A study of the history of ear gauging indicates the practice to be as old as recorded human history. For males, this form of ear piercing has been a symbol of status, while for women, in addition to being used as means of bodily decoration, it has also been employed to signify the attainment of womanhood.
Ear gauging, which is also referred to as ear stretching, is the stretching of ear lobe piercings to larger diameters than that of the original piercing. It is a form of body enhancement or beautification that many young western people adopt to look ‘different’ from the usual crowd. However, this is not a modern form of body piercing, since it has been around for as long as archaeological records exist.
In many cases, ear gauging has been used historically to indicate the standing of members of a specific tribe, and in many respects this is still the situation today. Stretched piercings have been, and still are, a reflection on the individual’s sexual capability and also their superiority over other males in the tribe. The larger the stretching, the more important the individual.
Otzi the Iceman is a prime example of mummies known to have stretched ears. This is the earliest known example of ear gauging, Otzi having 7-11 mm ear piercings during 3300 BC. It has been suggested that the stretching of the ears noted in depictions of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, may have been caused by the weight of the gold jewelry he wore, but this is mere supposition.
It is supported, however, by the fact that the Masai tribe of Kenya and the Lahu and Karen-Paduang people of Thailand use this ‘gravity’ technique to stretch their piercings. Let us have a look at the ear gauging practices used today by various cultures.
A. Mursi Tribal Women
The Mursi is an Ethiopian tribe where the women are obliged to wear plates in their gauged ears and on their bottom lip. About a year prior to her marriage, or at about 15 years of age, a Mursi girl’s lip will be pierced by her mother and a wooden peg pushed through the incision.
Once healed, the peg is changed for a larger diameter one. Eventually, the peg is replaced by a plate of clay or wood, and this plate is successively changed for larger diameter ones until the required diameter is attained – from around 8 – 22 cm in diameter (3 – 9 inches). Once these plates have been secured, she receives a higher degree of respect than those without them, and is known as a ‘Bhansanai’.
These lip and ear plates need not be worn permanently, but are an expected adornment during special occasions such as during weddings and other celebrations, and when they serve food to men. Today, young women can generally make their own decision as to whether or not they follow this tradition.
B. The Masai People of Kenya
The practice of ear gauging has been common …