Body piercing is the practice of inserting jewelry (usually metal, though wood, glass, bone, or ivory, and certain plastics are used as well) completely through a hole in the body. Piercing is often combined with other forms of body art, such as tattooing or branding, and many studios offer more than one of these services. While virtually any part of the body can be, and has been, pierced and bejeweled (for evidence, see the well-known Web site http://www.bmezine.com) widely pierced sites include ear, eyebrow, nose, lip, tongue, nipple, navel, and genitals.
Much of what popularly passes for the history of body piercing is in fact fictitious. In the 1970s, the Los Angeles resident Doug Malloy, an eccentric and wealthy proponent of piercing, set forth with charismatic authority a set of historical references connecting contemporary Western body piercing to numerous ancient practices. He declared, for example, that ancient Egyptian royalty pierced their navels (consequently valuing deep navels), Roman soldiers hung their capes from rings through their nipples, the hafada (a piercing through the skin of the scrotum) was a puberty rite brought back from the Middle East by French legionnaires, and that the guiche (a male piercing of the perineum) was a Tahitian puberty rite performed by respected transvestite priests. No anthropological accounts bear out these claims.
What facts can be sorted from the fiction nonetheless attest to the remarkable antiquity of piercing. The oldest fully preserved human being found, the 5,300-year-old “ice-man” of the Alps, shows evidence of ear-lobe piercing. Like many with a serious interest in piercing in the twenty-first century, the ice-man has stretched his lobes, in his case to a diameter of about seven millimeters. Artifacts as well as bodies offer evidence of ancient single and multiple ear piercings from as early as the ninth century B.C.E.
While Malloy’s claims are largely imaginative, there are geographically diverse cultures in which piercing has been continually practiced for quite some time. Ear and nose piercing seem to be, and seem to have been, the most popular; indeed, there are far too many examples to list here, and the following instances should be taken as representative rather than anything close to exhaustive. Many Native American peoples practiced ear or nose—generally septum—piercing (the latter most famously among the Nez Percé of the American Northwest). Multiple ear piercing was practiced by both men and women in the ancient Middle East, and a mummy believed to be that of Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, sports two piercings in each ear. The Maoris of New Zealand, though better known for their intricate and elegant tattoo designs, have also long practiced ear piercing, which along with nose piercing is widespread among native peoples of both New Zealand and Australia. Ear piercing for girls forms part of traditional rites in Thai and Polynesian cultures. Ear piercing among the Alaskan Tlingits could be an indication of social status, as could nose piercing.
Stretched ear piercings—in which the hole is gradually enlarged by the use of weights or by the insertion of successively larger pieces of jewelry—appear in diverse cultures as well. In Africa, the Masai and Fulani are known for ear-cartilage piercings, which may be stretched (a much slower and more difficult process than stretching earlobe piercings). Images and artifacts from native Central American cultures show stretched lobes with jewelry much like that used by contemporary enthusiasts. East Asian images and sculptures, some many centuries old, show long stretched lobes as well; these are emblematic especially of Buddhist saints. The Dayaks of Borneo traditionally pierce and dramatically stretch the earlobe; other piercings—including the ampallang, a horizontal piercing through the penis—have also been attributed to them.
Nostril piercing may have originated in the Middle East, and has been practiced in India for thousands of years, particularly among women. It may be through their interest in Eastern cultures that the hippies of North America took to nostril piercing around the 1970s.
While not as prevalent as the piercing of the ears or nose, lip piercing is also geographically widespread. Women in many regions of East Africa have traditionally worn lip piercings with plugs, while Dogon women may pierce their lips with rings. The men among some native Alaskan peoples also pierced the lower lip, either doubly or singly.
Other piercings are much less attested to in older or more traditional contexts. There is some indication of Central American tongue piercing, for example among the Mayas, but this may have been temporary, intended to draw blood for ceremonial purposes rather than for the lasting insertion of jewelry. More reliable is the evidence of the Indian Kama Sutra (written by the sixth century C.E.) where penis piercings resembling the contemporary apadravya—a vertical piercing through the penis—are described as enhancing the pleasure of both the penis-bearer and his partner.
