This post is part of EthnicAisle, which you should check out immediately. 

At the Waldorf school where my friend works, girls get sent home for wearing jewelry. Earrings, necklaces and rings are all grounds for suspension, their very presence within the hallowed Waldorfian walls deemed a threat to the sanctity of childhood innocence. Children should not be adorned, vanity should not be rewarded, and everyone under a certain age should believe in gnomes.

My half-Latin girl self would have been rejected faster than you could say “Anthroposophy.”

This isn’t a direct criticism of Waldorf education, which produced some of my dearest–and brightest–friends. I’m using this as an example because it’s the one I happen to have in my back pocket. But I’m not going to lie: learning of this anti-bling policy made me immediately question the cultural bias that informed it.* I don’t want to get into value judgments over what is or isn’t the appropriate way to clothe a child** (and, no, I will not be opening any gender binary-related Pandora’s boxes today), but it’s important to recognize that different contexts create different norms. This is fact.

I open, as is my wont, with some personal background. Growing up with a Salvadoran woman as my personal stylist (i.e. mom), my first few years of life may have been my best accessorized. In keeping with cultural tradition, my newborn ears were pierced within a month of my birth. So great was the priority of my ear piercing that, after being rejected by conventional ear piercing joints, my parents sought the services of a children’s hospital plastic surgeon to punch the requisite holes into my tiny earlobes. He didn’t do a great job; one of my piercings is noticeably lower than the other, despite his well-trained hand. According to my parents, he was quite apprehensive about the whole ordeal. I’d been born nearly two months early, and at three weeks of age was probably still smaller than the average fresh-from-the-womb earthling. I give my plastic surgeon piercer a lot of credit for abiding by my parents’ wishes when no one else would.

I recently conducted an informal social media poll on the matter, from which I gleaned that–at least from my modest sampling–my Latin American, Caribbean, and Southern European friends and acquaintances were more inclined than others to have experienced early pierceage. For many others, it was an earned school-age privilege; by the time they were begging their moms to let them get their ears pierced, I was deep into rebelling against my parentally-imposed bling.

From infancy until junior kindergarten, I was well-decked in what could be seen as potential choking hazards. Earrings, rings, necklaces: I wore them all, and often at the same time. I even had a red beaded bracelet to protect me from the Evil Eye (didn’t work). But once I started school, most of these accessories fell by the wayside. Jewelry was seen by my public school’s staff as a distraction**–discouraged, if not explicitly punished–and it wasn’t long before I decided I didn’t want anything to do with that kind of thing. Desires to fit in and whatnot.

I don’t leave the house without big dangly earrings now, but it took awhile to get there.

Now, back to where we started. Do I ask my mother why it was so important to her that I be pierced as a newborn, or is that question inherently judgmental? Do I ask my aunt, “aren’t you worried my baby cousin is going to choke on his bracelet in his sleep?” or is that condescending double-speak? Do we do away with adornments altogether because, let’s face it, babies are genderless lumps (of cuteness!) who don’t care what they look like? Does it matter who’s asking? You tell me.

 

*The Waldorf pedagogy was developed at the turn of the 20th century by an Austrian guy named Rudolf Steiner. Cultural contexts.

**Well, certain exceptions apply. Push-up bras for 8-year-olds will never be okay. But, dear reader, I am trusting you to make the distinction between these examples.

***Funny theory: by the time I started school at age three and a half, I was so accustomed to wearing jewelry that I didn’t even notice it was there.

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