By Ellen Laughton.
It’s official; metal is the new black. Young people are pushing the boundaries of beauty and style with more – and more unusual – piercings of the body and face. Pierced celebrities such as Ruby Rose, Joel Madden and the late Amy Winehouse are fashion icons, and studs, rings, spikes and bars have become the latest ‘must-have’ accessory for many teenagers.
Although the trend might seem very ‘now’, piercing has its origins in cultures over 5,000 years old. Mentioned in religious texts such as the Bible and considered a sacred practice by ancient tribes around the world, piercing is one of the oldest forms of self-expression.
As piercing becomes more popular with young people, it is important that parents and teenagers know the laws about piercing, the risks involved and how to avoid problems.
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Types of piercings
“I think of the earlobe as a ‘gateway piercing’, as the clients will decide whether or not to get more depending on what they think of that first experience.”
Amy, a Sydney-based piercer, says the most common piercing she performs is of the earlobes. “It’s the first piercing for most people,” she says. “I often think of it as a ‘gateway piercing’, as the clients will decide whether or not to get more depending on what they think of that first experience.” Amy says a lot of teenagers do come back to pierce other parts of their ear very soon after their first earlobe piercing. The most popular locations on the ear are the upper cartilage of the ear, the tragus (the small, eye level, tab closest to your cheek) and the helix (cartilage at eye level).
Other facial piercings popularised over the past decade include the tongue, lip, eyebrow and nose. A growing number of young people (and body piercing artists) are becoming even more adventurous, piercing sites such as the cheek, the nasal septum (colloquially called a ‘pig ring’) and the root of the nose (between the eyes).
Amy has sometimes had to turn people away because they wanted facial piercings in places that are unsafe: “There are nerves and vessels that must be taken into consideration. Just because there is skin, does not mean it can be pierced.”
“Just because there is skin, does not mean it can be pierced.”
The most common body piercings are the navel (for girls) and nipples (popular for both sexes). In addition, locations such as the nape of the neck, sternum, hips, genitals and the webbing between the fingers and toes have grown in popularity. “People are often trying to find something different,” says Amy. “Body piercings can be a less visible, less permanent form of self-expression.”
Apart from location, there have also been changes in the type of piercings young people are seeking. Gauging of the earlobe has emerged as a growing trend in young men and women. Gauging is the process of gradually stretching the ear lobe through using ‘enlargement rings’ that increase in size until you reach your desired diameter. This leaves the wearer with visible holes that may be decorated with a variety of larger earrings, spikes and other jewellery. Gauging can be done on other parts of the face such as the nose and lip but it is not recommended due to the increased instance of infection.
Annabel, aged 19, has eight piercings on her face and ears, which she describes as a form of self-expression: “It’s sort of when you want to say something about yourself but you’re not sure what.” Annabel says her tastes have changed as she has grown older, and she warns other teens to think about how they might feel in the future when deciding to get a piercing, particularly on the face.
“Holly says that her first piercing at 14 was ‘an adrenaline rush’, both from the pain and the illegality of it”
While some parents may not agree, piercings are considered attractive by many teenagers. Annabel says her desire to collect more piercings was driven by her friends sporting similar jewellery: “The more I saw my friends with piercings, the more I liked the look of them.”
Taylor, who had four piercings done in senior high school, says she “genuinely liked them at the time”. Although she was forced to cover them up during school hours, she says that showing them off on the weekends was like “having a completely different (and cooler) self that my friends hadn’t seen before”. Taylor maintains that her navel piercing is her favourite of them all: “I think it’s beautiful, and the few people who see it think so too. I got it done for me, though, and I still feel that way.”
For some young people, the enjoyment is in the process. Holly, now 19, says that her first experience at 14 was “an adrenaline rush”, both from the pain and the illegality of it. Holly had her tragus pierced by an untrained friend and says that, although she was aware of the age restrictions on piercings, “that was part of the thrill”. But Holly’s story is a cautionary tale about untrained piercers. Her piercing got severely infected and had to have it surgically removed. “It hurt a lot, but as soon as it healed I went and got it done again … professionally this time.”