There may also have been temporary upsurges of interest prior to contemporary versions—some sources, for example, report a fad for nipple piercings among women in the late nineteenth century in both London and Paris. (See both Kern and Harwood.) Here, as in its contemporary form, piercing is removed from its more traditional social functions, such as marking one as a member of a community or as being of a particular status, and more specifically erotic as well as decorative functions are noted.
Recent History and Subcultures
“Body piercing” is generally distinguished from (unstretched) earlobe piercing, and is more recent in popularity. In its late-twentieth-century version, the interest in such piercing can be traced largely to a handful of figures, particularly Doug Malloy along with Jim Ward and Fakir Musafar (Roland Loomis) in the United States and Mr. Sebastian (Alan Oversby) in the United Kingdom.
With Malloy serving as patron and in some respects teacher, Ward began making specialized piercing jewelry in the early 1970s (Ward is credited with the design of the ubiquitous captive-bead ring, also called the ball-closure ring). He and Musafar opened the Gauntlet, a piercing shop that seemed a natural outgrowth of the jewelry business, in Los Angeles in 1975. Gauntlet shops in other major cities opened in succeeding years. Later he began the journal PFIQ (Piercing Fans International Quarterly), an important source of both information and community for those interested in body piercing. Mr. Sebastian, likewise taught at first by Malloy, was more secretive with his techniques, but was widely known as a piercer. For both, the initial clientele was largely gay men from the sadomasochistic (s/m) community.
In the 1980s, Elayne Binnnie (known as Elayne Angel in the early 2000s) joined the staff of the Gauntlet, attracting many more women clients. Angel, who was the first person to obtain the “Master Piercer” certificate from the Gauntlet, is also widely credited with popularizing the tongue piercing (having five herself). Along with the navel, the tongue is one of the most popular piercings in the early twenty-first century.
Musafar, who later fell out with his former partner, is responsible for the term “modern primitive,” with which a number of highly pierced people have identified. Musafar emphasizes commonalities between contemporary and older, particularly tribal, traditions; he also emphasizes the psychological and spiritual elements of all sorts of body modifications, including piercing. Many serious piercers in the early 2000s are trained in his seminars. Modern primitives may ritualize the processes and meaning of their body art and often draw on traditional cultures for design in both piercing jewelry and other arts, such as tattooing.
From its start among gay leathermen, piercing grew in popularity to include a number of communities. Among the most influential in the spread of piercing’s popularity was punk. The punks in both the United States and the United Kingdom were fond of non-ear piercings, particularly on the face (lip, nostril, and cheek piercings attained popularity early in this group). The punk emphasis is on rebellion and unconventionality; the modern primitive emphasis on cross-cultural connection and spirituality is quite absent here, replaced by punk’s interesting combination of outrage and playfulness.
Music and cultural styles that emerged out of punk often have a place for piercing as well. The straightedge movement, generally dated to the early 1980s, though it attained more popularity later on, provides today a large subset of the heavily pierced. Along with tattoos (often of straightedge symbols such as XXX or sXe) piercings show both the punk influence on straightedge music and the subculture’s deep interest in the body (most who identify as straightedge are vegetarian or vegan and abstain from the use of alcohol and other recreational drugs). Straightedge thinking may emphasize the slightly mind-altering sensation of the piercing experience, incorporating elements of the modern primitive emphasis on ecstasies (overcoming the limits of time and selfhood in experience) alongside punk unconventionality. The Goth scene emergent in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s has a religious sensibility very different from modern primitive spirituality, tending toward highly stylized and cultivated artifice in its use of religious, particularly Catholic and Wiccan, imagery. As these associations suggest, Goth style tends toward intense theatricality, and visually striking piercings are widespread; the “dark” emphasis of much Goth culture also meets up with an acceptance of s/m imagery and the pain that may be inherent in body piercing.
