch it, here’s the right one:

      I think the overwhelming response here is that the body control and significance of ear piercing is still largely left up to the parents, specifically the mother: they decide to pierce early, or they decide when piercing is appropriate if the child is older. What an interesting example of the control of gender–both in terms of maturity and social signifiers–by our elders. Heck, I know I still hear my mom’s voice in my ears when I walk out of the house without earrings in!

  14. Tamara says:

    I come from a large family of 3 boys and 3 girls. My mother was very strict. My two older sister’s had to wait until they were 18 and then my Mother insisted on having my pediatrician do the piercing. I desperately wanted my ears pierced and couldn’t imagine waiting that long. My eldest brother is 14 years my senior. For my 13th birthday he took me to the mall and had my ears pierced – without my Mother’s permission. She was furious, but let me keep them anyway. It still makes me smile to think about the experience.

  15. Jeanni says:

    I had my ears pierced before 6 months, I think I was 4 months. I don’t think I knew any girl who didn’t have her ears pierced when I was in elementary school. My elementary school was almost exclusively Italian, Irish, Hispanic, and Black working and lower middle class kids. I think I saw the first guy in my elementary school with it in the third grade, and he was a jerk, so ever since I’ve mostly disliked earrings on guys. I got my second lobe piercing in seventh grade, a present from my mom’s best friend for Christmas. My only cartilage piercing in my upper right ear was in eighth grade, and then I got a third lobe piercing in like twelfth grade.
    My mom got her first ones done when she was between 8 and 11, I think 4th or 5th grade, although I’m not sure. Her mother’s were never pierced, but my other grandmother’s were. My mom also got a second piercing in her late twenties/early thirties in the 80s. My half-sister and her mother have both had ears pierced since early childhood if not infancy.

    I never saw anything remotely sexual about the first hole, although I do see the gendering effect. When I was 11 I remember wanting the second hole because it was sexy and I definitely saw the way the second hole was sexualized amongst my friends’ parents, but my friends who came from a different socio-economic background, a richer one. My other, shall we say, low rent friends, and I never had parental disapproval about it.

    Piercing anywhere else though was always a problem with my own parents, my friends’ parents, and most adults I knew. Tattoos…don’t even get me started on their prejudices against tattoos…..

  16. Kate says:

    oh so interesting – here in New Zealand I think it’s less of a ethnicity marker (although our large Indian community do tend to pierce as babies) and more class-related. My mother and grnadmother don’t have pierced ears – not something women of the uppper middle classes did; and my sister and I were told we would have to wait until we were 14 (this later became 12 for my younger sister). My mother did contemplate getting hers done when I had mine, but as a glasses wearer felt it would make her face too cluttered! My eldest daughter had hers done when she was 12 – and she always knew she would have to wait until then. However, interestingly enough a big jewelry chain store here did an advertising campaign a year or so ago that was all about a girl counting down the days until she turned 12 to get her ears pierced – so my family’s attitude seems to be the one that is dominating at least the public discourse. Several girls in my 6 year old’s class have earrings, and they tend to be children of mothers who were pierced as infants or young children.

  17. Meenoo says:

    This is an interesting topic. Like most Indian girls, I had mine pierced when I was 4 or 5 and my mom took my two sisters to the mall to get their ears pierced. It was never an issue and I never understood the big deal with my American friends–jewelry is a huge part of Indian culture and I don’t remember not having pierced ears. However, when I was in my twenties my sister and I got our ears double pierced and our mom did not like that! She also didn’t like it when all three of us got our nose pierced as adults, even though her nose is also pierced. So despite the cultural prevalence of piercings, she was not happy when we chose to do it ourselves.

    • shil says:

      I’m Indian too and my sister and I both had our ears pierced when we were infants, although not right at birth. I got a second lobe piercing when I was about 13 (had it done at the mall with my friends), but my parents weren’t mad at all – in fact, my mom thought it was cool and got hers done too. I actually tried to shock them with a cartilage piercing when I was 16, but they didn’t bat an eye. And my dad’s response to me surreptitiously getting blue streaks dyed in my hair was “that looks great, but why didn’t you do all of it?”!

