Let’s be clear about a couple of things: Body piercer Clay Wanstrath does not gauge earlobes. He stretches them. And those large pieces of jewelry poking through the lobes he stretches? They’re called plugs, eyelets, bones, hoops, jewelry … but not gauges.
Never, ever are they to be called gauges.
Gauge is a unit of measurement, not the name of an accessory used in earlobe stretching or the process of stretching, Wanstrath politely explained one day when asked to talk about, well, ear gauging.
He might look primitive with his mohawk hair, tribal tattoos and the 12 piercings in his ears, nose, tongue and lower lip. But the guy is a stickler for semantics.
He’s so adamant about this particular use of language that he wrote an essay on it for a trade journal for the Association of Professional Piercers, in which he said, “It seems like some sort of mythical Hydra, every time a client is educated about the difference between stretch and gauge, suddenly 10 more clients pop up asking, ‘What gauge are your gauges?’”
That Wanstrath, one of Kansas City’s most popular body piercers, was compelled to write on the topic is evidence that stretching earlobes has grown dramatically in recent years. So is the fact that you can now find jewelry for it at the mall. And if that’s not enough to convince you, go to a local coffee shop or bar, and you are likely see someone sporting earlobe plugs (solid disks) or eyelets (hollow disks).
Stretching lobes has been in local body piercing and tattoo studios for more than a decade now, but even in 2000 it was still very punk rock, says Rachel Cross, piercer and owner of Ink Parlor on Main Street.
“My friend Heather works in a really corporate environment, and hers are stretched a little. She wears plugs to work during the week. With plugs, you can look like you’re wearing normal earrings during the week. Then wear tunnels and other crazy jewelry on the weekends.”
Earlobe stretching — along with lip and nasal septum stretching — dates back centuries. Mummified bodies from 3300 B.C. have stretched earlobes, and depictions of King Tut, who lived during the 1300s B.C., show him with them.
Today, the Maasai people of Kenya, the Asian hill tribes in Thailand and Myanmar and the Mursi women of Ethiopia are among many of the indigenous people who carry on the tradition in Africa, Eurasia and the Americas for religious and cultural purposes.
Mainstream stretching can trace its roots to 1978, when the Gauntlet, the first body piercing studio in America, opened in West Hollywood. Cross recalls starting to see a proliferation of stretched lobes about 15 years ago, but it wasn’t as accessible as it is today, she says.
“I was in high school, and I remember people sticking antennas and erasers through their ears to stretch their lobes,” says Amy Bug, a tattoo artist at Ink Parlor.
The biggest change over the past 10 years is the quality of the jewelry.
It ranges from a few dollars to $500 or more for plugs made of precious stones like the large tear-shaped labradorite Wanstrath often wears.
Other materials include glass, steel, silver, grass, bamboo, wood and even fossilized mammoth ivory dug from the frozen tundra. The most common styles are solid disks called plugs and hollow disks called eyelets or grommets.
Gauges range from 18 to 00; the higher the number, smaller the hole. So 18 gauge is the usual nonstretched piercing most people (including most grandmas) have, while a 00 is about 10 millimeters in diameter. From there the jewelry is measured in increments of 1/16th of an inch.
Starting to stretch
There are several methods for stretching lobes. Tapering, which uses a piece of equipment to simultaneously stretch and insert a larger plug, seems to be most common.
“Stores like Hot Topic will sell tapers with the intention of you wearing them, but they’re bulky and awkward,” Wanstrath says. “Using a taper to insert jewelry, usually a plug or eyelet, usually works best.”
Other methods include wrapping the jewelry in nonstick tape to increase the circumference, and scalpelling, which is cutting the area to enlarge the hole rather than stretching it.
Wanstrath, who plans to open a body piercing studio in coming weeks, says you also can pierce with a larger needle.
“We have 2-gauge needles, which is about the size of a pencil, and there are sizes in between. But if you want to be a 2 gauge, I probably wouldn’t pierce you there. I would pierce you at 4 or 6 gauge then stretch,” he says.
Time and patience are essential when stretching lobes. Most people try to stretch too fast, which forms scar tissue — known as a blowout — and that makes it harder to stretch later, Wanstrath says.
“If you give it about a month or two between each size, that usually works the best, though there are times you need more time,” he says. “When you stretch, you take your ear to the point where it’s no longer elastic, then you give your body time to catch up. It will regain its elasticity and be ready to stretch again.”
According to several people with stretched lobes, if you don’t wear jewelry, the holes will shrink dramatically and can even close altogether … to a point.
Wanstrath estimates that stretching larger than a 0 gauge (which is about 9 millimeters), you run the risk of going to the point of no return. And that varies depending on the person and the elasticity of their skin.
“Really the only way to find out is to do it,” he says. “I always tell clients it’s a commitment either way. If you don’t want trial and error, don’t even try.”
While in the process of stretching, it’s important to pick jewelry that is nonporous. Wanstrath pointed to several pieces of bone and wood jewelry and noted that wearing them in a freshly stretched hole would fuse them to your skin.
He got his ears pierced 17 years ago with a 14-gauge needle, which is slightly larger than a standard piercing and about the same gauge used for piercing tongues and navels. It took him about a year and half to work up to a 1-inch stretch. He stayed there for about five years, he says, until he fell in love with and bought a pair of 1 1/2-inch jade plugs and began the stretching process again. It took another 18 months until he could wear his new purchase.
Wanstrath’s wife, Brook Thompson, wears 1-inch jewelry in her stretched lobes. She modeled a large, heavy swirled piece of glass for our photo shoot.
“She wore it to work one day and didn’t ride a bike home,” Wanstrath said, half jokingly. “And she wouldn’t wear it every day. If you’re looking for extreme jewelry, that might be a little more extreme.”
The most common question Wanstrath gets about earlobe stretching is “Does it hurt?” followed by “How did you do that?”
The other one is, “Can you breathe?” when he wears a bone in his stretched nasal septum. Of course he can, he says, though he doesn’t wear it or any of his other jewelry when he runs. Wanstrath is a marathoner.
He doesn’t mind the questions at all, he says. “I do it for a living, so it’s my job to help people understand.”