Do You Really Need To Dress Your Age?

Photo: Jon Snyder

Photo: Jon Snyder


Eight weeks ago I got my septum pierced. Just like every third human female on social media. It was a Saturday afternoon and I’d already gone to SoulCycle and Whole Foods, so I didn’t quite know what else to do. It was clear to me that the only logical move was to wander into Body Electric on Melrose to pay a latex-gloved man to gore my nose.

I’d conscripted a buddy to come along. She was looking to get her tragus pierced (that’s the wee knob of cartilage that sticks out directly in front of the ear canal). Apparently we'd arrived at precisely the right time because there was only one person ahead of us. Well, two, if you count her mom.

She was a cool mom—swishy, choppy haircut, covetable boots. And she was having a ball, making a show of snapping photos while her daughter—16, surly, wearing a tissuey T-shirt for a dress—filled out paperwork and picked out jewelry.

It’s exactly how I would've played it were I ever in the position to sign a parental consent form in a tattoo/piercing parlor. Which is to say, I had way more in common with this woman embarrassing her kid than with the offspring, who was born in the late ’90s and also getting her septum pierced.

When it was my turn, I selected a dainty rose gold hoop. An elegant, expensive-ish one. One befitting a 35-year-old lady who was about to embark on a harrowing journey of self-discovery by quitting drinking for the next few months (Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, eat your hearts out). I’d been toying with the idea of sobriety since New Year’s, having nursed a hangover so pernicious that for a whole afternoon I couldn't really see out of my right eye. I even piously entertained the notion of quitting sugar whilst on my intrepid sojourn. Maybe cheese.

In any case, the piercing was a sort of pre-reward for the draconian measures to come, and as I reclined on the table, I acknowledged—for the first time ever—the slightest knock of a biological clock. Not as it pertained to filling my womb (let’s not be crazy), but one that led me to finally ask myself: Whoa. Am I too old for this?

Which, for the record, blew my damned mind.

I hadn’t woken up that morning thinking I’d get a nose ring. In fact, I’d presumed—like the 800 other times the hyper-trendy piercing came around—that I’d want one in a vague, casual manner and get over it. Just like how I’m positively dying for a hand tattoo and those teeny-tiny bangs but not enough to, well, acquire them. But when the piercing came up again in conversation with friends—one had recently gotten it and looked smashing—the timing seemed right. I couldn’t think of a reason not to.

It wasn’t as if I had a corporate job with a strict dress code to fret over. In fact, I was unencumbered by employment entirely, seeing as the news TV show I’d been producing hadn’t been renewed. Which is a polite way of saying we’d been cancelled. I opted to work from home and figured the nose flair would do wonders to liven up my pajama-adjacent “office” clothes (not to mention morale) while I attempted to complete a slippery novel that neither wanted to end nor go anywhere.

It’s just a septum ring, I’d thought. Even Jessica Biel, of all people, sported a faux one to the Met Gala ages ago. And while centuries of indigenous civilizations may rightfully face-palm at all of our laissez-faire attitudes toward cultural appropriation, let’s be honest: The piercing’s as subversive as ordering a second dessert. Who cares?

Except that I apparently did. It’s not as if I’m immune to insecurity. Believe me, I’ve wasted multiple hours—enough to string into several years, I’m sure—feeling too short or too pie-faced or too insufficiently convex in the boobs area for certain trends. There was a period in college when I refused to wear sandals because I despised my toenail beds. And though I’m loath to admit it, I’ve even gone so far as to contract contact dermatitis on my eyelids from waterproof makeup I knew I was allergic to but refused to be seen without at the beach. I’m as big a pill as anyone, but this was the first time I’d felt this … hoary.

As the needle slid through the clamped flesh and my eyes watered under the blinding light, the spore of insecurity had been detonated, and an onslaught of super-fun, uplifting questions followed:

Does the mother feel sorry for me? Is that what her knowing look was about? Good grief. Does she think I’m getting my groove back but can’t throw down for Montego Bay or Tuscany? Is her kid re-thinking her piercing because I am the clear indication of how it’s all jumped the shark?

Something about that Saturday’s older-lady affairs—overpriced gym, extortionate grocery store, sobriety, conspiratorial smile with a woman in her 50s—catalyzed an emotional chain reaction I hadn’t been prepared for. The surprise was the worst part. Easily. It was the dusty old Hollywood trope: arriving at an audition only to discover that, horror, they want you to read for the mom part when you’d set out for the youthful lead.

I thought myself more self-aware than some delusional, undernourished actress with paper-thin skin straining against her vascular forehead and neck, smiling tight while trying not to cry at the confusion. Yet there I was. All I could taste was old spoons.

I couldn’t very well go to my friend, with her newly pierced cartilage, for solace. She’s a successful fashion photographer with a pierced nose and neon pink hair to boot. She’s the type to search high and low for Fs to give when it comes to any old-fashioned notions of propriety. Plus, she’s a year older. She’d have kicked me.

Thing is, I’d been joking for at least two years about being “too old” for things—waiting in lines for clubs, complicated bathing suits, gravy-smothered French fries at 6 am—but until that chilling feeling sneaks up on you, you realize you’d been kidding. Sike! Ha, ha. I take it all back! Make it stop? Clearly I’d jinxed myself. Made a funny face and had it freeze.

But what are 35-year-olds supposed to look like? I’d always dismissed “dressing for your age” as a racket to peddle magazines that weren’t the “body issue” or the big ones that come in the fall. It wasn’t a simple question of eschewing miniskirts, leveling up to better moisturizers or picking up a few “investment-caliber blazers” by the time you’re loping toward 40. I use Cetaphil for everything and mostly dress like an adolescent Kanye West acolyte in gender-neutral, “health goth” clothes—drop-crotch sweats and too-long shirts. To be honest, I’d thought myself liberated from superficial hang-ups, so you can see why “too old” was an unexpected treat.

A few weeks after I got the piercing, I visited my parents in Texas. My father took issue immediately and asked, point-blank, “How much do you want for that thing?” Without batting an eye I said, “Twenty thousand dollars.” He said he’d consider it. My mom swatted him and gently asked in a low tone why I’d felt the need to go and do this to myself. My mother, by the way, is neither gentle nor quiet. She looked like she was disarming a bomb.

I realized that she was worried about me. Which I found hysterical. What does it mean when your middle-aged kid comes home flaunting a puny rebellion about two decades too late? Normally  she’d have come in hot. Full-tilt offensive. Bellowing and bullying, hurling everything she had behind overpowering my will. The absurdity of the situation was priceless. I knew she still had it in her, that special brand of rage-mothering that would’ve never signed a parental consent form and was wholly unconcerned with being a cool anything ever. I was tempted to pick a fight for sport. It could be just like old times. When we were both so damned young.


The above article originally appeared in Lucky Shops.

Mary H.K. Choi

You had meat hello.