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Out of the six teenagers interviewed for this article, only one (the least pierced of all) knew the general age restrictions on piercing practices in his state. Rod, 18, was aware of the recent changes to the age limits imposed on both intimate and non-intimate piercing in Western Australia. These amendments, however, are Australia-wide, meaning that it is now illegal to carry out:
- intimate body piercing (including nipples, genitals, anus and perineum) on a minor (under 18), even if you have parental or legal guardian consent
- non-intimate body piercing (such as the navel) on a minor, unless you have parental or legal guardian consent
- piercing on the ears of a person under 16 years of age without parental or legal guardian consent.
As well as the legal restrictions, some piercers may enforce their own age restrictions on certain piercing practices. Amy, the Sydney piercer, says: “Where I work we have an ‘over-18s only’ policy. It’s just not the sort of environment we want 16-year-olds in.”
Strict regulation applies to piercing premises as well. There are standards covering the quality and sterility of the tools used as well as the training and experience of workers, and the general maintenance of hygienic practices. Registered piercing salons have regular checks by the local council to ensure their standards are being met and all documentation (including photocopies of proof-of-age identification of all clients) must be available. Salons that fail to meet the council requirements can face heavy fines and put them at risk of being closed down.
While the new laws are ensuring that piercing salons are safer and more hygienic, the stricter age laws might push underage teenagers towards dangerous practices in their attempt to get the piercings they want. Holly, whose first piercing was performed by a school friend, says she didn’t really consider the consequences. “The piercer wouldn’t do it and my friend would so that was that,” she says.
But impatient teenagers should never allow friends or untrained piercers to pierce them, as the results can be disastrous. “Waiting a few more years is a better option than having a nerve pierced that leaves you with no movement in one side of your face,” Amy says.
Throughout my high-school years, piercing seemed to pose a bigger threat to one’s health than alcohol or drugs. Myths about jewellery being eaten by the skin and vice-versa were just some of the horror stories shared between students. However, in reality, piercing is generally safe when performed by a well-trained and licensed piercer and the piercing is kept clean with proper after-care products. There will often be pain, redness and swelling at the piercing site, which subsides after a few days as the wound begins to heal. Young people should get proper after-care instructions and products from their piercer to avoid infection. If pain continues for longer than a few days after the piercing, or if any growths (such as an abscess or keloid) begin to form around the site, contact a doctor immediately.
There are some specific risks associated with certain types of piercings that parents and teenagers need to be aware of:
- Oral piercings on the tongue or lip can cause speech impediments, nerve damage, dangerous swelling (tongue) and chipped teeth.
- Genital piercings have been known to make urination and sex difficult (and sometimes painful). These piercings are also often more difficult to keep clean which can leave them prone to infection, and leaves the wearer at a higher risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection or HIV as the piercings can puncture condoms.
- Ear and nose cartilage piercings are known for developing painful abscesses as the skin is very close to the cartilage underneath. These cannot be successfully treated by antibiotics and surgery is usually required.
Another risk for young people is that they may regret their piercings as future tastes change. There is a misconception that once a piercing is removed, the skin heals to its original state so that it is impossible to determine whether or not the skin was pierced in the first place. However, the extent to which the skin heals after a piercing is removed depends on the length of time the piercing was worn as well as the shape and material of the piercing. In most cases, piercings on young people leave noticeable scars when taken out later on; scars that can only be removed through plastic surgery. If your teenager wants a piercing, have them consider how they will feel about the piercing in a couple of years and emphasise that the evidence of it may be with them for life.
If your teenager is set on getting a piercing and you’ve agreed to it, take the following precautions to minimise risk:
- Thoroughly research the piercing premises. Contact your local council to check that the place is registered and licensed with them.
- Ensure the proper hygiene standards are being met.
- Make sure your teenager is up to date with all immunisations including tetanus and hepatitis B.
- Read all after-care material carefully and clean the piercing as directed. Keeping the piercing site clean is the most effective way to avoid infection.
- Avoid swimming with new piercings as it can cause infection.
- When exercising or sleeping, tape down any new piercings to avoid small tears that are prone to infection.
- If an infection develops, or there is unexplained pain around the piercing site, contact your doctor immediately.
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For more information
This article was written by The Kids Are All Right intern Ellen Laughton. Ellen is a first year student at the University of Sydney, studying Arts (Media & Communications). Read more about our internship program.