Stretching

One of the most popular body modifications right now is ear stretching. It is also, unfortunately, one of the most improperly and incorrectly done body modifications as well. This is going to be a long and picture heavy post because we have a lot of information to cover, but stick with me here, it’s all good information.

Stretching (often incorrectly referred to as “gauging”), is the practice of enlarging a chosen piercing by slowly inserting larger diameter pieces to accommodate larger jewelry, usually called plugs or tunnels. The most commonly stretched piercings are earlobes, lips, and the septum, but any piercing has the potential to be stretched. I’ll limit this to lobes since it’s the most common, but this information applies to nearly all stretched piercings.

This ancient practice has been performed by many cultures for thousands of years, signifying adulthood, patience, status in the tribe or group, etc. In modern times, stretching is commonly done to stand out, to identify with a certain subculture, and sometimes just for the aesthetic value, some people just like the way they look.

Historically, stretching has also been done to discourage the slave trade. Africans would pierce and stretch lips and ears to make themselves “unfit” for slavery, they were seen as deformed and weren’t taken away. Stretching is such an ancient practice that even the oldest mummy ever found, Ötzi the Iceman, who was found in Italy and was dated to about 3,300BC had stretched earlobes of about 11mm. Egyptian mummies have also been found with stretched lobes.

How to stretch properly:
Getting started

Before you start stretching, be absolutely sure this is something you want to do. At certain points, it becomes very hard to downsize again and some people never will. This practice is to be considered a permanent modification, so if there is any doubt at all that you’ll want to one day go back down to “normal” piercing size, don’t stretch.

Most standard piercings are anywhere between 20-16ga. The way the gauge system works is the LARGER the number, the smaller the diameter of the piece is, so 20ga is actually smaller than 16ga. This is the same measuring system that welders use, called the American Wire Gauge system. It’s backwards, I know, but you’ll get used to it quickly enough. It’s safe to assume that most people can start their stretching process with 16ga tapers and plugs. Here’s a link to a gauge size reference table for you to look back on as a reference.

http://www.bodyartforms.com/help_MeasurementGuide.asp

Do not stretch freshly pierced ears, or any other fresh piercing. They should be fully, healthily healed for at least 6 months before you start your first stretch. Sometimes you can get a head start on stretching by getting pierced at a larger gauge, or getting a dermal punch, or getting your lobes cut with a scalpel. If you choose one of these methods to get a head start, you MUST absolutely be at least 6 months fully, healthily healed before you start stretching. The longer you can go, the better, so I always recommend the longer end of the average healing times. There is no such thing as “too healed”.

There are several ways to stretch your ears: tapers and plugs, taping, or weights. The two most common and safest ways are tapers and plugs, and taping.

How to use tapers and plugs:
Tapers resemble round railroad spikes, and plugs are cylinder-shaped pieces.

Tapers:

Plugs:
Product photo

These can be purchased in sets off many websites, including http://www.bodyartforms.com, my personal favorite jewelry website.

First, buy some sort of lubricant. I prefer Jojoba Oil, since its chemical makeup is very similar to the oils your body naturally produces. You can also use Emu Oil, Vitamin E oil, extra virgin olive oil in a pinch and even some sexual lubricants, such as KY. Make SURE these sexual lubricants are water based only, no scents, flavors, colors, etc.

Once you have your taper and plug set ready to go, go take a long hot shower. This loosens and softens the skin of the piercing and makes stretching easier. When done, rub the taper and your ear liberally with your chosen oil, and slowly insert the long pointy end into the piercing, stopping when you reach the uniformed end. It should be smooth sailing, with NO PAIN. If there is actual pain, stop immediately. Some slight stinging or light pressure is alright. You’ll notice that tapers come with little rubber rings, called O-rings. These are provided because some people like to leave their tapers in their ears for an hour or two to let their piercing calm down, before inserting the plugs. If you wish to do that, slide on the O-rings now to hold the taper in place. The taper is now to be followed by the plug. Simply remove the O-rings from the taper and plug, lube up the plug, put one end of the plug flat against the taper and slide it through your piercing until the taper falls out the back, slip the O-rings back on the plug and you’re done! The plug should be left in the piercing for about 3-4 weeks while any microtears inside the fistual (the tunnel of flesh that a piercing is) heal, and then the process can be started again, at the next size up.

