Being asked by someone if they can stick a pen or some other object in your “ear hole” may seem an unsettling question, but for people who have a piercing stretched large enough, it comes with the territory.
Commonly known as gauges or, depending on the kind of jewelry being used, tunnels or plugs, the practice of stretched piercings and body art goes back to ancient times in many parts of the world. But it wasn’t until a few dozen years ago that Western subcultures — often tied to punk rock, metal and electronic music and their associated fashion styles — appropriated it.
“It’s individual expression,” said Dr. Elizabeth Chance, a surgeon at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital who specializes in cosmetic and reconstructive facial surgery. “People try to express themselves in a way so others know what kind of crowd you are in and what you think of yourself.”
“I don’t think of it as mutilation,” Chance said about ear gauges.
Jesse Marrs, an 18-year-old student at Albemarle’s Murray High School, has his right ear stretched to a 4 gauge, which is about 3/16ths of an inch wide — a fairly modest size as holes can be as wide as 2 inches.
Originally piercing his ears at 16, Marrs, a fan of classic hip hop and horror movies, said he chose to pierce and stretch his ears simply because he thought “it looked cool.”
But body art and stretched piercings can carry a stigma that can prevent people from finding a job or advancing in a career.
“There’s certainly a negative perception of it in more conservative parts of the country,” Chance said.
“It seems to be something that’s a more common occurrence for people who have earlobes stretched with gauges or with a large number of piercings who will often come to us a couple of years after doing all of that and say, ‘I’m getting ready for a job interview’ or, ‘I’m about to join the military and I need my earlobes to look normal,’” she said
Chance, who has practiced at Martha Jefferson since 2012, said she works on ears about once or twice a week, mostly for middle-age women whose ears have either been stretched or elongated over many years by heavy jewelry. Sometimes, she said, surgeries are sought after an accident — such as when a child tugs violently on an earring — has caused serious damage to skin tissue.
About once a month, though, someone with intentionally stretched ears, most often men in their 30s, she said, comes to Chance’s office seeking surgery to undo what they’ve done.
Chance said that prior to have surgery patients should completely refrain from putting any jewelry in their ears for at least six months so the hole can have time to naturally contract. Once a patient’s ears — and pocket books (the surgery usually costs about $500 per ear) — are ready, the operation can involve cutting off some of the ear lobe, rearranging skin to achieve symmetry with each ear and stitching.
“In a lot of circumstances, you can reconstruct the ear lobe to look completely normal,” Chance said.
Christopher Morris, a piercer at Acme Tattoo and Piercing in Charlottesville, said he blames chain stores that sell jewelry and tapers for stretched piercings for the trend of young people rapidly stretching their ears, sometimes causing damage to their skin tissue and unsightly keloid scars.
Both Morris and Chance said it seems gauges in recent years have reached a younger audience in more suburban areas, likely because cheap acrylic jewelry and tapers are readily available online and at malls.
“People are getting into it so fast and then having to fix their ears so they can find a job,” Morris said, explaining that the process of stretching a piercing takes patience. Increasing the size of the hole should happen slowly, in increments of a few weeks or months, he said, so skin tissue can heal between stretches.
“Don’t ask your friends how to do it and don’t look online — you’d be surprised how much bad information is out there about it,” he said.
Having worked as a piercer since 1998, Morris said some ethically questionable shops around the country will offer to “stretch” a customer’s ears by “scalping skin,” which can cause permanent damage.
Change of tastes
Morris and Chance said some people who seek surgery to have their ears repaired don’t always do it for a job. Instead, some simply think their ears have become unsightly, choosing to either reduce the size of their stretched lobes or close the holes altogether.
Marrs said he decided sometime ago that he wouldn’t stretch his ears any further than the size his right ear hole is now.
“I originally thought that I would go larger, but I’ve changed my mind since becoming older,” he said. “I think it grew out of me.”
While long-term wear of jewelry in larger-sized gauges may make it more difficult to reverse the cosmetic appearance through surgery, Morris said proper care and stretching techniques can make it easier for someone to have their ear lobes shrink or be surgically closed.
John Worth, director of graduate professional development at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he talks about body art and piercings predominately with undergraduate students. His advice to them, he said, is to consider removing piercings and covering tattoos before preliminary job interviews or in specific work settings.
Though there’s been a shift toward greater acceptance of body art and modifications, Worth said job seekers should consider the culture of the business they are applying to prior to displaying it in an interview or the workplace. He said job candidates with tattoos or piercings also should consider how clients may perceive them.
Regarding stretched piercings, Worth said he thinks any kind of surgery is “an extreme option.”
“Personally, I’ve never really seen anyone whose piercings made it look like they had a deformity,” he said. “I’ve known many people professionally and socially where they remove their piercings in certain settings, but if someone had piercings where it might seem they have a deformity, I would say surgery should be a last resort. There are very few situations I can imagine where it would merit it.”
Morris said he thinks more knowledge about the topic will “make it not so much of a taboo and something people are more comfortable with.”
“The workplace tends to adapt to the generations going into it,” Worth said. “There’s some truth to that. The millennial generation brings stuff to the workplace that past generations did not. This may be a growing trend or just something that fades out and no longer interests anybody. It’ll be interesting to see.”