Thursday, September 27, 2007

Piercing Images

t used to be a big deal for a 16-year-old girl to get her parents' permission to pierce her earlobes (one each please). But ever since Janet Jackson's little "wardrobe malfunction" during the Superbowl half-time show, even the elderly Norwegian bachelors in North Dakota know ear piercing is old school. Nipplegate may have been a publicity stunt to pump up Janet's exposure just before the release of her new album– but what it really exposed was how mainstream body piercing has become.

American researcher Anne Velliquette, PhD observed, "[t]oday's social climate welcomes body art to an extent that no other period in modern history can rival." Her thought is that it provides meaning to persons bewildered by the fragmentation and chaos of postmodern society: your body is the one thing you have ultimate control over.

What Janet Jackson was exercising control over with was a nipple shield, a decorative piece of jewelry held in place by a 'normal' piercing rod or barbell placed through the areola. Her 1997 album Velvet Rope featured close-ups of her nipple piercing as part of the album artwork. She no longer wears jewelry in either her septum or tongue piercings, but her ears, navel, and genitalia are still adorned. (It is thought to be a clitoral piercing.)

She has competition from Christina Aguilera. Aguilera has five piercings in her ears and one piercing each in her nose, her lower lip, and right nipple, plus 3 more. She has said these are in a place known only to her doctor and her boyfriends: it's diamond-studded, "really beautiful and expensive" and "in a place that most people wouldn't have the guts to do it."

Like the nipple placement, genital piercings reportedly enhance sexual sensitivity. Piercing sites in men include the penile glans and urethra, foreskin, and scrotum; sites in women include the clitoral prepuce or body, labia minora, labia majora, and perineum.

Britney Spears gained some media attention as she organized a "nipple piercing party" for her staff on Valentine's Day 2004 (her own left nipple is pierced). Singer Pink (Alecia Moore) recently got all dressed up and had her nipple pierced in front of her mom– on videotape. Don't we all? The boys go in for it too, particularly the musicians: Tommy Lee, Axl Rose, Lars Ulrich, and scads of others.

As a matter of fact, the really flamboyant multiple piercings seem to be the domain of male celebrities, but only amongst those that don't make their money on the silver screen: Dennis Rodman, Benji Madden, Dave Draiman are standouts.

Christy Turlington is said to have started the female naval ring fad when she strutted her belly jewel on the modeling runway. After multiple ear piercings, navel rings are by far the most common choice amongst female celebrities and the American women who imitate them. Alyssa Milano, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan, Madonna, Keira Knightley, Naomi Campbell, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, Teri Hatcher all chose this placement.

When Scarlett Johansson gifted herself a bull-style nose ring in 2005, though, you could hear the howls reverberate in cyberspace. On occasion she pops it in when strolling about and it's rediscovered anew by legions of disapproving fans. The actress is currently the face of L'Oreal, and adamant that the nose ring is attractive: "[i]t's all about my creative side and I personally look lovely. So what exactly is the problem with it?" Less controversial was her piercing of the nasal alar rim (the fleshy curve of the nostril). That placement evokes images of dark, exotic Eastern women, while the other conjures up a large, wet nose attached to 500kg of un-neutered beef.

Nose piercings were first recorded about 4000 years ago in the Middle East. Even Genesis 24:22 mentions it: when Abraham requested a wife for his son, Isaac, one of the gifts presented to Rebekah was a golden nose ring. The practice of nose piercing moved on to India during the 16th & 17th centuries with the type of jewel indicating social status. Indian women traditionally pierce the left nostril, thought to be connected with the female reproductive organs, to make childbirth easier and lessen menstrual pain. Nostril piercing came to the West in the late 1960s along spiritual enlightenment from India. Punk rockers and their followers adopted the practice in the 1970s, and it was revived again in the 1990s. Now the likes of Lisa Bonet sport them.

Is there a downside to this? Well, Nicole Richie did set off an alarm at the Reno Airport as she passed through a metal detector with her nipple piercing in situ.

In general, the medical specialty societies frown on it. The American Medical Association (AMA) goes as far as considering some forms of body piercing to be illegal surgery. The major things to keep in mind before you pierce your tongue, eyebrow, belly button, lip, nipple, genitals or navel are long healing, infection, dental damage, and scarring.

Nose piercings like Johansson's are usually are performed in the inferior fleshy part of the septum and not through cartilaginous tissue. Noses, like many cartilage piercings, can be notoriously long in healing because that type of tissue is not well vascularized. The wound heals from the surface, growing a tunnel of new skin inside the hole to form a permanent piercing.

The infection rate for tongue piercings is relatively low, but the tongue & lip studs and rings can lead to chipped and cracked teeth. And then there's the excessive drooling and speech impediment problem, but that's minor.

Even good old-fashioned ear piercing isn't exempt: up to a third of persons with pierced ears had one or more complications (e.g., minor infection, allergic reaction). The most disturbing are keloid formation (exuberant scar formation in dark skinned individuals) and traumatic tearing (bifurcated earlobes aren't stylish). 'High' piercing through the cartilage of the pinna (like Fergie's) is particularly associated with poor healing and more serious infection because of the avascular nature of auricular cartilage.

And then there's the 'stretching' or 'gauging' craze. It's the deliberate expansion of a healed fistula (hole in the skin) for the purpose of wearing big jewelry. It's been around for a while: even Otzi the 5000 year old Iceman mummy found in the Valentina Trujillon glacier had an oversize ear piercing. In Ireland gold artifacts from Bronze Age were identified as ear spools and boxes needing perforations 7+cm diameter.

Most piercings can be stretched far beyond their initial size. 'Blowouts' from over-stretching, especially ones caused by 'dead stretching,' can create scar tissue, which can lead to keloiding or hypertrophic scarring. And stretching too quickly can lead to a buildup of unsightly scar tissue, often described as the 'cat-butt' effect.

Now there's a lovely thought.

Want this look?
Part of the popularity of body piercing is the entry level pricing: it's cheap. Most piercings start at under $100, even the really interesting ones. Make sure you inquire about sterile technique and be prepared to involve your physician is goes wrong.


Anonymous said...

I myself have 9 piercings in each ear, not counting my 10mm tunnels, and another 9 bodily pierings, and it is because of this that I feel truthfully able to say that what you're saying mostly true. Every condition or complication you have described (apart from tooth erosion and chipping from oral pierings: if the piercing is placed properly, it will cause no damage) is a very real danger to those idiotic enough to embark on such projects without the correct knowledge. You make it sound as though every person who has modded themself in such a way will suffer from these complications, which is just not true. Body piercing is a safe and enjoyable thing, so long as the piercee is aware of aftercare regimes, and the piercer uses proper the equipment and techniques in a sterile enviroment. This is the case in about 80% of pierings. The other 20% that experience complications probably have done from their own ignorance.

ANNE said...

Studies don't support that complications are solely the result of ignorance/negligence, but as you suggest, it's good to control the variables you can to minimize the risk.

Here a recent statistical study to check out: (a summary) (source)

JoLondon said...

Good for Scarlett not really giving a rat's ass about what people think of her septum piercing. Other people's opinions on what is "cute" and what isn't is partly to blame for why some bodmod has become so mainstream.

ANNE said...

We are of the same opinion.