"So, when are you getting her ears pierced?"
I didn't respond. My baby daughter was licking crusted-up cereal off the floor and I fussed around her, hoping the question would go away.
"You know, you should have done it when she was a newborn. I hear they don't feel so much pain then. Now, of course she is teething so I can understand why you don't want to cause her any more discomfort."
My unwitting adversary was being sweet and understanding.
But she did not understand at all.
The truth is I was not so worried about the pinprick of pain or rusted implements or bacterial infections - none of the things to which people attributed my lack of enthusiasm.
"I don't think I will get her ears pierced at all. Not until she tells me she really wants it done," I said.
This was too much! The poor woman had to intervene!
"Oh no no, no that is not a good idea at all. For one it will hurt her. Trust me, she will cry her eyes out when she is older."
"That's OK," I replied. "We'll see when the time comes."
The woman's smile faltered. "She is going to hate you, you know. All her friends will have piercings and nice earrings and she'll be the only one who won't. She will resent you."
"I refuse to have holes punched into her body just so that she can meet some ideal of feminine decorativeness."
I took stock of the situation. Should I tell this woman the real reason? Would she take it as an affront?
I smiled blandly at this point as is my wont, but here's what I didn't say then.
The reason I will not get my daughter's ears pierced before she is old enough to request it is because I refuse to have holes punched into her body just so that she can meet some ideal of feminine decorativeness.
There is a world of distance between cruel practices such as female circumcision or foot binding or force feeding and getting a baby's ears pierced, but think about it. They are along the same continuum, albeit at opposite ends. They all involve encroaching upon the child's bodily integrity so that she may be made more attractive -- to men eventually.
In my "community" (or the one I married into) at least, no one would dream of asking me to get a son's ears pierced. So, why my daughter? So that she can practice being bejewelled and bedecked for her wedding day? Be a pretty little chhamak chhalo?
Even those who tut disapprovingly at Barbie dolls and prince-charming fairytales do not question the assumption that a young girl ought to have her ears pierced as early as possible. We think nothing of mutilating our little girls just because it "looks pretty". To whom? Why? No one really cares to answer these questions, and when they do the answers are barely an earlobe deep.
"No no, it's cute is all," is the frustrating explanation I hear most often. But then why isn't it cute for most little boys? Conceptions of beauty and cuteness or whatever evolve for certain reasons. They are rooted in culture, gender expectations, in age-old power equations. "Oh but I do it for myself," argue those who usually also like adorning themselves. They sniff, "It makes me feel good to look good."
Lovely for you, but have you ever considered that you enjoy it because you've internalised that beauty depends on how you decorate yourself, and wellbeing in turn depends on beauty? I have enough insight into myself to know that I tick this way too and it is a burden. I would like very much to not have my moods dictated by how wobbly my thighs feel on a particular day or obsess over how my ornaments and vestments compare to those of the women around me. I insult my own intelligence every day and I don't want my daughter to live that way.
And what if the child wants her ears pierced when she is six or 10 or 13? Then so be it. For all my feminist ideals, I can't prevent her from assimilating the gender codes she sees around her. Our compound is full of ferocious little girls who say things like "my name is Nisha Princess Barbie Gulati" and ask me why my baby "looks like a boy" when she isn't outfitted in pink confections.
At most I can downplay the importance of appearance, but I can't prevent her from making her own decisions and supporting them if they do not cause her health any real harm. But at least my conscience will be clear in that I didn't make a baby cry and bleed, however little, just so she could flaunt overpriced markers of femininity.
And if she resents me? She'll do that anyway for some reason or the other, as all these little ingrates do.
A version of this blog appeared on Half Baked And Ready To Serve