Hoops, posts and metal studs are hardly startling finds on the bodies of college kids. Body piercings have become increasingly common among 16 to 25-year-olds during the last decade. In 2009, CBS News reported that over half of college students have piercings beyond lobe earrings for women.
With the growing trend of body art, the appeal of piercings, though varied from individual to individual, can’t be denied.
For some, like Muir College junior Liz Edelman, piercings are a form of self-expression. Edelman has a total of eight piercings on her ears, nose, lip and navel, all of which she did herself with a sewing needle.
“I‘ve always been an artist,” Edelman said. “I paint, and I draw and whatnot. [Getting piercings] was just a fun change.”
Edelman was a minor when she got her piercings — meaning that she would’ve needed parental consent had she gone to a shop for a professional piercing. Her parents’ strong disapproval drove her to take matters, quite literally, into her own hands.
“[My parents] hate piercings in general,” Edelman said. “They still hate my nose piercing. They’re not a fan of any of that stuff. For them, piercings and tattoos or dyed hair — anything that’s not natural — is a sign of rebellion [and] worse, people who are kind of crazy and don’t have a life plan. So they assume that everyone dressed like that are like these drug addicts.”
Edelman isn’t alone in facing parental opposition to piercings.
Revelle College senior Sabina Salian, who has a cartilage piercing and an industrial piercing — two pierced holes connected with a single bar on her upper ear cartilage — said that it took a lot of convincing to get her parents to comply.
“I think [my parents are] just very traditional, so they didn’t really want me to have any piercing that’s out of the ordinary, like a cartilage piercing,” Salian said. “They’re okay with my earlobe piercing, but they’re kind of hesitant about any other piercings.”
Their parents, however, may have some valid objections. Research has consistently shown a correlation between piercings and risky behavior, like drug abuse, eating disorders, sexual activity and contemplation of suicide. More specifically, a 2012 study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research demonstrated a correlation between individuals sporting piercings and/or tattoos and a tendency toward heavier drinking.
Statistically speaking, the evidence is overwhelming that those who engage in substance use are more inclined to get piercings. But correlation isn’t the same as causation: It’s unclear whether it’s the risky behavior or the piercings that come first.
A Thurgood Marshall College sophomore who asked to remain anonymous admitted to being under the influence when he made the arbitrary choice to get his earlobes pierced. He said that a friend pierced them for him at the Sixth College Apartments the Monday before last year’s Sun God Festival.
“I wasn’t sober,” he said. “I just did it to do it.”
This might seem to reinforce the stereotype, but for many UCSD students with extensive piercings, the story is more complicated.
Salian viewed her decision to get an industrial piercing in high school as a display of her bond to her two older sisters, both of whom had gotten industrials before her.
Eleanor Roosevelt College junior Guadalupe Flores recently got her nose pierced as a way of overcoming long-standing embarrassment about her facial features.
“Growing up, I always thought nose piercings looked really cool,” Flores said. “But I never thought I could have one, because I had a really big nose growing up. Luckily for me, I kind of grew into it, so I thought I should do it. [Piercings are] just a fun way to dress yourself up; you get to put on a lot of earrings and jewelry. It’s a nice way to be flashy.”
Popular piercing sites include the navel, nose, ear, nipple, eyebrow, tongue, lip and genitals. Though reasons behind piercings have always varied, the earliest piercings were bound by particular customs and codes of conduct.
In ancient Rome, body piercings first emerged to serve practical purposes. Roman centurions wore nipple rings as a means of fastening on their capes. These nipple piercings simultaneously signified their strength and dedication to the Roman Empire. Gladiators had their genitals pierced in order to hold their penises out of harm’s way during combat. Since gladiators were commonly slaves, their genital piercings were also designed to prevent them from having sex without their owners’ consent. Meanwhile, an ocean away, the Aztecs and Mayans pierced their tongues as part of their religious practices.
Alternatively, the Egyptians wore earrings to showcase their wealth and status (navel piercings were strictly reserved for the pharaoh). Years later, sailors of the Elizabethan era began piercing their ears with the belief that this would enhance their long-distance sight. The sailors commonly invested in large gold earrings, which were intended to finance their burials when they died. During the same era, the dawn of plunging necklines enticed women to get their nipples pierced so that they could ornament themselves with chains and strands of pearls. It didn’t take long for them to discover that these nipple piercings increased sexual stimulation. Afterwards, both men and women started piercing their nipples purely for pleasure.
The beginning of the 20th century marked a period of moderation with regard to piercings in the Western world. This changed after hippies introduced nose piercings to the U.S. upon their return from their travels in India in the 1960s, where women wore nose rings — a tradition that dates back to the 16th century.
The acquaintance with nose piercings expedited experimentation with other body piercings in the U.S. This escalated to a spike in the prevalence of piercings during the 1980s and 1990s, when piercings achieved a noted global reach. The ascending trajectory continues today.
“There are so many different piercings out there,” Salian said. “It’s so unique.”