You expect 18-year-old pop singers and impossibly thin supermodels to have pierced bellybuttons. But you do not expect 38-year-old mothers of two who volunteer at school, work as executives and live in the suburbs to do so.
But they're doing it, perhaps in droves. Many keep it a secret; the beauty of the umbilicus piercing is that no one needs to know unless you want them to. But come this spring and summer, when cropped tops and bikinis reemerge from storage, don't be surprised at whom you'll see bearing beads in their bellies.
I should know. I'm married to one of those mothers. And, believe me, she didn't do it on my account. Not that I'm complaining. Suddenly, after 10 years of marriage and two kids, I find myself cohabitating with a woman possessing a pop singer's torso and a refreshed enthusiasm that reflects how good she feels about her body. That can't be bad.
By day, my wife, Leslie Aun, is vice president of public relations for a big food service company based in Gaithersburg. By night she is a devoted suburban mom, secretary of our daughter's second grade class and an amateur antiquer whose idea of a high time is refinishing beat-up furniture.
But a few months ago she came home from a New York business trip with a little surprise in the form of a stainless steel ring and a pewter-colored glass bead where her bare navel used to be. She did it, in true overachiever fashion, between business meetings.
Having lost 30 pounds of what smart husbands call "maternal storage tissue" after the birth of our son, Luke, Leslie felt svelte enough to show off her tummy and adorn it with jewelry. She didn't ask me, she did it for herself. And that, I have recently learned, makes her very similar in motivation to other women in her demographic profileall over the country.
"I can't tell you officially there's a trend because we'd have to be doing the statistics," says Laurie A. Casas, a Chicago cosmetic surgeon and spokeswoman for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, when asked about belly rings. "But I can tell you anecdotally: absolutely, not even a question. I've seen in the last two years a tenfold increase in bellybutton piercing among patients of mine above the age of 35."
And what's the appeal? "It's beautiful, they put jewelry in it, it's private, no one needs to see it, it's a little risky, it's on the edge, it's a little exciting," she says.
Do any of them add, "And my husband loves it?"
"Never," she says. "I've never heard that comment. Educated women tend not to talk about what their husbands care about; they say, 'I'm my own person and this is what I like.' "
A Job for Professionals
Casas and others who study the procedure say a bellybutton piercing is a low risk when done in sterile conditions and followed up with diligent hygiene. Casas has drained only one infected navel that went bad after a piercing. But not all piercings are performed with single-use, sterile instruments by trained, experienced piercers. Indeed, many body piercings in various locations -- including the high-ear rim, nose, lips, labret (the area right above the chin), neck, genitals and the tongue -- are performed by amateurs.
My wife went to a professional shop in New York's East Village, which prides itself on its urban primitivism. "I'm pretty sure they were drugged out," she says of the proprietors, "but they were recommended by the concierge at the [tony, well-known hotel] and they said they did [name of post-adolescent pop singer]'s nipples." Leslie went through with the deed only after seeing that her heavily pierced, somewhat high-strung piercer was going to use single-use equipment in a sterile environment.
It's not that way for everyone.
"If the literature is correct, half the body piercings done in this country are done by peers rather than in a professional place," says Dennis Ranalli, senior associate dean and professor of pediatric dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. "Kids are doing it to each other." Indeed, you can get a piercing starter kit for $75 off the Internet; it doesn't include antiseptic but -- good news! -- it does have five "minor consent forms."
"I have one patient right now who has self-pierced her eyelids -- not eyebrows -- with safety pins. There's inflammation and infection there," says Ranalli, who has studied intra-oral piercing. He has heard piercing-related horror stories involving Ludwig's angina (bacterial infection of the mouth tissues so severe it threatens to cut off the airway) and bacterial endocarditis (an infection of the tissues of the heart). He says there has been one report of HIV transmission by piercing, a tongue piercing resulting in a hypertensive collapse and another resulting in cephalic tetanus.
"These aren't just localized, 'Oh, my tongue hurts' kind of things," Ranalli says. "These could be serious, life-threatening problems. The medical profession is left treating the consequences of these things that are done for, quote, body art. So it's a problem." The irony for Ranalli is that "some of these kids won't go to the dentist because they're afraid. Meanwhile, you let somebody puncture your tongue with a large-gauge harpoon . . . . It's strange."
Worse, once piercing becomes commonplace among people like, well, Leslie, the trendsetters up the ante with other forms of body alteration: cutting (scarification as adornment), branding (searing flesh with high heat in artistic patterns) and -- please don't eat during this next sentence -- tongue splitting, in which the tongue is cleaved nearly in half so as to cause it to fork like a lizard's. Last month the Air Force specifically banned this form of body alteration. That fighting force also prohibited filing teeth (for a vampire appearance) and implanting objects under the skin (for a 3-D effect).
Piercing, the Truth
Recent aberrations aside, body piercing is age-old and wide-ranging. Ancient Egyptian royalty pierced their navels, Roman centurions pierced their nipples and American Indians used piercing in coming-of-age rituals.