Some websites will sell taper and plug sets beyond 0ga, I’ve seen some that go up to one inch. You should never ever use tapers beyond 0ga, at the most. Your risk of blowouts from the tapers greatly increases the larger you go, so 0ga is the stopping point for the taper and plug method. You should only be using the tape method after 0ga.

How to stretch with the taping method:
The taping method isn’t quite as easy as the tapers method, but it is safer at the larger sizes. Taping is kind of hard with the little sizes, about 16ga-10ga, but it can be done. In my experience, most people start taping around 8ga.

There are only two types of tape suitable for the taping method: Plumbers tape, also called PTFE tape, and bondage tape. Both of these are non-adhesive, which is the important part. You can purchase plumbers tape at any store that has a hardware section, or hardware stores, of course. You can get bondage tape either from the internet, like Amazon, or some sex and fetish shops will carry it.

To start taping, take a pair of plugs in your current size and wrap 1-2 layers of the tape around it. Lube up your ear and the plug with tape, and carefully insert, then leave it alone. Repeat this process every week or two, adding 1-2 layers of tape each time. This is a slower method than the taper and plugs, but is much safer at the larger sizes because your risk of tearing and blowouts is greatly reduced.

Weight stretching:
This is probably the most uncommon way to stretch, because it often gives undesired results. Weight stretching is done by wearing heavy stone or metal weights that stretch the piercings using gravity. This is usually undesirable because it can easily cause thinning of the lobes and the elongated “saggy” earlobes that most people try to avoid. But it is effective.

You can inadvertently weight stretch if you’re not careful. By wearing heavy hanging stone or metal earrings for extended periods of time, the weight will eventually stretch your lobes. I’ve had this happen first hand. I wore heavy hanging 2ga stone earrings for a good 8 months, and when I went to the usually difficult stretch to 0ga, I barely had to use the taper, the plugs just slid right in, because all those months of the heavy stone earrings stretched them for me.

No matter the method you choose, you must wait for a while between stretches. Every body is different, but the most common wait times are:
For 18-10ga: About 2-3 weeks
For 8-0ga: About 4-6 weeks
For 00ga and beyond: About two months or more

A good indication you’re ready to stretch again is when you VERY gently pull down on your plugs and you can see light between your ear and the plug. That’s a good visual that you might be ready to stretch again. Give it a try, and if it hurts or just won’t go all the way, STOP DOING IT and try again in another 2 weeks or so.

Aftercare and what to expect:
Stretching should NEVER hurt. If it hurts, stop right away and put your old plugs back in. There should NEVER be blood, tearing, or anything like that. Some slight stinging or tightness is okay, but it shouldn’t be enough to even make you grit your teeth. If it is, stop right away and put your smaller plugs back in. Wait another 2 weeks, and then try again.

Aftercare for stretched lobes is very simple. Basically, you treat them the same as you would for any new piercing, which is the Sea Salt soak method, or SSS for short. This is a very simple method and is the only one you’ll ever need. Take 1/4 teaspoon of pure organic sea salt (not iodized table salt) and dissolve it in 8oz (1 cup) of hot water. Make the water as hot as you’d make your bathwater. Soak the piercing 2-3 times a day, for about 5-10 minutes each time. If direct soaking is difficult, soak about a quarter to half of a paper towel in the SSS mixture then compress. Do not turn the plugs, do not remove them to clean them, do not slide them back and forth, just leave them be.

The residue that sometimes builds up on stretched ears is called sebum or, more disgustingly, ear cheese. This is normal, but undesirable, mostly because it’s gross and smells bad. Cleaning your ears and jewelry as is proper with basic hygiene will reduce this. Also, switching to organic materials like wood, horn, bone, stone, etc can also help, but remember this can ONLY be done when your ears are fully healed.

Suitable jewelry:
There are many styles of jewelry available for stretched earlobes, but not all are suitable for stretch-ING. The only suitable materials to wear in newly stretched lobes are 316 or 316L surgical implant grade steel, titanium, and glass. These are all non-porous materials and can be autoclaved for full sterility.

