Nicole Makai first saw a large gauged piercing when she was in the eighth grade.
‘I saw a girl at the mall with a big quarter-inch glass gauge earring,’ the now 20-year-old stylist for Studio FX on South Crouse Avenue said. ‘And she had a star tattoo behind her ear, and you could see the tattoo through the earring and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever.’
After seeing the glass earring, Makai decided she wanted holes that big in her ear and was inspired to get a piercing similar to what showcased the star tattoo. Makai wanted to stretch her earlobes.
Ear-piercing sizes are measured in gauges. The smallest size is a 16 gauge, comparable to the size of a pin, and the largest size is a zero gauge, which is about the size of a pencil. People can wear larger sizes, but once the ear passes the zero gauge, the likeliness of the piercing closing up is slim.
Stretching, more commonly known as gauging, is a time-sensitive process where gauge users slowly increase the size of an earlobe. A typical ear-piercing receives a 16- or 14-gauge sized hole, said Colleen Tabolt, the resident Halo piercing artist.
In order to lessen the risk of injury during the process, gauge users are encouraged to increase the size of their piercings by one millimeter every six to eight weeks after the initial piercing heals.
‘It sucks, it’s painful,’ Makai said. ‘It’s like getting your ear pierced all over again and it hurts every part of the way. But if you want it, do it.’
Tapers, small cone-shaped metal bars where one end is a small size and gradually gets larger as the bar extends, are the standard tool used to stretch piercings, Tabolt said.
Tabolt said not everyone stretches safely. Tapers can be tedious for people who desire a very large gauge. Those who get impatient tend to skip sizes, often forcing too large sizes into their ear.
‘I did a lot myself,’ Makai said. ‘I used dowels and wore pen caps in my ears because the tapers got expensive.’
Tabolt said the most common mistake people make stretching is going too big too quickly.
If a piercing is stretched too far, it can get dangerous, Tabolt said. When that occurs, people often have to consult surgeons to get the piercing closed up again. Usually people who aim to get larger piercings have intentions of keeping them, but the option to repair the hole is always there. The price for repair surgery runs between $300 and $400.
‘Those who want a larger gauge and know they want it forever can try dermal punching or scapling,’ Tabolt said. ‘That way you don’t have to go through the cost of stretching jewelry.’
Dermal punching is a method where the ear is pierced with a larger size gauge than average. Halo Tattoo Parlor and Salon dermal punches with either a 12- or 10-sized gauge. Scapling is a bit more drastic, Tabolt said. During this process, part of the ear lobe is removed and replaced with a plug. These methods are known for being much more painful then manual stretching.
Tabolt said the best materials to stretch your ear with are Pyrex glass and surgical steel because they cause less irritation to the ear. Once the ear is stretched, any variety of materials is fine.
While Tabolt said she has mainly pierced women, she said she thinks the gauged ear scene is mostly male dominated. This is a problem Makai finds when shopping for jewelry.
‘There’s not a lot of variety, so I can’t wear fun earrings unless I wear them under my plug or in my second hole,’ Makai said. ‘It’s a little less feminine sometimes.’
She notes that most of the earrings for her gauge tend to be plugs, and she can’t find more feminine earrings for special occasions. She recalls going to a friend’s wedding where she had a dilemma of almost not being able to wear the jewelry the other bridesmaids were wearing.
‘I ended up wearing the earring in my second hole, but I was worried at first,’ Makai said.
Other girls with gauges find creative ways to wear their earrings. Tabolt says some sandwich regular earrings in-between their gauge and their earlobe.
Freshman psychology and LGBT studies major Lexi Irving said she likes to wear hollow gauges and hang hoop earrings through those holes.
Irving said she stretched because she wanted to stand out, and she found them entertaining to play with. Despite her creativity, her parents didn’t find the piercing humorous.
Irving said there have been instances when their piercing has been viewed unfavorably by employers and parents.
‘Both my parents don’t find it attractive, but it’s my body, so it doesn’t matter,’ Irving said.
Makai also said when she was working at Trade Secret she was required to wear plug earrings that covered up the hole, because they didn’t want to see through it. But that was the only job where she was required to do something about her gauge.
Irving said she isn’t concerned with employer’s perceptions of her piercing.
‘I take them out for job-interview purposes, but honestly, I feel like there’s nothing they can really do about it,’ she said.
Irving also said many people find her large gauge odd and kind of gross, but people enjoy seeing the hole when she takes out her earring.
‘Most people just ask me, ‘why would you want to mutilate your body like that?” Makai said. ‘Usually older women are the ones that ask me why.’
Makai and Irving both said they wouldn’t want to try to get a smaller gauge size, but if they did alter their ear size at all it would be to make their piercing size larger.
Makai said after having her gauges for almost six years, the style has become a part of her identity. Irving said her ideal gauge size would be about the size of a quarter.
‘I live in the moment,’ Irving said. ‘I also have tattoos and stuff, too, so it either I’m going to have them forever or not at all.’
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