My navel piercing was exhilarating. I got it the last time I was in Miami, surrounded by my Miami friends who had no idea why I’d just signed up for such a feminine-coded body modification. Having friends there made the event exciting; having Ania made it safe. I faced the needle with enough nervousness that I had to fill out the “I’m the right age” form twice.
Ania has a picture of the face I made when it went in. I’m not sharing it.
Afterward, though? The soreness commingled with a heady endorphin rush that I should have expected but most definitely did not. I was giddy with delight. If we weren’t already at our financial limit, I might have signed up for another piercing then and there, in that euphoric haze. I’m looking forward to that feeling again.
Most of it was physiological, the well-known head trip of predicted pain turning to pleasure that undergirds the runner’s high and sadism/masochism play alike. I gained a new understanding of what other people get out of those experiences in the aftermath of my own encounter with the piercing needle. But there was something else there, too.
In a big way, transition is about taking control: of one’s body, of one’s lifestyle, of one’s own mind. It is not a coincidence that many of unrecognized-transness’s comorbidities are things like eating disorders, self-harm, and bigorexia. When our bodies betray us and our lives spiral out of our hands, we face the crushing need to re-establish some measure of power over ourselves, however destructive. We are our bodies, and flesh that refuses to honor its position in that compact is a nightmare whose shriek for resolution is the continuous background noise of our lives, to be quieted in any and every way available.
After almost thirty years of this body only pretending to recognize its owner, I’m ready to finish bringing it to heel.
I didn’t get my ears pierced that day in Miami, because I needed to keep my piercing adventure secret from my parents. But I want to. I’ve received earrings as gifts and I want to use them. My fashion skills ache for this new challenge. This feminine milestone most girls around here claim in childhood, I will attain as an adult: one more signal to the world that this is real, this is me, and I am not looking back. I have no plans for more piercings after that, however exhilarating that first one was. I have enough medical procedures in my future that keeping my metal collection easily removed is a priority, and enough sensory sensitivity in various other likely piercing sites to not want to take chances with them. The prospect of my recurring respiratory infections and allergies interacting with a nose piercing is not something I wish to cultivate. So I’m sticking with ears.
The mark I intend to leave on this brainholster is rather more literal. I’ve got tattoos on my mind. I will etch onto this magnificent new skin the reality of my ownership. I will carry messages for myself and others about who I am, what brings me joy, and what I need to hear to get through the day…once I can come up with hundreds of dollars I can afford to spend on ink instead of rent.I’m putting a Taino coquí on my ankle. I’ve recently come to more fully understand and appreciate how Taino-ness came to me via my Caribbean Hispanic heritage, and I have no intention of letting my current estrangement from my family get between me and my culture. Among the famous Taino petroglyphs of Puerto Rico is one common symbol, signifying the coquí frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui). Named for its call, this frog is highly characteristic of the northern Caribbean and has further been taken up as a symbol for Puerto Rico at large. Artistically, I’m particularly fond of this petroglyph because of how it shows the curiously human proportions hopping frogs have, with short arms, long legs, and big heads, and for the unusual way the coquí’s large eyes are represented. It’s a simple, highly stylized shape, recognizable yet alien, animal yet human, and it’ll probably be my first tattoo.
More symbolically, the coquí is symbolic of my tangled relationship with my heritage. One of Puerto Rico’s national myths is the idea that the coquí is so tightly associated with its home island that it pines away in sadness when removed from it, and dies before even reaching another island by boat. For so do we all desire La Isla Bonita, that it wounds us to be away. In reality, however, it’s not totally clear that E. coqui is indeed restricted to Puerto Rico, and other Eleutherodactylus frogs are definitely found elsewhere in the Caribbean. More to the point, the coquí actually handles transplantation so well that it has become invasive in Hawaii and other islands with similar climates, and is the subject of ongoing eradication campaigns to keep it from wrecking the local ecology. My parents disowned me and, thereby, painfully exiled from the place I used to call home, but the joke’s on them: I will do better away than I ever did there, and the hills and mountains will resound with the beauty that they denied themselves by forcing me away.Another symbol for the journey I have made that I intend to take up permanently is Pokémon. Two of my favorites are Corsola and Leavanny, and together, they mean things to me. I’ve already written at length about the significance that Leavanny’s story holds for me thanks to its ethereal symmetry with my transition. Her story is about happiness, betrayal, and coming into her own by letting go of sadness and shame, and I delight in it. Corsola’s story, by contrast, is a story about endurance. Corsola is themed on animate coral, and she is playful, cute, and more powerful than she appears. Attackers regularly break off her pretty coral horns, but they grow back. Her elements are Rock and Water, and these make her far more durable and far more adaptable than many take her to be. She endures, and she looks adorable doing it. Together, they are the one who will not be held down, and the one who got up again. The one who doesn’t change, and the one who changed into herself. The part that was always there, and the part that took a while to find. There’s a certain pleasant correspondence to my slight and Ania’s stout frames, as well. I particularly like the interaction depicted in the mockup Ania prepared for me, with Leavanny looking down at herself like she’s amazed at what she sees and Corsola excitedly drawing her attention to something else.
It wouldn’t be me if it didn’t involve fish somehow, so I also have a fish tattoo in mind. I came across this image when I was first thinking about tattoos and fell in love with it immediately. The artful tracking of the hip and middle back makes this a tattoo that will follow and enhance my shape and which will enhance the visual impact of the crop tops I wear in summer. My waist and hips are the subject of ongoing reclamation, and I will make them mine. Even better, the bottom fish (a black moor goldfish) was my very first pet fish, and remains a cherished memory. The top fish, while pretty, doesn’t have personal significance for me, so I’ll instead be including an African butterflyfish, Pantodon buchholzi. For those who haven’t read me waxing reverently about this strange creature before, P. buchholzi is easily my favorite pet fish and has been for years. It is visually stunning, but its brown camouflage means many aquarists overlook it. It is ecologically bizarre, a little expensive, and challenging to maintain in captivity, so I’ve had few opportunities to try, but each one has been relished and has reminded me why I find these creatures so fascinating.
One last piece I have considered is based on one of my favorite examples of Steven Universe fan art, seen here. It’s hardly surprising that this particular autistic trans woman sees a lot of herself in Pearl, given how my circle of friends argues with itself over which of us is more Pearl than the others. Pearl begins by breaking free from intensely restrictive expectations in her original home culture and helping found a group intent on remaking he race’s social order in more egalitarian terms. She struggles to articulate her emotional needs, insists on neatness and order in her surroundings, faces many ordinary situations with anxious confusion, and has emotional reactions that make sense to her but seem wildly inappropriate to others. She is tormented by feelings of inadequacy related to her failure to live up to her original designated role and to the departure from her life of people on whom she was emotionally dependent. Despite this, she has developed great skill with machines, become the knowledge base of her team, and honed combat skills to rival the career soldiers in her midst.
And we both need the same reminder, more often than either of us is willing to admit: I am enough.
That one’s going on a forearm.
I don’t anticipate having the funds to even start on this body-modification adventure anytime soon. There are far more immediate priorities ahead of me, mostly related to making sure I am employed by the end of next month and that we don’t start missing payments, keeping me from spending anywhere near as much on me as I would like.
But it’s on the agenda, for a more replete time when continuing my journey into myself isn’t such an impossible luxury.