Materials such as horn, stone, wood, bone and acrylic should only be worn in fully healed stretched lobes. All of these materials are porous and can harbor and breed bacteria, and you don’t want that in newly stretched lobes.

There are also different forms of plugs, these are no flare or straight plugs, single flare and double flare.

No flare is a uniform cylindrical shape:

Single flare has one end larger than the other:

and Double flare is hourglass shaped:

You can wear either no flare or single flare in new stretched piercings. You cannot wear double flare because the ends are wider than the saddle or wearable area, and you won’t be able to get them in or out of new stretched lobes.

There are also spirals and crescent shapes, or pinchers, that many people believe are safe to stretch with. This is not true.

Spirals:

Pinchers or crescents:

These pieces are meant to be pretty jewelry worn in fully healed piercings. These are not safe to stretch with because they’re too heavy, and can cause thin spots in your ear. The tapering on these usually isn’t gradual enough and can cause tears. So, ONLY use plugs in new stretched piercings!

A piece you never wear is tapers, the tools you use to stretch with. I know they come in pretty colors and patterns, but they are not intended to be worn as jewelry. This is because they cause uneven weight distribution which can wear thin spots in your ears. And most are made of acrylic, which, as already said, is bad for new stretched piercings. So, just stretch with them, leave for an hour or less if you want to, and then replace with a plug. There is NEVER an appropriate time to wear tapers.

Major risks:
Outside of the normal risks for any piercing like infection, irritation, etc. the major risks associated with piercing stretching is what’s known as blowouts, cat ass and thinning of the earlobes. All of these are easily avoided by stretching slowly and properly.

Blowouts happen when you stretch too large, too fast, or force jewelry through when you aren’t ready to stretch up yet. Essentially, what happens is you force the fistula from the inside of the ear to the outside. You can also have blowouts if you skip sizes while stretching.

Cat ass looks just like that, a cat’s butt hole. This comes from stretching too fast and creates a puckering effect. Skipping sizes can also lead to cat ass.

Thin lobes come from stretching too fast, which causes splits in the ear. As these heal they get thinner and thinner, thus you’re more likely to tear your lobe in two. Again, ALL of this is easily avoided by stretching slowly and properly.

For full on visuals of all of this, I refer you to the Blowout Slideshow. As a warning, these are VERY graphic images and very much not safe for work, not safe for weak stomachs, and should only be viewed with a prepared mind, in a well-lit room, with maybe something soft to snuggle to take away the potential nightmares.
http://s260.photobucket.com/albums/ii9/blowoutslideshow/?albumview=slideshow

Myths:
There are many myths associated with stretched lobes, and stretched piercings in general. A major one is that they smell bad. Anything on your body will smell if you don’t wash and clean it properly, this is basic hygiene that all of us were taught as kids. Just wash them with wet hands every time you shower, and you should never suffer from a smell.

Another myth is that they’re unsanitary. I really don’t see how they can be; they’re no more sanitary or unsanitary than regular ear piercings. They do take a little more care and cleaning, but again, with basic hygiene and showering, they’re fine.

The myth that ear stretching is irreversible is another prevalent one. This is mostly untrue, but does hold some truth. The general consensus is that the “point of no return” is a 2ga, that means that you’re unlikely to shrink back down as if you were never pierced, or to “standard” piercing size. You might go down to 16ga or 14ga, but not as if you were never pierced. Even at the much larger sizes, like several inches, it is possible to reverse. This is done by surgically trimming and reattaching the earlobes into the basic or original shape. So, yes, stretched piercings ARE possible to reverse, for the most part, but they should be considered permanent modifications. If there is any doubt in your mind that you might want to go back to normal sizes, don’t stretch at all.

Why “gauging” is wrong:
Alright, here’s the big one. Why is staying “gauged” wrong?

There are several reasons why this is wrong, but my biggest irritant is it’s grammatically wrong.