      On the other hand, my mom doesn’t have her nose pierced, although both my grandmothers and all my aunts do. She was initially hesitant to let me get mine done, but I so rarely wanted to do something “Indian” when I was a teenager so she eventually came around to thinking this was a good sign. Other piercings were totally out of the question until I moved out of the house though, and by then I didn’t want them anymore.

  18. Izabela says:

    I had never thought about ear piercing in this way, but you have opened my eyes. My ears were pierced when I was super young — too young to remember! I have three sisters, and only the one that was also born in Bosnia had her ears pirced at a really young age, and the other two didn’t get theirs pierced until they were in their early teens. Very interesting. And, most of us had really short hair from age one to, at least, six. Thank you for this interesting discussion!

  19. Amelia says:

    Have to chime in as I definitely feel naked without earrings. Interesting, I’d never realized there was an ethnicity spin on this issue before now. For me and my family, it was more of a religious issue – as in God made you without holes in your ears so you don’t need to put them there. After much begging and pleading I was able to get my ears pierced when I turned 13. For me, it was much more of an assertion of independence (or I guess rebellion :-) than anything else.

  20. Sarah in Miami says:

    My mother took me and my little sister to get our ears pierced very young. I was around 5 years old, and my sister was just under three years old. Growing up, I had a lot of friends who were not allowed to get their ears pierced until they reached a given landmark (be it age or religious rite of passage). I must say, I am SO glad that my mother did this when I was still quite young; it saved me from the fear of pain that comes with a more developed consciousness, and it saved my parents from any arguments or begging! Also, I played lots of youth league sports that required girls to remove all jewelry, and many of my friends had to plan getting their ears pierced around these sports seasons (because you’re not allowed to remove a new piercing for several weeks).

  21. Iris says:

    I like the bright accents with the muted background, a really great look!

  22. R says:

    In my culture it is very common for girls to have their ears pierced before they are sent home from birth. I would say that at the age of ten, most girls already have their ears pierced and like 99% of teenagers have pierced ears. I know very few women who don’t have pierced ears and those are either older women, or women who are allergic to anything but gold and just gave up on earrings.

    Here it is not a matter of class, because even the rich folks from, say, the 1930′s, had pierced earrings – but small studs or small loops were the only thing allowed. Some older women don’t like “flashy” earrings – chandelier, big hoops, but it’s more a matter of age I guess. Interesting enough, older women tend to abhor the “gipsy look”, because 50, 60 years ago, gypsies were seen as thieves and dirty. But the new genrations have never seen a real gipsy in person.

    I hd mine pierced when I was small infant, and then repierced again when I was around 12 because in the meantime I had some allery issues and the holes closed beause I wasn’t wearing anything.

    I feel naked without earrings. They are part of me.

    And I too feel naked without earrings.

  23. Allison says:

    I know this is a post about jewelry but I wanted to say that your baby bump is coming along nicely!

  24. Beth Ellen says:

    I got my ears pierced at 13 (my mother’s coming of age gift), and the only time I’ve taken them since is for high school cross country races. I feel completely naked if I’m not wearing my earrings, a necklace, my watch, and my rings. I guess I’m a jewelry-aholic so I totally understand.

  25. elbee says:

    I had my ears pierced at five; my sister even younger. I don’t think it was a cultural thing. Her mother did it before her, and so the tradition (if you called it that) continued. My mom’s only rule was that if I wanted a second pair of holes in my ears, I had to wait until I was 18 (because that’s when she got hers done).

    However, I now have stretched ears (to 1/2″). I guess you could consider it a gender-neutral practice, though I was one of the few amongst my friends who have stretched ears. I usually get the “did it hurt?” or “will you regret it when you’re 80?” questions a lot. I do downplay them at work (leaving my hair down, flesh-toned jewelry, etc.), but I do feel naked without a cool-to-the-touch pair of stones in my ears.

