Body piercing involves making a hole in a body part and, usually, placing a piece of jewelry into the hole. Body piercing is often defined as the piercing of any body part for men and the piercing of any part besides the earlobes for women, for whom pierced ears have long been acceptable. An ancient practice, body piercing has been done in many cultures for reasons of adornment or ritual. Though it first became popular in modern times in the punk culture of the 1970s and 1980s, which rose up alongside punk rock music, body piercing later became surprisingly popular with many more mainstream young people.
Prehistoric art has shown that piercing body parts occurred long before recorded civilization. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt often pierced their navels, and Roman soldiers were known to prove their masculinity and bravery by piercing their nipples. Among African and Native American peoples, ritual piercings were often part of religious or coming-of-age ceremonies. Enduring painful piercings has been a proof of courage and a symbol of identity in many cultures.
The rebellious youth of the 1970s and 1980s found shocking ways to assert their identities. Punks wore shredded clothing and dyed their hair bright colors and shaved and shaped it into spikes and ridges such as the Mohawk (a ridge of hair sticking straight up, running down the center of the head). They got tattoos and pierced their bodies in many places rarely seen in modern Western culture, performing many of the piercings themselves. It was typical to see punk youth wearing safety pins in their pierced ears, noses, eyebrows, and cheeks.
If the early punk piercings were all about rebellion and shock, later piercings had a more fashionable purpose. The ears were still a popular spot to pierce, but instead of one earring now each ear might hold a number of earrings, ranging from the lobe to the top of the ear. Noses, eyebrows, lips, and tongues were also frequent locations for jewelry, and some people pierced their nipples and navel. Pierced genitals were not uncommon but generally were only for the most extreme fans of piercing. Celebrities from sports stars like Dennis Rodman (1961–) to pop singers like Janet Jackson (1966–) pierced their nose, tongue, and navel. Young people from adolescents to college athletes began to imitate them, with many viewing tongue and eyebrow piercing as cool, sexy, and socially acceptable.
Gay, Kathlyn. Body Marks: Tattooing, Piercing, and Scarification. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2002.
Graves, Bonnie B. Tattooing and Body Piercing. Mankato, MN: Life Matters, 2000.
Wójcik, Daniel. Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
[ See also Volume 5, 1980–2003: Tattooing ]