Belly-Button Bliss Pierced at 40!

When Rabbi Akiva, the great Torah scholar, turned 40, he began studying Jewish texts. As I approached 40, I was thinking not of re-claiming my spiritual heritage but rather of repossessing my body. I wanted a belly–button ring.

For years I’d harbored this desire. However, I’d resisted the urge out of consideration for my children’s tender feelings. They were even humiliated when I talked to strangers in the grocery store.

But then the kids went off to camp last summer. And I fumed to myself: “Why should I accept other people’s definition of what a mom should be? Haven’t I already foregone my sleep, my breasts and body to nurture and suckle these babes? Must I also give up my dream of a stud through my belly button?”

In the past, such a private rant over the plight of women and their continued oppression in this world would have burned itself out after a few days. Not this time. For I was turning 40. Jewishly, the number 40 indicates that a cycle is complete, and it is time to move on to the next stage. In the Bible, the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert, the flood lasted for 40 days, Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days. And then there was Rabbi Akiva.

Thus it was that last summer—without discussing it with my husband, lest he disapprove—I set out with my supportive niece, Jacqui, to the East Village in Manhattan. After one quick, not too painful pinch in the middle of the abdomen, I became the proud owner of an adorable barbell ring. Afterwards, over lunch, Jacqui and I analyzed in all its complexity this sudden ability to act upon a long-buried yearning. Jacqui suggested that, after years of pregnancy, in which I’d sheltered another being within my body, getting my navel pierced represented re-asserting my Self. And I was reassured that not only was this not some frantic grab for my misspent youth, but was rather the action of a mature, adult woman.

My maturity and mental health, however, were called into question by my 12-year-old son, David, when a month later I finally ‘fessed up and offered my kids a discreet peek at my birthday present to myself. “You psychopath!” David screamed at me. turning his head away in absolute disgust. He went on to tell me that I was an embarrassment and I had better never wear anything in front of his friends that would expose my navel ring and, presumably, reveal to his peers that he had a crazy mother.

(Later that week, when David was cranky over something, I threatened to lift my shirt in front of his friends. Ever since, I’ve found this to be a much more effective disciplinary tool than time-outs.)

My 10-year-old daughter’s reaction was supportive—”You rock, mom!”—while my seven year old looked at it curiously for a second and shrugged.

My 24-year-old nephew admitted that he liked it and thought it was sexy, but he was perplexed. Why had I done it, if I didn’t show it off with skimpy tops? “The only reason I dress nicely and get my hair cut and take a shower is to make a good impression on others,” he admitted. Jacqui and I looked at each other, shook our heads and said: “Men.”

Most interesting and surprising have been other women’s responses to the news of my navel piercing. Friends my age and older have confessed, in hushed voices, that they’d always wanted a tattoo or a pierce, but hadn’t done it. Why? Because their husbands or boyfriends wouldn’t approve.

Well, for me, turning 40 was the reason I was free to do it. Like Rabbi Akiva, doing something just because I wanted to indicated to me that I’d entered a new cycle. The assumptions I associated with the umbilical cord and all that it represented— nurturing my children, trying to live up to the wife and mom image, consulting my husband before making decisions—were what had really been pierced.

Angela Himsel’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in many magazines and newspapers. She lives in New York City with her family.