the hole story Whether fetish, fad or fashion,enthusiasm for body piercing goes beyond skin-deep

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At first glance, Eric Poland looks like any other non-conformist in his mid-20s. His hair is long, his clothes are black and a bit grungy, and his attitude is low-key and congenial. Pass him on the street, and you probably wouldn't give him a second glance.

Unless you notice his jewelry. Or, more specifically, where he wears it.

Poland is a body-piercing enthusiast. In addition to eight earrings (four in each ear), the 23-year old has had his septum, nipples and navel pierced. He knows that some people find his interest bizarre -- he mentions a neighbor who wouldn't talk to him because, she said, "I thought you were a Satan worshiper" -- but shrugs off most such comments.

"All piercing is," he says, "is an adornment."

Maybe so, but people are adorning some pretty odd parts these days. Not only do a growing number of young people sport nose studs, eyebrow hoops and navel rings, but more extreme piercings -- nipple rings, tongue bars and genital piercings -- have become surprisingly common among the hip and trendy. Yet as tempting as it is to write piercing off as one more fad for the fashion-hungry, the fact is many devotees say the practice builds their self esteem and strengthens them spiritually.

But there are still a lot of people who think piercing is just plain weird.

Just ask Tamara Zuromskis. She also wears nose jewelry, but hers is just a stud through her nostril. "A lot of times, people will treat me a little bit odd, and I don't realize why unless I think about it," says the 19-year-old Johns Hopkins undergrad. "It's not the first thing I think of when I meet people, whereas the first thing they think of when they see me is that I have a nose pierce. And I'll forget that."

Nor are noses the only unusual body parts sporting jewelry these days. Look around on the night life circuit, and you'll see club kids sporting hoops through their eyebrows and mini-barbells through their tongues; head down to the beach, and you'll see sunbathers wearing navel rings along with their tans and bikinis.

And those are just the parts that show.

Star stuck

It helps, of course, that there are stars who have piercings. Like actress Lisa Bonet, who raised eyebrows with her nose ring. Or rocker Axl Rose, who turned up on the cover of Rolling Stone with a hoop through his left nipple. Or soul singer Mary J. Blige, who sports a discreet stud in her right nostril. Or porn star Madison, who has actually had a neck piercing named after her.

"You've got now a lot of younger people reading magazines like Details and Interview, and you see navel piercings in that," says Scott Shatsky, a master piercer at the Gauntlet in San Francisco, one of only a handful of above-ground piercing shops in America. (There are no body piercing shops in Maryland.) "And the fashion industry has made it sort of fadlike. Models on the runway in Paris have their septums pierced now."

"Piercing is becoming widespread because it has several functions," explains Gen (the only name she uses), an Orlando, Fla., piercer who fronts the rock band Genitorturers. "For instance, we have the aesthetic value of piercing. With the younger generation -- high school age and college age -- a lot of them are doing it for aesthetic reasons. They get a lot of navel piercings, nose piercings, eyebrow piercings and occasional nipple piercings. Those are all things that are more decorative piercings.

"One thing I find, however, is that more and more people are interested in piercing for the sexual and spiritual reasons. A lot of the piercings are performed as part of a spiritual ritual, such as the Mayan tongue piercing. In addition, there are a number of piercings that have actual sexual functions, to stimulate or repress, depending on the placement of the piercing," Gen says.

"And then there are people who actually enjoy the act of piercing and incorporate that into their sex life. What we're talking about is definitely someone who would perform piercings on their partner, or on themselves, and who would find this sexually stimulating."

Many of these practices have existed for years. For example, one popular male piercing is called the "Prince Albert" because it was popularized by Queen Victoria's consort. Other piercings have their roots in tribal practices or rites of passage.

Rebels with a hole

But for many American teens, body piercing is first and foremost a form of rebellion, a means of wearing your nonconformity on your face -- or abdomen, or wherever.

"People I've seen who have pierced noses, et cetera, tend to be rebels," says Zuromskis. "They tend to be kind of self-abusive, too. People with low self-esteem. My theory is that it's a form of socially acceptable self-mutilation. But for me, I think it's kind of a fetish."

It isn't hard to understand why body piercing would appeal to teen rebels. To begin with, it requires a certain amount of daring to endure a needle through one's nose, navel or nipple; moreover, because body piercers generally aren't found at the mall or in the yellow pages, it takes a certain countercultural connectedness to pull off a piercing.

But the biggest attraction is that there's very little else that will shock today's parents. You say Junior has a mohawk? Sis is wearing wild clothes?

Been there, done that.

On the other hand, have a kid show up with a hoop through his eyebrow, and parents will definitely take notice.

Needless to say, there are numerous authority figures who rail against body piercing.

