Sexual and sexualizing, sacred and profane in equal parts, Body Piercing has been a part of our quest for self-expression through the years. Primeval in nature, the art of piercing has existed in our collective consciousness for over 5000 years.
Though celebrated the world over, piercing is very much rooted in individual cultures and how they choose to express themselves. However, one can state that ear piercings have been universal – the oldest mummified remains discovered, Ötzi the Iceman from about 5000 years ago, was discovered with pierced ears. The oldest earrings ever discovered? In 2500 BC in the Sumerian city of Ur. From China to India to the Pacific Northwest, the importance of ear piercings lay in the display of wealth, the marker of one’s social status and even one’s spiritual inclinations.
Beyond ear piercings, body modifications such as nose, lip, navel and nipple piercings existed from ancient times and across cultures. Gold, silver and precious stones were used to enhance, aided by the ancient trade routes that have now died down.
For women, often piercings helped celebrate their fertility and their status. Nose piercings in India was often done just before the wedding to celebrate the woman’s ascent into womanhood. For women of the Haida culture off the coast of Northern Pacific Canada, their lip piercings declared their high status in society.
Beyond status and fertility, piercing was also rooted in religious and spiritual devotion; when the Mayans pierced their tongues, the blood would then be collected on bark which was burnt in honour of their Gods.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking piercing has to do with pain and pleasure, devotion and subversion: nipple and genital piercings. The Kama Sutra records instances of genital piercing for sexual enhancement while the Dayak tribesmen of Borneo did the same, to reduce desire. Sexuality has always been a tricky thing to maneuver…
Today, piercing is regarded as the champion of independent thought as well as dirty and ill-conceived. How did this almost-universal culture evolve to having such alienating points of view?
From 4th century onwards, piercing started reducing in European countries as other modes of self-expression such as hairstyles and clothes became popular – most notably, the statement hair ornamentation that categorized Europe’s aristocratic classes. In the 16th century, it did have a bit of a revival among men intent on making an impression. It really does not come as a surprise that Shakespeare was a part of this movement when he donned a earring in one ear only! However, it was definitely time-bound as the stoic man of the Enlightenment came to power in the 1700s, followed by the retiring nature of the Victorian Britishers. With the rise of colonization and the White Man’s Burden, piercing started to be recognized as “ethnic” and therefore, not to be valued, especially when it was practiced beyond what was considered acceptable – lip, navel, nipple and all.
As the legend of time and trends go, piercing’s popularity began to wax again after the Second World War when it once again became a marker of sexuality – this time for gay men who donned a earring.
With the rise of the Punk subculture, piercing was harkened back to its roots of lip, navel, eyebrow and tongue enhancements. Punk stood for anti-establishment and individual freedom and what better way to reject tradition than by celebrating what had been rejected in the first place! Ever since then, piercing has become popular across the world once again.
What is the future of piercing? Intertwined with body modification, piercing is set to celebrate decidedly different aesthetics from minimal detailing to maximal expression that challenges what is human all co-existing in peace. That’s the beauty of self-expression.