Since the origin of our species, we human beings have been busy modifying our bodies. Stretching, piecing, tattoos, branding, scarification, implants, binding, body building and hair cuts have been around for about as long we have. Ear stretching has become more popular in Western culture recently for a variety of reasons. For some it is fashion while others are drawn to the primitive energy of ear stretching. Some feel a deep spiritual connection with the patience involved to create stretched ears while other people simply find it fun. The reasons are as different as the cultures on the planet but one thing is for sure; stretched ears have always been and always will be a part of human history.
It is impossible to say who the first people were with stretched ears or why they did it. Today, many cultures (including our own!) practice the art of ear stretching for many different reasons. Religion, coming of age ceremonies, to ward off evil, sexual enhancement and physical beauty are common motivations. But that just barely scratches the surface as there are many other reasons as well. People all over the world still practice ear stretching. From the Masai tribes in Kenya to the Huaorani tribe in the Amazon Basin, stretched ears are still a common sight. It is a fascinating testament of human culture that a Western youth can walk into a piercing shop to select stretched ear jewelry while a Hmong youth in Thailand selects from an array of silver tubes.
One of the earliest examples of stretched ears was found on a 5300 year old, naturally preserved mummy known as Ötzi, the Iceman. While no stretched ear jewelry was found, it is speculated that the plugs were made of an organic material such as wood. Most likely they had dissolved leaving only the tell tale stretched holes in the ear lobes. The giant Moai statues found on Easter Island were carved about 1100CE and sport elaborately stretched ear lobes. In fact, a common tale to explain the history of the statue carvers was that the original inhabitants were known as ‘Long Ears’ because of their cultural appreciation of stretched ears. They started carving the statues in honor of their ancestors when another tribe, the ‘Short Ears’, migrated to the island. The ‘Long Ears’ enslaved the newcomers and forced them to carve more statues. Later, the balance of power shifted. The ‘Short Ears’ were more numerous and they rebelled. They took over the island and toppled the statues. Across the sea in Egypt we find that even King Tutankhamen is portrayed with stretched ears. His statues and portraits show stretched ear lobes and the holes in his death mask accommodate jewelry bars that are about 10mm wide.
The methods of stretching ears are as numerous as the reasons behind it. While it is true some people embark on this journey to rediscover the primitive methods like inserting bamboo rods through an ear lobe, these methods are not common nor are they encouraged. The best way to progress is to go down to your local piercing shop and talk to the staff. Modern medicine has made the procedure safe and most find it a wise choice to use the technology and techniques that are available today. Before you start selecting stretched ear jewelry however, you should think really hard about one thing. The multitude of tribes, cultures and practitioners of ear stretching know this is a permanent condition and so should you. You can slightly stretch your ears and then stop and allow the hole to heal; but after a certain point this becomes impossible. Basically when the diameter of your piercing reaches 12mm it becomes permanent. The only way to seal a hole this large would be through cosmetic surgery.
Most of us already have a pierced ear or two. Ear stretching begins here. If you do not have pierced ears your journey needs an extra step plus a 6-8 week healing period. Ear stretching takes a lot of patience. You do not want to rush this and you should never ever bleed. One thing you should familiarize yourself with is needle gauge. Needle gauge is the standard of measurement that describes the circumference of the piercing. The lower the needle gauge is, the larger the hole. For example, when you get your ears pierced, the needle gauge is usually 18 or 20 gauge. You could probably shove a pencil through 2 gauge hole.
The simplest way to explain the art of ear stretching is you need something a little bigger than your current piercing to increase the size. One of the more common techniques is to use an insertion taper or taper ring that was created from a non absorbent material like jewelry grade stainless steel. The gentle increase in size allows you to progress at your own speed. Let your body be the judge and definitely let your ears heal between sessions. Every person is different but you should wait at least two weeks between size changes. Make sure you keep your ears and jewelry clean by washing them at least once a day. Most people use an unscented antibacterial soap for this, some people prefer a saline solution and many do both.
As you can see, there are many different ways to do this. Always talk to professionals at your favorite piercing shop for advice on keeping your stretched ears healthy. Aftercare is vital in this ancient ritual so never skip any steps in your cleaning routines. There are many different types of stretched ear jewelry made in an amazing variety of materials. Glass, Teflon, niobium, titanium and surgical stainless steel are good choices for stretching. But you will also see other choices like wood, bone, acrylic or shell. Remember some types of jewelry are not meant to be worn for extended periods of time. They are porous and can lead to infections if you do not take them out. So always do your research and keep your stretched ears beautiful and healthy. Welcome to the tribe.