  26. Megan says:

    I, too, had my ears pierced as a infant. My father was the one who actually wanted to have it done–since I didn’t have a lot of hair, he didn’t want people thinking I was a boy! I’ve never really considered the implications of that statement before, but was reminded of it while reading your post. It certainly wasn’t a cultural choice in the way that it did or did not reflect my German-American heritage, but perhaps it was a cultural choice in reflecting the Midwest in the late 80′s (and my own mother who had her ears pierced twice at the time).

    And like you, I also feel naked without earrings, even if my hair is pulled back into a ponytail or bun. I also have a similar relationship with two rings that I wear daily (both sentimental gifts from family members that I have worn for years); until I have them on my fingers, I don’t feel “dressed.”

  27. Mira says:

    In Trinidad girls’ ears are pierced early as well. I don’t really remember the first time my ears were pierced, so I must have been younger than five. What’s odd is that in Canada and the U.S. I’ve had discussions about piercing my niece (Canadian) and a friend’s baby girl (American) and the respective mother and father were against it because it’s considered trashy.

    To each their own.

  28. Jen says:

    I got my ears pierced at 10, and like many, I remember begging my parents to let me and it was a privilege granted when I turned “double digits.” Most of my peers got them around the same age.

    I’m a pediatrician and I have to admit I don’t see a whole lot of earring injuries (thank goodness) although getting ears pierced in infancy is fairly common in our practice. (Although, now that I type this, I am recalling some particularly nasty injuries and infections, so don’t take this to mean earrings are risk-free.) We do pierce ears in our pediatrics practice, but our policy is not until the child is at least 12, old enough to *want* her ears pierced and to sit still while it’s being done. IMO, I don’t understand getting ears pierced for a child before they can decide for themselves, but I realize that my opinions are partly cultural.

    Interesting, my own daughter, now 3, has asked me if she *has* to get her ears pierced when she grows up. She’s figured out that getting a hole in your ear must be like getting a shot and she wants no part of it! Despite the fact that she’s becoming (despite my influence) a girly-girl, with a full-on love of dresses and all things pink.

  29. Katie says:

    Ceau, ce faci? I drop by this blog every now and then and I have to say that I never caught that you are Romanian!! I’ve been there 4 times now working with a non-profit and am going again this summer. I loved learning about the ear piercing and you better believe I’ll be quizzing my Romanian girlfriends this summer about their ear piercings. :) Such a fascinating little tidbit of information!!

    I’m loving your baby bump style and am tucking away ideas – the hubby & I won’t be waiting too much longer to work on our own baby bump. Thanks for sharing your photos!!


  30. G says:

    My ears were pierced when I was a baby and I also feel naked when I’m not wearing earrings. For me it is definitely cultural because my parents are from Mexico and all of my female family members (young and and old) have gotten their ears pierced as infants. In fact my first real pair of earrings (aside from the little studs they initially give you) were my mom’s first pair, tiny gold hoops. However I never really noticed that other girls didn’t have pierced ears in my class nor that it was unacceptable for younger girls to have them. It wasn’t until the 2nd grade when I started reading the Baby Sitters Club that I realized that not every girl gets their ears pierced as babies. They would always make a huge fuss about having pierced ears and how grown up the girls that did have them felt. Needless to say, I felt pretty cool after that :)

  31. the spanish lady says:

    Hi S!

    Here in Spain, both my sister and I had our ears pierced before leaving the hospital (an aunt who had been a nurse took care of it) and this happened also with all of my friends. As for the hair, girls always had long hair and boys short (due to an illness I had to be shaved when I was four and it was like a shock).

    Boys with long hair and earrings were automatically thought to be from a gipsy family. And girls without earrings, they definitely were exotic and, always, from abroad.

    Is is funny to see how something that I used to take for granted changes so much depending on the environment and the personal experiences. I do enjoy learning about it, so thank you very much for introducing such topics S.