The rave scene emergent in the 1990s also includes an interest in visually compelling piercings, particularly facial and navel piercings. Often glow-in-the-dark or battery-powered flashing jewelry is used, giving the piercings a hypnotic effect in dimly lit spaces and playing off the more rapid pulse of the very high beats-per-minute music generally favored.
Not all highly pierced groups or scenes are connected to particular species of music, of course. S/m communities remain strongholds of piercing. Here both the physicality of the piercing experience (and the enhanced sensation often provided by healed piercings) and the symbolism of the jewelry are significant—with the significance ranging from pain-tolerance to community affiliation to ownership. Piercing is also popular, though not so much as tattooing, in biker culture. Here large-gauge (thickness) piercings are often favored, complimenting the traditional bold lines of biker tattooing. Finally, many people also simply understand themselves as members of a body-modification or body-art community, with a respect for body modification and an interest in its being practiced well—as well as in having their own bodies modified.
The Move to the Mainstream
Most piercers, however, will emphasize that the people who get pierced do not often fit into any of these groups, and may indeed be, for example, corporate or grandparental types whose under-the-clothes piercings almost certainly go unsuspected. The more fashionable piercings—particularly tongue, navel, nostril, and eyebrow— tend to attract a younger and more specifically (or overtly) fashion-oriented clientele. A significant influence on the entry of body piercing into mainstream fashion has been popular music, as formerly “edgy” or marginal looks were assimilated into pop and made widely visible in music videos. The most famous instance here is undoubtedly the inspirationally pierced navel of the singer Britney Spears, which has taken thousands if not millions of young women into piercing shops they might not otherwise have frequented.
In general, “mainstream” body piercing involves relatively small-gauge jewelry, often (particularly for navel piercings) with ornamental, even jeweled, beads. Gold, while expensive, may be used as well as more commonly used nonreactive metals including stainless steel and titanium. Perhaps in response, those who identify as more marginal or as members of the body-art community tend to prize piercings that are unusual in location or style, such as surface piercings (piercings that go under the skin rather than through a protruding part of the body—the eyebrow is a surface piercing, but less common versions include the nape or front of the neck, the back along the spine, and the wrists), multiple piercings in a single location (even the navel offers top, bottom, left, and right options), or very large-gauge piercings.
As body piercing has grown in popularity, it has come to be increasingly regulated, though it is still much less so than tattooing. In most of the United States, and in parts of Canada and Australia, local legislation sets hygienic standards via departments of health, and limits the piercing permitted to minors, either banning it outright or requiring parental permission. Interestingly, earlobe piercing is almost invariably excluded from this legislation, a reflection of its well-established and unthreatening presence. The Association of Professional Piercers, a voluntary organization, promotes self-regulation regarding cleanliness standards and piercing practices, and many piercers are members.
Legislation in the United Kingdom is somewhat ambiguous, although piercing seems in general to be legal so long as its purpose is solely cosmetic. In 1991, Mr. Sebastian was found guilty of “gross bodily harm” to thirteen of his clients (they had not complained, but their names were located in his records), on the principle that one cannot assent to assault or mutilation. Cosmetic piercing is regulated in London, and ear piercing elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but it is not quite clear how or whether laws on injury, surgery, or female circumcision might apply (see Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council).
Despite occasional suggestions that the proper legislation regarding body piercing is to ban it outright, the phenomenon seems unlikely to disappear altogether. Undoubtedly its popularity will wane, perhaps to wax again at some point, but the longevity of the practice among human beings suggests that it has an enduring, as well as cross-cultural, appeal.
Camphausen, Rufus C. Return of the Tribal. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions Ltd., 1997.
Harwood, Bernhardt. The Golden Age of Erotica. New York: Paperback Library, 1968.
Kern, Stephen. Anatomy and Destiny. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1974.
Larratt, Shannon. ModCon: The Secret World of Extreme Body Modification. Toronto: BME Books, 2002.
Vale, V., and Andrea Juno. Modern Primitives. San Francisco: V/Search, 1989.