Piercing is a type of semi-permanent body modification. In the technique most commonly used by piercing professionals today, a hollow-point needle is inserted in the skin to cut a small opening for the display of jewelry, usually a ring or a stud. Although vulnerable to infection, the flesh surrounding the puncture wound tends to heal within weeks. In the United States and Europe, the most widespread practice involves the ear lobe or the cartilage of the outer ear. The piercing of facial tissue is also an increasingly popular technique, especially nasal cartilage, the septum, the soft tissue around the eyebrow, the tissue around the lips, and the tongue. Other common forms include the nipple, the soft skin tissue around the navel, and the genitals, although any fleshy part of the body may theoretically be pierced.
Piercing in Human Culture
Piercing varies widely according to historical and cultural context. Archaeological evidence from sites in the Alps and the Indian subcontinent suggest that piercing, especially of the ears and nose, has been a part of human culture for as far back as 5,000 years, and it enjoyed widespread popularity in the ancient Mediterranean cultures. Although piercing fell out of practice in Medieval Europe, colonial contacts led to the spread of piercing during the European Renaissance, particularly in countries that had extensive maritime empires. Piercing remained popular among both men and women throughout the 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe. The austerity of Victorian beauty standards led to the abandonment of the practice, particularly among middle-class Europeans who increasingly associated piercing with what they considered the primitive nonwhites who fell under colonial rule. However, piercings remained commonplace among sailors and merchant marines throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, piercing was often associated with the urban subcultures of prostitution, sailors, and burgeoning enclaves of homosexuals in industrialized cities.
The 20th Century
With the sexually uninhibited fashion of the 1920s and the early rise of the beauty industry among young and oftentimes single new women, earrings became a standard aspect of women’s fashion, with offerings from high-end jewelers like Cartier. The advent of clip-on earrings in the 1930s led to a decrease in the number of actual piercings. When ear piercing again became popular in the 1950s, doctor’s offices began to offer sterile techniques—including the piercing gun—as alternatives to home methods. After the late 1960s, when biker, gay, and sadomasochism subcultures began to influence high-fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood, more elaborate piercings began to break into the mainstream of American and European fashion. The punk scene of the 1970s also saw an explosion of piercings among young working-class men in England and North America. As male athletes, rock and roll musicians, and other celebrities began to display piercings in the 1970s and 1980s, increasing numbers of men found it socially acceptable to pierce. Body piercing has also become highly popular. Starting with Jim Ward’s Gauntlet Studio, opened in 1978 in West Hollywood, body piercing studios, publications, and conferences have increased in size and number throughout the United States. Since the 1970s, it is increasingly common to see piercing among both women and men, and ear and body piercing have become a standard service offered by both accessories retailers and tattoo parlors.