  32. Emily says:

    I had my ears pierced in early adolescence, which was pretty standard for the white East coast suburbs where I grew up. I don’t know when my mother had her ears pierced, but my grandmother didn’t have pierced ears at all; she was from a working-class rural town, but ‘married up’ considerably. I wore a pair of her non-pierced earrings at my wedding, and it was a very odd experience! (Those little pressure screw-back things hurt to wear.)

    I have always been a Statement Earring person; my first year teaching, my uniform was button-up shirt, blazer, jeans, and earrings. (I got dressed in the dark at 6AM while my wife and kid slept in the same room; I needed a uniform.) But I’ve recently started wearing my glasses on a chain, and that’s made it much harder to wear earrings, because the chain gets in the way. (Also, earrings + glasses chain + earbuds is a very complicated thing to manouever when on the subway or working.) If I decide to stick with the glasses chain thing, I may have to buy a bunch off etsy in different colors, so I can match them to outfits like earrings…

  33. Autumn says:

    I have had my ears pierced since I was 12. I had an incident when I was 13 that my earrings were left for so long in my ears that the backs “grew in” to my ear and the earring itself fell out. I remember my dad taking tweezers and pulling the backs off- it felt so good because the backs were heavy. I wear earrings sometimes now, but I love making them!

  34. Great comments here! Not to mention that your post is really something. Accessorizing with jewels is my passion and mixing and matching them to complement my outfit is a fun job. By the way, I got my ear pierced when I was just a baby and I grew with them on. It feels like earrings are part of me and I can’t live without them, lol

  35. I just wanted to tell you I’m loving how fashionably you are progressing through your pregnancy.

  36. STL Mom says:

    When my daughter was a baby, people often commented on my “adorable little boy” even when she was wearing pink! It took me a while to realize that it was because her ears weren’t pierced, and we were living in a community with lots of Italians and Hispanics, who usually had their baby girls’ ears pierced.

    What about religious aspects of ear piercing? The story in my husbands’ family is that his grandmother was excommunicated from the 7th Day Adventist church for having her ears pierced. Supposedly she was “caught” when she was photographed for the PTA wearing earrings and makeup. Scandalous!

    • admin says:

      Ha! How scandelous indeed! :)

      Yes, great point to add – in addition to class and gender, religion offers a different and equally interesting perspective to the piercing debate.

  37. katty says:

    Very interesting discussion! In Uruguay, South America, it is traditional to pierce the girls ears before they leave hospital or soon after. Both boys and girls have their hair shaved as well, so it’s earrings what makes it easy to tell if it is a boy or a girl. There was a time- 30 to 40 years ago- when boys would wear sky blue and girls pink, but in the last 10 years that custom has been disappearing (thank God!). When my daughter was born 14 years ago, I had her earlobes pierced, but I refused to have her hair shaved and I didn’t buy any pink outfits so she was an avant-garde baby, and funnily enough, she kept on being ahead of street fashion by a year or two, and has ever since been a fashionista with a mind of her own. Once she learnt to talk, she stopped letting me choose her outfits, and by the age of 10 or 11, she was giving me fashion advice!- which I took! Coincidence? Destiny? She didn’t take it from me as I have always been fashion-dumb, and need to learn from the pros, such as you!!!.

  38. S., it is so great to have you back on Academichic! I don’t mean to take anything away from any of the other ladies, but the questions you raise in your posts (and the comments they generate) have always interested me the most.

    I had to wait until I was 12 to get my ears pierced, which my dad also tied into requiring me to stop biting my fingernails before I was “grown up” enough to have it done. It was a huge deal to me then because, from about age 8-12, I had my hair cut short and was regularly mistaken for a boy. I didn’t like being called a boy, so I think I thought I could continue dressing as a tomboy and wearing short hair if my earrings would signify that I was a girl.