But nothing in history compares with what happened in 1994 when model Christy Turlington walked the runway at the London Fashion Show boldly baring a new navel ring for all to see. The next day Naomi Campbell, apparently in a case of supermodel envy, made an appearance wearing a gold navel ring with a pearl fastener. And thus was born a fashion trend, or so says the legend. Soon after, pop stars like Madonna, Cher and Janet Jackson were flaunting abdominal adornments. It's only natural the hip masses were to follow.
How popular is navel piercing, or piercing in general? Everyone knows it's on the upswing, significantly so, but statistics? Forget it. "It would be impossible," says Bethra Szumski, a piercer of eight years in Atlanta and the president of the nonprofit Association of Professional Piercers.
"You'd have to know all the studios and know the statistics for each one -- you won't get anything close to an accurate statistic," she says. But, she adds, business at her shop, Virtue and Vice Body Piercing Inc., servicing a clientele across the demographic board, is booming.
Of course, anytime something becomes popular, you can count on the government to regulate it, but in this instance, localities are slow on the uptake. Myrna Armstrong, a professor of nursing at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, who has written about piercing since 1995, says there no more than 17 states regulate the practice. States and some localities are starting to pay attention, she says, but for now the onus is on the customer to make sure the piercer is using proper techniques.
Locally, the District has no regulations on body piercing; Maryland has "regulations in place to cover the communicable-diseases aspects of body piercings and tattooing, but any licensure is not done at the state level," says John Hammond of the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "If there is a complaint issued about a parlor, the local health department would inspect to see that proper universal precautions are being practiced." Neither Montgomery County nor Prince George's County licenses tattooists or piercers.
Virginia's Board for Barbers and Cosmetology has until July 1 of next year to develop regulations for tattooists and body piercers, says Zelda Dugger, the board administrator. She says they will be "licensed like beauticians, with training and a board exam."
Until then, it's belly beware.
Sticking With a Winner
Let's go live now to one of Greg Piper's two Manassas shops, Exposed Temptations, a tastefully appointed tattoo and piercing emporium that appears more like a spa than a streetwise tattoo parlor. It's where a somewhat nervous Fatima Pereira, Piper's girlfriend, is about to have her bellybutton pierced.
Pereira, an office manager, is 34 and besides a small tattoo on her back and the traditional earring holes in her earlobes, she has no other piercings or body art. Her piercer, one of three full-time piercers Piper employs (in addition to nine "body artists") is known by all as Archie, who not only doesn't give his last name but adds, "Archie isn't even my real first name." He does say he's 26.
He leads us down a hallway and into his piercing room, which is outfitted in the manner of the cubicle used by phlebotomists. There's a "sharps" box for disposing of used needles and contaminated instruments; an autoclave sterilization machine; a metal table on casters containing assorted packets of surgical instruments; and an examining table. With the exception of the chaotic industrial hip-hop music of the band Mindless Self Indulgence (lead singer's name: Urine) emerging faintly from the boombox and the several items of Crucifixion art on the walls, the room's aura suggests a small-town doctor.
Archie looks anything but. He has several silver rings in his eyebrows and massive dark ones that elongate his ear lobes; elaborate tattoos decorate the visible portion of his body; his head is shaved and his goatee barely hides his several lip rings. "All my piercings are self-inflicted," he jokes as he pulls on a pair of bright blue rubber gloves, "except the tongue." Pereira relaxes a bit and pulls up her purple top a discreet few inches, enough for Archie, on bended knee as she stands, to swab her navel with an antiseptic on a Q-Tip. He then draws a cross her tummy, using a toothpick and water-soluble violet ink. This will be his target.
Pereira, who has not said anything to this point, follows instructions and lies on the padded examining table. She takes a few deep breaths and focuses on the ceiling tiles.
Archie uses a pair of Pennington forceps to clamp the skin of her taut tummy and pull it up half an inch or so. He uses a 14-gauge hollow needle (think of the big one they use to deliver intravenous medicine) to make the incision and follows that with the half-inch curved stainless steel barbell that will be her navel jewelry. The hole, and the jewelry, are only on the top of the navel, beginning just above the "innie" part and emerging just inside it.
After screwing the lower bead onto the barbell, which takes the most time of the three-minute procedure (retail price $65), Pereira's bellybutton is pierced. There was no blood, no screaming, no pain.
"Fast, like a ninja," Archie says, snapping off the gloves.
Archie explains to Pereira her aftercare responsibilities -- "clean it two or three times a day with antibacterial soap, don't try to change [the ring] for four to six months" -- and she stands up to examine her new adornment. "My stomach feels tingly a bit," she says. "It just felt like I pinched myself. I thought it would be more painful, but it wasn't any more painful than like when you have blood taken out."
In his six years as a piercer, Archie has pierced "every shape and size, and exotic stuff, below-the-belt stuff." So we ask him: What's the strangest place he's pierced? When we hear the answer, we're sorry we asked. Good taste prevents us from saying much more. But let's just say this: Archie doesn't like doing it, so he charges $200 for the procedure. And I'd be very surprised if my wife ever came home from a business trip with one.
* Buzz McClain last wrote for the Health section about getting his forehead Botoxed.