It’s filled with nerve endings, it turns red when we’re embarrassed, and for most people it’s also an erogenous zone. Stretching the earlobe has been practiced for thousands of years, and still continues today as a cultural tradition in many indigenous tribes around the globe, including the Mursi in Ethiopia and hill tribes in northern Thailand, where it can be a rite of passage, a spiritual symbol, or a sign of status.
But some Westerners in the body modification subculture have turned elongating the earlobe (also referred to as “gauging”) into a fashion statement. After painstakingly creating huge holes, they adorn the earlobe with specialized decorative jewelry to plug the holes they’ve created. Although earlobe gauging has been mostly associated with fashion for hardcore punk and emo musicians and fans, as well as select members of the body mod subculture, practitioners say that within the past 5 years, it’s been moving more mainstream. Some models and celebrities have engaged in stretching their earlobes to help popularize and elevate the practice beyond its counterculture status. Do-it-yourself kits are now widely available, and the selection of jewelry to plug the earlobe hole has drastically increased. It’s getting to be more in vogue, just like tattoos and body piercings have become more fashionable over the last decade.
How It’s Done
To be effective and safe, earlobe stretching should be a slow process performed overtime. The average earlobe is 2 centimeters long. The first step is to get the earlobe pierced. The hole for most earlobe piercings is 20 gauge (0.8 mm). From the time the earlobe is pierced, one should wait a minimum of 5 months to ensure the earlobe has healed fully. Then, it’s recommended to proceed slowly and steadily so as not to tear the earlobe. The initial piercing is enlarged in steps in order to make progressively larger holes. The typical stretching method is to utilize different sized tapers, which are acrylic or steel cone-shaped objects that are inserted into the hole in the earlobe.
People undergoing earlobe gauging usually decide beforehand the size at which they would like to stop the stretching. For example, the lobe-stretching rocess can start at 20 gauge and go up to 2 inches (50 mm). Sizes can and do go bigger than a couple of inches, but that is the most common “largest” hole in the lobe for most people who participate in this practice. With a small-gauge piercing, the hole will shrink back to its original size and heal itself over time once the jewelry is taken out. But once the lobe is stretched past a certain point, about 1 inch (25 mm), it will remain permanent and the only option to reverse the look is to have reconstructive plastic surgery.
The standard starting size is 16 gauge (1.2 mm). Then comes the slow stretching and the long waiting. The general rule of thumb is that the longer one waits in between stretches, the better. The micro-tears that occur during the process need time to completely heal before stretching up to a new size. One month is the general minimum waiting time before replacing the initial taper with a wider size. The following guide is used to determine how long one should wait between stretches:
- 16 to 14 gauge (1.6 mm): 1 month
- 14 to 12 gauge (2 mm): 1 month
- 12 to 10 gauge (2.5 mm): 1.5 months
- 10 to 8 gauge (3.2 mm): 2 months
- 8 to 6 gauge (4 mm): 3 months
- 6 to 4 gauge (5 mm): 3 months
- 4 to 2 gauge (6 mm): 3 months
- 2 to 0 gauge (8 mm): 4 months
- 0 to 00 gauge (10 mm): 4 months
This continues up to 6 months’ waiting time, depending on gauge size, in order to let the damaged earlobe thicken and heal completely. It’s important not to stretch too quickly by skipping taper progressions because the skin will not stretch uniformly or it may become swollen; in which case, one should remove the taper, let the ear heal, and start over by piercing at a lower gauge.
Tapers are not pieces of jewelry and should be worn only for stretching purposes, not adornment. Tapers should be removed after the earlobe is stretched to the size of the taper to allow the healing process to begin. Some people put in compatible-sized specialized earlobe jewelry called “plugs”during the wait to the next taper size, but the earlobe will heal quicker if plugs are not used during this time. Lubrication is important to keep the earlobe healthy during the stretching process; jojoba oil, emu oil, or bio-oil are good choices and can be applied twice daily to help keep the lobe moisturized and also to reduce scar tissue.
Besides using tapers of different sizes to gradually stretch the earlobe, there are other methods. It’s advised to stretch slowly, but for those who can’t wait, dermal punching can be employed. The process works just like a hole punch to create an instant gap. Other methods include “dead stretching,” which involves putting in larger and larger sized plugs in the earlobe hole and allowing the skin to stretch naturally over time. And there’s also a method where plumber’s tape (normally used to seal pipe threads!) is utilized to stretch the lobe with a specialized wrapping method.
Making a Fashion Statement: I’m All Ears! Although people can just let their stretched flesh dangle in the wind, the fun part can be inserting plugs to decorate the ear. Earlobe plugs come in all sizes, shapes, and materials, including wood carvings, traditional stars or skulls, and clear or hollow plugs (known as "flesh tunnels") that enable people to see through the lobe.
Although some people stretch their earlobe to a modest size and are discrete about displaying their new look (which can even be hidden underneath long hair), a certain segment go for the largest holes possible; such enthusiasts are known as “gauge queens” or “gauge kings."
A Few Drawbacks
What can go wrong? Well, the lobe can split if the stretching process is too fast. Some people are allergic to certain materials used to make the earlobe plugs. Nickel is a common metal that can cause an allergic skin reaction; titanium and glass are better choices for those people who experience such a reaction. Also, a foreign object can cause a fistula after being inserted into the body. When a taper that is too big gets inserted into a hole that is too little, the pressure can squeeze flesh from the inside of the lobe to the outside, causing a “blowout.” Simply put, earlobe flesh extrudes, which, of course, is not a good thing. Other issues include getting substances such as hair dye or even an abrasive cleaning solution into the fistula, which can cause bleeding, pain, swelling, and leaking. But these are the risks of becoming an earlobe fashionista!
- Allen J. Reasons people practice ear stretching. Livestrong website. Updated October 21, 2013. http://www.livestrong.com/article/340105-reasons-people-practice-earlobe-stretching.
- Ear piercing and stretching guide. Kings Body Jewelry website. http://www.kingsbodyjewelry.com/earlobe-stretching-guide.aspx.
- Ear stretching. Cat Inferno Body Modification website. http://catinfernobodymod.blogspot.com/2011/02/earlobe-stretching.html.
- How to stretch an ear lobe piercing. Wiki How website. http://www.wikihow.com/Stretch-an-Earlobe-Lobe-Piercing.
- McClatchey C. Ear stretching: why is lobe ‘gauging’ growing in popularity? BBC website. November 21, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15771237.
- Stretching FAQ. Modify Body Piercing website. http://www.modifybodypiercing.com/stretching-faq.html.