    I used to wear clip-on earrings in middle school, and I agree with whomever said they’re painful. The discomfort of the piercing gun is nothing in comparison to the pinching of the various kinds of non-pierced earrings. I got some of those from my grandmother, as well. She’s 96 now, and she has worn earrings almost every day of her life, but she won’t get her ears pierced because she thinks it’s low class. I’ve never been able to figure that one out.

    • admin says:

      Liz – thanks for your comment! It’s funny that you say that, I too was mistaken for a boy a couple of time when I was around 9 or 10 years old because of my short hair. I remember being really emberassed and thinking, “can’t they see I have earrings?”! I guess the earrings didn’t save me like I wanted them too ;)

      And I have to agree – I’ve tried clip-ons on before and they hurt! S.

  39. [...] S. and many readers mentioned, jewelery often functions as a sign — a sign of gender, ethnicity, class, but also sexuality, [...]

  40. Janna says:

    My mother took me after my first day of kindergarten to get my ears pierced. I remember that it was supposed to signify this big deal. I do know that for my mother she kept telling me that this was my responsibility to clean my piercings and tell them if anything looked off. She had hers pierced when she was in beauty school (her parents thought it was trashy, she rebelled.)

    We are now having this discussion over my niece who is now 5 and half. Her mother and father, my mother and her other grandmother, and I have all asked her if she wanted to get them pierces for her 5th birthday. She has decided that when she is 7 she will be old enough. My husband and I don’t have kids yet, but also had a talk about getting our non-exsistant kids’ ears pierced. I think we both settled on waiting until the child could decide and also take care of their piercings after seeing the trouble our friends had with their infants’ piercings and the fact that I am so concerned about forcing gender norms on a child so small.

  41. Cristy says:

    Loved reading all these fascinating comments! No big signifiers attached to earrings in my family (interestingly enough, considering that my mom was raised Amish and has herself never worn either makeup or jewelry), but my sister and I did have to wait until we were 13 to get our ears piercd. I think that was kind of cool, though–there were various little coming of age markers scattered throughout our teenage years to mark certain birthdays.

    Perhaps partly because of the unattainable aspect of earrings for the first half of my life, I’ve always been drawn to larger, more dramatic earrings (not quite Beyonce big, though). Before I had pierced ears, I would clip together two bobby pins, making one nice long dangly earring, and clip these on my ears! Clip-on earrings hurt for sure, but bobby pins burn!

    I also remember in my brother-in-law’s family that they pierced one ear of his grandson when the child was a baby. The earrings must not have been rotated enough, because they grew in and had to be pulled out with pliers–YOW! Poor baby!

  42. [...] really enjoyed reading all of the comments on S.’s post on gender and jewelry and A.’s post on jewelry as sign. It’s so interesting to read about all the different [...]

  43. T. says:

    Do you know about Brain, Child Magazine? Posts such as these remind me of that magazine, and I think you would love reading it (and possibly you could even get something published with them!). I am not affiliated with them in any way, but I have been a satisfied subscriber for years now. They have a web site here and they are also on Facebook. Do check them out. Maybe ask for a gift subscription if someone asks you what you need for the baby!

  44. Nadine says:

    Fascinating stories! Some of my random responses are:

    - S, your hair is SO beautiful – I can’t imagine it short!
    - All these babies being born in hospital – of course, it is the majority practice, but I’m such a home-birth hippy that I really noticed it! ;)
    - My mother is super-sporty (I am not), so she was very ‘anti’ me getting my ears pierced until I was 18. Of course I went and got it done myself when I was 14, and my sister was then allowed hers done at 14 too!
    - A little girl I know chopped off all her hair in toddlerhood (as so often happens!) – her mum took her to get her hair cut more tidily, and then immediately afterwards got her ears pierced so she still looked like a girl.

  45. Sarah Jane says:

    In rural Iowa in the 1980s, my memory is that the “town” girls were more likely to have their ears pierced as infants or toddlers, while the “farm” girls often waited until junior high or so. It may have been cultural, but it may also have been pragmatism — I would imagine the risk of infection is higher for a girl growing up on a farm than in a suburban neighborhood.

