A piercing issue: Tribal adornment'part of popular culture

By Cathy Campbell

Nick is a 19-year-old franco-Ontarien student who hopes to one day pursue a career in international law.

He's charming, fluent in three languages, and he has piercing brown eyes.

But they're not the only piercing things about him.

Nick also has his ears, tongue, nipples and scrotum pierced.

"I guess it's a way to express myself," he says. This past summer, Nick worked in the dining hall of a large family many as 80 per cent of the 70 staff members, who ranged in age from 16 to 22, had multiple piercings.

Eyebrows, navels and tongues were among the most common.

"It's not a fad, it's not a trend," says Tom Brazda, owner of Stainless Steel, a piercing studio on Queen Street in Toronto. "Piercing is something that has been around for a very long time and it's something that's primal within us."

Many young people think so, too. Although there are no piercing statistics, a dramatic rise in the number of piercing studios in most major Canadian cities indicates the practice is gaining popularity.

Pierced: 'It goes with the outfit'

The emergence of body piercing as a popular trend is quite recent in Western society, according to 1999 Health Canada Infection Control Guidelines.

Mr. Brazda, who recently spoke on "tribal adornment" at a University of Guelph conference on sexuality, credits National Geographic magazine and its photos of African tribes with bringing piercing to the West.

Although there is limited medical literature on body piercing, Health Canada reports that many complications have been identified.

Possible risks of body piercing include deep tissue infection, excessive bleeding, scar tissue, salivary gland injury (tongue piercing,) corneal abrasion or eye infection (eyelid piercing,) loss of sensation of movement in a small area of the forehead (eyebrow piercing,) cyst or abscess behind the nipple that could impair future nursing (nipple piercing), and urethral damage (penile piercing.)

Further risks of tongue piercing are reported in dental literature, including chipped teeth and airway obstruction due to aspiration of the jewelry or swelling of the tongue.

A survey of 51 individuals who had tongue piercings found that 13 reported damage to teeth, eight noticed increased salivation, four experienced gum injury, three developed infection and two sought medical or dental treatment.

And a report to the Canadian Dermatology Association's annual meeting in Montreal in June revealed that piercing hazards include allergic reactions, torn skin, scarring, and even diseases such as hepatitis B or C.

Dr. Danielle Marcoux, of Sainte Justine Children's Hospital in Montreal, told the conference that while body art is portrayed by the media as a carefree, risk-free behaviour, "in some cases, the fashion is short-lived and the damage is permanent."

One unpleasant consequence of piercing is keloids. "It's probably the most disfiguring lesion, which is a huge overgrowth of skin due to an abnormal healing process," says Dr. Lynn From, president of the dermatology association.

"Certainly (young people) probably wouldn't have undertaken the piercing if they knew they were going to end up with great, huge, cauliflower-like tumours in areas where they had the body-piercing done."

So, considering the risks, why do teens do it?

Nick first got his ears pierced at 16, partly because his friends were piercing theirs. "I thought it looked good on most of my friends."

Later, he got a piercing under his lip, which has since grown in. "That one hurt the most because it started chewing up the inside of my gum," Nick says.

He had his tongue pierced, his nipples and his scrotum.

In three years, he has visited a piercing studio six times.

He thinks piercings look good and feel good.

"If you're a wakeboarder, you have nice wakeboarding pants and a nipple ring goes well with the whole outfit," Nick says.

"We look in magazines and see cool people who have nipple rings and are making a lot of money."

He compares getting a piercing to buying a new pair of shoes.

Body piercings, generally, cost about $30-$70 each, and that includes the earring.

After each piercing a rigorous cleansing routine with antibacterial soap is followed to ensure that it heals properly.

Nick says the piercing "in my lower region" hurt the least of all. Asked why he did it, he replies: "I guess it's kind of a little surprise for anybody who ends up down there."

Youth see piercings as a way to wear jewelry. "It's like wearing a ring on your finger," he says.

Nick says his parents shrug it off whenever he reveals a new piercing. "My mom always says `You're going to ruin your body.' And, my dad laughs."

But, he admits, piercings are "still a shock to many adults."

"I find it's not anybody's say what piercings I can get ... I don't think people should get upset. It's like if I got upset because I didn't like someone's hair colour."

Although piercings appear to be most popular with youth, Mr. Brazda says that all age groups are doing it.

"Doctors, nurses, lawyers, school kids, university students. Anywhere from 16 to 85 years old. It's just that a lot of the older people have stuff that you can't really see - like nipple and genital piercings."

Eyebrows, nostrils and lips seem to be the domain of the young, he says, because "most people who are older can't get away with it at work."

Tongue piercings are also very popular. "If you've got an oral fixation, it's like having a permanent piece of candy in your mouth," Mr. Brazda says.

Navel piercings continue to be very popular. And genital piercings are also increasing in popularity among males and females, he says. "Mainly it's for stimulation." Among males, it's also "like a medal," he says. "People think that if you've got a piercing there, you must be brave."

Mr. Brazda says that the piercing industry is not regulated by the government.

He recommends people considering a piercing seek out a place that others have recommended, and where they feel comfortable.

So, what's the upcoming trend in piercing?

"In France, they're piercing right through the cheek," says Nick.

Reproduced from: Families & Health, September 2000, Volume 13.