Some employers see it as inappropriate for a business environment, and will subtly -- or overtly -- discourage employees from wearing body jewelry on the job. Zuromskis once had a boss who insisted that she only wear studs in her nose while on the job, arguing that hoops "looked trashy."

But not all bosses are so judgmental. James Wilson, a 29-year old manager at Waldenbooks in Glen Burnie, once shared a table with the CEO of Waldenbooks, who seemed totally unperturbed by Wilson's pierced-and-tattooed appearance. Still, he says, "I don't wear my septum piercing at work."

"The worst group is doctors," says "Raven" (the pseudonym she uses in the piercing world), 26, another piercing enthusiast. "They won't even talk to you if they find out you've done something like that."

Is there a medical argument against body piercing? Not really, says John Roberts, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center. "It's just a personal thing," he says, suggesting that some physicians may find piercing repulsive for cultural, rather than medical, reasons.

"I don't think it's terribly unhealthy. The issues would be the same if I were putting a needle in their body for any reason: the pain, obviously, and infection. You really have to be very careful with infection, and until the pierce heals, it's really common."

Pride and pain

Regardless of why a person may opt for a piercing, however, what many of them walk away with is something more than a new place to wear jewelry. For some, it has to do with the ability to overcome the pain involved. Raven says that the genital piercing she had done was excruciating. "But what really made it intense was that my piercing had two sides to it, and I knew I was going to go back the next day and it was going to happen again," she says. "I was going to face that pain again. And I realized that being able to face that pain was part of what I was gaining from the piercing."

"I don't think that anybody that comes in to get pierced leaves without feeling some sort of triumph," says Shatsky. "They'll come out of it feeling amazing, like, 'I did this. I accomplished this. I could allow my body to go through this process.' "

Piercing can also give people a measure of pride in their appearance, something many hadn't had before. "All of a sudden, my body is something I want to look at," says Raven of the way body piercing changed her perspective. "As opposed to it not being what Playboy magazine says it should be. And I think that's really healthy. Most people don't look like Cindy Crawford."

Perhaps the biggest secret about piercing, though, is that it really isn't kid stuff. "I have to tell you that the majority of my clients aren't young people, but their parents," says Gen. "I do a large number of people who are professionals, who are in their 30s and 40s. I do a lot of married couples. A lot of my clients who are middle aged are adding something to their sex life through piercing."

Answers to piercing questions

* Does it hurt? "You're putting a needle through your body, so of course you're going to feel something," says Scott Shatsky, a master piercer at the Gauntlet in San Francisco. How much it will hurt will depend in part on what is being pierced -- erogenous zones have more nerve endings than earlobes, remember.

* What's the best way to avoid infection? "Just keep it clean," says John Roberts, assistant professor of internal medicine at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center. "Use an antiseptic -- either a peroxide, which is what most piercers use, or alcohol. Peroxide's probably a little easier."

* What happens to nose jewelry when you have a cold? Pretty much what you'd think. "It does get kind of icky," says Tamara Zuromskis of her nose stud under head cold conditions. "But you just take the back off every now and then and wash it off."

* Can I use any kind of jewelry? No. Most piercers advise against putting earrings anywhere but in ears. Much body jewelry is custom-made, and should be chosen on the basis of size -- how it will look in relation to your body -- and function. Moreover, the type and purity of the metals used is very important, particularly for those with nickel allergies.

* Can you use an ear-piercing gun on other body parts? Absolutely not. "You never pierce the body with a gun," says Shatsky. "We don't even use guns for ears." Professionals use a sterilized piercing needle for their work. And don't be fooled into thinking that a needle is sterile simply because it has been swabbed with an antiseptic. "Antiseptics don't kill everything," says Roberts. "Because if they did, we would use antiseptics to sterilize instruments." Sterilization in an autoclave is the only way to ensure a germ-free needle.

* How long does it take for a piercing to heal? Healing rates vary from individual to individual, and also on the body part being pierced. An earlobe takes four to six weeks to heal; a nostril, six to eight weeks. Septum piercings generally heal in four to five weeks, navels in eight to 10. Healing time for nipple piercings is far more variable, with eight weeks usually being the minimum.

* How do I find a reputable piercer? With difficulty. Apart from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, most cities don't have piercing parlors listed in the yellow pages -- or anywhere else. As a result, many piercings are done by amateurs, or by free-lance piercers in specialty shops like the Leather Rack in Washington. There are even those who perform their own piercings.

With 18 years of operation to its credit, Gauntlet is by far the most established and respected piercing operation. "But the only people who have been trained by Gauntlet are people that currently work for Gauntlet, except for one woman who's traveling around," says Shatsky. "And there is nobody else who's been trained professionally that I'm aware of."

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