A Google image search for “gauged ears” will show thousands of different teenagers sporting ear lobes of varying sizes. While it might be considered an act of teen rebellion that will shock flabbergasted parents, we must recognize this may be one of the oldest existing art forms. With stretched ears on the cover of the latest fashion magazines, it might be easy to forget that ear stretching is a custom practiced the world over.
Ear stretching, or “gauging” an earlobe piercing, is one of the oldest known forms of body art in existence. In many of these cultures, this art could be associated with a religious rite or a coming of age. In many ways this ear stretching is a testament to the ingenuity of these cultures. From culture to culture any number of materials to create this aesthetic quality.
In an age where body art, like ear stretching, has expanded to the far reaches of popular culture, from spiritual piety to runway fashion, the origins of some of these practices might be lost to antiquity. Otzi the Iceman, a naturally occurring found in the Austrian-Italian Alps in 1991, had gauged ears.
Several figures in Indian, Nepalese and Chinese literature and history have been depicted with stretched ears, notably Siddharta Gautama, founder of Buddhism, to the point where altering the ears, such as severing the lobe, became common among Tibetan sects. Anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered evidence of stretching in almost every region of the world from the ancient Sumeria to present day Africa.
The Mursi, a nomadic people indigenous to Ethiopia and Sudan, engage in ritualistic stretching of the ear, and women the lips. Similar customs are practiced by the Suya of Brazil, and tribesmen from Thailand and Laos.
The body art community seems distantly aware of its roots in tribal culture, animalist religion, early man and Eastern spiritualism. Fakir, a type of piercing specialty, is also the name for a Muslim holy man called a Sufi who performs feats of magic or strength.
More recently, ear stretching and the use of ear taper kits has began to work its way into popular fashion, particularly associated with counterculture music. Billy Joel, Chris Burney, a guitarist for the pop-punk band Bowling For Soup, Travis McCoy, an MC with Gym Class Heroes, and Davey Havok, lead singer of AFI all sport stretched ears. Given the examples of these icons, these piercings are also becoming even more popular with America’s young people.