It is NOT slang, it is not a regional term, it’s flat out grammatically incorrect in this context. Gauge, as a verb, means “to measure”, as in “I gauged the distance of the ravine before I jumped over it.” or “Your magic gauge is getting low, you should drink a Mana potion.” or “The fuel gauge in my car dashboard is slightly off, I actually have more gas than it shows.” So to say you’re “gauging your ears” you’re saying “I’m measuring my ears”, which is grammatically incorrect in this context. You can measure your ears, certainly, with a ruler, meaning you are taking its measurements. Just like you would for a dress fitting or suit fitting, you are getting measured. You don’t do that with your ears when you stretch them. You STRETCH them to accommodate larger pieces of jewelry.

Gauge is also a unit of measurement, just as inch, centimeter, mile, kilometer, etc. is. It’s based on the American wire gauge system; any welder will know exactly what this is. So to say you “wear gauges”, is to say “I wear inches in my ears”, you’re just replacing one unit with another. See how that’s wrong? How can one wear a unit of measurement in their ears?

Using the logic that gauge represents the diameter of the jewelry, the jewelry itself, the enlarged earlobes themselves, and the process of enlarging the earlobes, which is commonly done, you should be able to say “I wear 0 gauge gauges in my gauged gauges.” What? That doesn’t make any sense. Properly, that sentence should be said as “I wear 0 gauge plugs in my stretched earlobes.” See how that actually makes sense?

You have gauges in your car, not in your ears.

Remember, these are gauges:

That’s not what’s in your ear, is it? So why say that it is?

Do’s and don’ts:
Do not ever skip sizes. Ever. I don’t care how stretchy you think your ears are, I don’t care how fast you think you heal, you NEVER skip sizes. This causes cat ass, blowouts, and generally gives you crappy looking ears.

Do respect your ears. If you treat them nice and care for them, they’ll be beautiful and healthy for you.

Do not rush it. Stretching is not a race, size does not matter. You are supposed to enjoy the journey, use it as a learning experience about yourself and your body, and find a size you feel comfortable at. Someone with 1 inch crappy looking lobes will get LESS respect in the body mod world than someone with thick healthy 0ga lobes. Size is not an indicator of how cool you are, how unique or special you are, how hard core you are, size means nothing in the body mod world. QUALITY of the lobes is what matters.

Don’t listen to your friends. If they suggest something that sounds like a bad idea, it probably is. Listen to professionals, people who have been there and have beautiful lobes to show for it. There are very few shortcuts and cheats in this process, and it’s so simple anyway, why would you need shortcuts and cheats, anyway?

Don’t be cheap. If you can’t afford to stretch properly, then don’t stretch at all. It is very much worth it to invest in good tools and jewelry to have beautiful ears to show for it. You don’t need super expensive things, but it is better to spend the money on good steel tapers and plugs than go cheap on acrylic stuff, use hand-me-downs from friends (which is unsanitary and gross in the first place!), or get sub-par metals from some kiosk in the middle of the mall. Spend the few extra bucks on good stuff, it’s worth it.

Do your own education and research. There is no such thing as too much knowledge, so you should educate yourself as much as you can. That way if something goes wrong you either know how to handle it, or can consult trusted resources and information to fix it. Talk to many professionals and trusted people in the body mod community, read about it as much as you can.

Stretching is a wonderful, sometimes even fulfilling process, and should be done with the utmost care, respect and understanding.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Spike
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 19:06:06

    Very helpful and imformative! I only have one question, when you say the point of no return is 2ga, how little will is close up if left alone? I’ve been pondering stretching up to 0 or 00 at most so how much would those close up?

    Reply

    • Steel and Bone, Horn and Stone
      Jun 22, 2011 @ 20:47:04

      It’s really impossible to say what it WILL do, since everyone is different. You can stretch up to 4ga and only ever shrink back down to 10ga. You can stretch all the way up to 7/16th’s inch and go back down to 16ga. From the people I’ve talked to, the average size they heal back to is about 16ga or 14ga. If you do decide to downsize, you shouldn’t just take out your plugs and let them heal up, I’ve seen this cause a puckering-like effect that’s not pretty. Just wear smaller and smaller plugs, allow your ears to close back up slowly. Again, if you have a doubt that you’d ever want to downsize in the future, you might not want to stretch at all, since it’s impossible to know what your ears will allow you to do.

      Reply

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