    My mom’s rule was that I needed to be old enough to make the decision and care for my own piercings, and I wound up waiting until I was 13 to get my ears pierced for the first time. My best friend, also from that community, chose never to get hers pierced, and is one of the only 20-something women I know without pierced ears.

    On low-key days, my wedding ring is my only jewelry. On dressy days, probably 90% of the time I add earrings and call it good as far as jewelry. Earrings are the easiest jewelry for me to put on and forget for the rest of the day; they don’t flop around annoyingly like bracelets or long necklaces.

  46. Mary says:

    I got my ears pierced when I was less than a year old, I believe. Totally because of gendering, at least according to my mom. Despite being dressed in more girly clothes (plus pink!), there were still doubts, I think mostly from strangers, about whether I was a boy or a girl. For example, saying, “Oh, he’s so cute! How old is he?”

    I don’t wear earrings nearly as much anymore. This is primarily due to work- I’ve found that when I use the phone I press my earrings into the side of my neck lol.

  47. Liz says:

    Really interesting post. I have two comments.

    My sister and I got our ears pierced one after another – she was three and I was six. I think my mother’s theory was to wait until we were old enough to ask for it ourselves and then let us do what we want.
    Second holes were another story. My mother absolutely forbade either of us to have more than one hole per ear…I think because she felt that earrings were classy and feminine, but several piercings were decidedly grungy and statement-making and unattractive. (I should note, she had a second earring hole that she allowed to close us). Needless to say, the summer after I turned 18 I got another hole in each ear and a cartilage ring and did not mention that to her. For me, earrings have always been a gendering feature, but they have also been an attempt to create, for myself, a compromise between my mother’s idea of proper dress and my own.

    On an entirely unrelated note, I found the idea of keeping both genders’ hair short to be fascinating. In parts of the Orthodox Jewish community, there is a tradition that one does not cut the hair of young boys until they are three years old. I think the practice has its roots in Kabbalistic ideas, but the upshot is that one occasionally sees a small child with long, flowing locks and that’s actually a sign that the child is male.

  48. [...] be it in terms of race, sexuality, class, or ethnicity. We’ve also talked about how these accoutrements of fashion are used by adults to enforce gender performance in young children. This article is a perfect example of our culture’s obsession with visibly marking children [...]

  49. Zoe says:

    This is so fascinating!! Coming from Bulgaria (just south of Romania and probably similar in many ways) and having had my ears pierced when I was 2 or 3, I’ve never given much thought to ear-piercing or imagined that it could be so controversial. I didn’t wear earrings full time as a child and in my teens because I react to non-gold or silver earrings, so the piercing were just kind of there. I was even told that they will close up if I don’t wear earrings every once in a while. Is that true?
    I really wonder where the white upper-middle class negative attitude towards (basic one hole on each ear) piercing comes from. Does it have to do with religion?
    Thanks for opening up this discussion. Now I’ll think twice about what I would decide to do if I ever have a daughter.
    As to hair being more of a marker of gender here in the States–it’s so true! Longer hairstyles are definitely more prevalent here (for grown women) than in Europe, in my experience. As someone who prefers to wear a bob or shoulder-length at the most, I secretly wish shorter hair were more embraced here. I was pretty shocked when I found out some of my friends (in the US) seem to think that short-short hairstyles on women automatically mean “lesbian”. I wonder how prevalent that association is.

  50. Bekka says:

    Hey, I actually wrote a book on this topic – it’s called “Gender and Jewelry, a Feminist Analysis,” and it goes into the use of jewelry to gender children at some length – and how it’s used in different societies to imprint different sets of gender norms. If you’re interested, there’s a bunch of excerpts from the book at or you can just google or it, it’s on google books too. Always so exciting to find other people interested in these topics! Honestly I don’t understand how it’s not fascinating to everyone.

  51. [...] navigating pregnancy in academia, dressing for a new faculty position, the importance we accredit to visible gendering, and what happens when something is perceived as ‘gender bending‘ in our culture). But [...]

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