“Okay, are you ready? Now, take a deep breath.”

I have heard this sentence year after year, usually seated in a soft leather chair. Familiar gloved fingers hold the needle hovered over my flesh, ready to do its work. No matter how many times I find myself in the hot seat, it still makes my heart thunder against my ribs and I can feel the adrenaline course through my veins each time.

People across communities all over the world have been getting pierced since the dawn of time. Piercings can represent rites of passage, types of religion, ethnicity and culture – from the elaborate pierced and stretched ear lobes of the Maasai people in Kenya to the nose piercings of Hindu women in India.

I have nine piercings (soon to be ten). I am Tswana and as far as I know, none of my piercing choices are based on my heritage and certainly aren’t based on religion.

My decision to get pierced isn’t just about how I look – it represents something political. Historically all different types of women have been persecuted for having choice and control over what we do with our bodies – piercings included.

From what we wear, to how we carry ourselves, to what we say and do, has been policed throughout the ages. It’s only with liberation movements that encourage women’s rights, dignities and choices that we’ve been able to break from stereotypes and reclaim what our own definitions of womanhood mean to us.

For me, getting pierced and tattooed makes me feel like I have control over the choices that I make with the body. It does not belong to anyone else and therefore nobody has the right to tell me what I can and cannot do with it based on false ideas of what a black woman should look like.

We all have labels. We’re put into boxes that we may or may not fit into. Getting pierced, like choosing what I wear or what I read, listen to or watch, is about me deciding what my ‘box’ will look like. It is the ultimate expression of my identity. It says, “This is Busang. Take it or leave it.” And because history prevented women from having the freedom to say, “This is who I am”, it’s not only a love letter to myself but it’s an ode to them, as well.

But, enough about me – let’s talk about you. Whilst piercing for some is about culture, for some it’s a choice of appearance. It’s definitely not for everyone and it certainly doesn’t have to have any of the meaning I’ve personally attached for myself. It doesn’t make you less cool, edgy or interesting if you never have the desire to get a piercing. For some, the choice not to get pierced carries its own meaning – cultural, religious or otherwise.

But, if you are interested in getting something for yourself, it’s important to be safe and responsible. Will it hurt? Yes. But remember that everyone’s tolerance for pain is completely different so you can never really know what you can handle until you go through it. I can say my septum piercing was the most painful (a solid 11/10 but my piercer was an inexperienced apprentice – this is a big no, no!) and my lip piercing was the least (1/10), the rest cover varying degrees of pain, but my body is unique and so is yours.

Piercing and any kind of needlework involve contact with blood, and as we know blood has the potential to carry pathogens if not handled carefully. You’re entering a space where lots of needles have been used and it’s crucial you know the signs of a well-sanitised working area to avoid contamination.

Also, if you’re still living at home with your folks or guardians, it’s best to have an open conversation about getting pierced if that’s what you’d like to do. It’s not really worth hiding or lying about it, you will end up getting caught and the consequences could be pretty severe, especially if your school policy doesn’t allow it. I had to wait until after I finished my matric exams to go wild and that also meant I could be honest about my piercing babies so there’s absolutely no rush!

Top tips for getting pierced:

1. Do your research – find out what you would like to get, where you’re going to get it and how long your new addition is going to take to heal.

2. Find a good piercing studio – in this case, you pay for what you get and if you’re going to go through a back-alley studio with a R50 cover charge for a nose piercing, you’re not going to get the best experience. Piercing studios pay for clean needles, antiseptic and other equipment to make sure your experience is as safe and healthy as possible.

3. Make sure whoever is piercing you is trained and certified – you wouldn’t want a random person doing this, it won’t end well.

4. Make sure they always use a fresh needle (NEVER get pierced with a gun, even for your ears!) and brand new gloves – ask them to unpack the needle in front of you so you know it hasn’t been reused. The needle should then be disposed of in a biohazard bin.

5. Look after your new piercing – infection is a very real thing. It’s normal for your piercing to crust and ooze a bit a few days after it’s been done (gross, I know) but after the healing process of a few weeks, it should be smooth sailing.

6. Signs of infection include pus, if the pus smells, and if your new piercing is itchy or hot to the touch. Scar tissue may also develop around the exit of the piercing – it may either be a keloid or a pressure sore (both look like bumps) but either way, get it checked to confirm what to do next. It is an open wound so proper aftercare is essential.

7. Use saline solution to help prevent infection. It’s simply a mix of sea salt (only about half a teaspoon) and warm (never hot!) water soaked in a cotton wool ball or you can immerse your piercing in a cup filled with it, two to three times a day.

8. Do not use harsh alcohols or creams as that disrupts the healing process and kills good skin cells that regenerate to help the skin heal. Pat the area dry with a clean towel and never touch your piercing with dirty hands. Ever.

So, those are my tips from my past experiences but make sure to ask around and do your research as well. Also, the cool thing about piercings is they aren’t permanent so if you ever change your mind, take it out, let it close and that’s that!

Tell me all about your piercing experiences, good, bad, ugly and awesome, in the comments below.