“What brings you in here today?”
I gazed into the green eyes of the svelte brunette, barely visible above her mask as she snapped a pair of plastic gloves on her delicate porcelain hands. Hands that were soon about to deliver a peculiar sort of pain on my own delicate flesh. I thought her question odd, given that I had scheduled this service and she was already setting up the tools of her torturous trade, but I answered anyway. The talking would take my mind off of what was yet to come.
“I’m here to get a Hollywood. I’m turning 43 this month.” I whispered the last part, almost conspiratorially. “There are so many things I want to try…and I have never had a bikini wax before.”
“You want a bikini or a Hollywood?”
“What’s the difference? I really don’t know.” Now was not the time for foolhardy egoism. Not when my vagina was in possible peril.
The brunette, Nicole, was kind enough to give me a quick rundown of what distinguished the two.
“Well, I signed up for a Hollywood…so let’s do that!”
For the next 15-seems-like-forever minutes, Nicole gently parted my legs, liberally applied a warm sugary paste, peeled it at the edges and ripped it off. She would then press her hand against the inflamed flesh, calming the swollen skin. As though the procedure were not odd enough, its success hinged on my active participation in my own indignity. In order to access my pubic hair, it was imperative that I shift the tight-fitting paper mache thong I had been issued at the door. I remarked on its positive psychological effect.
“This thing only gives the illusion of modesty,” I said, tugging at the disposable undies.
“Ya,” Nicole laughed. “I can pretty much see everything. But that’s a good thing!”
It went on this way until the process was complete – oscillating between agony and relief; shame and wonder – and I was bare and bald beneath my overhanging stomach. I lifted my FUPA and stared at the mirror in wonder. It was glorious.
“Would you like to book your next appointment?” asked Nicole.
“Yes. Yes, please!”
Thus began my first step into what would turn into a month of trying all the things I’ve ever wanted to do with my body but was too scared to, either because of the yoke of respectability or the oppressive cloak of conservatism. I was never good at shouldering either, so I’ve decided it’s best for all involved if I cast them off. Well, it’s best for me.
The Nose Ring
Now that I’ve settled into my 40s and accepted that things are what they are, my feelings around getting a year older have been altered drastically. In 2020 I was horrified by every unexpected aching joint and unexplained pain. This year those aches are along for the ride. They are no longer the drivers. Which is why I drove myself to the Phoenix Pharmacy on Meade Street to get one of the body adornments that I have long admired by never had the courage to get: a nose piercing.
The cashier took one listen at my foreign accent and added an extra R50 to the price of the service I had been quoted just 6 weeks before. I was not to be deterred.
A plump Coloured woman with cheeks that bulged at the sides of her mask took me into the coat room of the pharmacy (I really wish I was joking), gave me a Sharpie, and told me where to mark on my face where I wanted my piercing to go. I did so dutifully, hoping she would give her opinion on placement. Instead, she pulled out a piercing gun and ordered me not to flinch. I shouted as the needle drove through the tender nostril flesh.
She was unfazed by my reaction, but very interested in the intonation of my shriek.
“Are you from America?” she asked.
Then came the usual queries about what brought me to South Africa and why I had chosen to stay. It’s taken 5 years to master the art of condensing this story into a few sentences that satisfy the listener, but she was left wanting more.
“I hope I get to see you again. You should come by again soon!”
Unless I desired another hole in my face or needed medical treatment, the possibility of us meeting again seemed slim. Still:
“Yes! I hope I do too,” I trilled, knowing full well I’d never be back.
“I think tattoos are trashy. If you ever got a tattoo, I’d never touch you again!” – My husband in the early days of our marriage
I remember where we were when he said this. We were in our tiny, two-bedroom townhouse in Roswell, standing in the kitchen discussing general matters. I have always found tattoos incredibly alluring pieces of art. Even when poorly executed, they provide the wearer with a story to tell, which as a storyteller myself is the point. I wanted to tell such a story. But as a new bride who had bought wholly into the narrative that one’s married life should be in the pursuit of pleasuring one’s husband and God Almighty Himself, tattoos could not be a part of that equation. Not if I wanted to be in good Christian standing. Not to mention the risk of never (ever?) being touched sexually by my husband again? I tucked away the idea. I was not willing to risk getting my back blown out for some ink.
Fast-forward four pregnancies, four c-sections, four breast feeding babies, one brain operation, irregular pap smear appointments, and a 9 day stay in the hospital to treat meningitis…I can say with all honesty that I don’t care if anyone ever touches me again.
I began working with a local artist at the beginning of the year. He designed this work for me:
A compass that points north, the direction that my African American ancestors went in their quest for freedom; an overturned urn with water to denote my Aquarius star sign; a quill surrounded by ink splotches to demonstrate my passion for writing all wreathed by a brilliant quote by Gloria Anzaldúa which reads: A woman who writes has power. And a woman with power is feared.
Five hours on the bench later, and a longtime dream had been made a reality.
The first thing people ask is how my husband feels about my tattoo. I am honest when I say I don’t care. Oh, he likes it and has said as much– and while that’s fortunate, every day I find myself moving past the point of living my life for the explicit pleasure or expectations of others. And while I am doing none of this in the service of my outward appearance, I get more compliments on my looks now that I have before. I honestly believe that it’s because I’m finally accepting that I have the power to give myself permission to be who and what I want to be and am consistently growing in that power.
My friend Patrice is ten years my senior. When she turned 45, single and living alone in an apartment, I remember looking at her in pity as she milled the tables at her birthday party. She seemed so happy, content and confident. Surely, she was faking her joy! After all, she had achieved none of the milestones that made a woman a “woman”.
A toast was raised for her just before cutting the cake, where everyone showered her with compliments. Of herself she said: “I’m not getting older, I’m getting better!”
I didn’t get what she meant on that autumn day in Atlanta, but I surely get it now. If this is what a midlife crisis is supposed to be, it’s some of the best fun I’ve ever had. I look forward to more of this sensation.