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Stretching your ears: my experience and brief tutorial

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As many of my Twitter followers know, last year I decided to start stretching my ears to accept larger gauge jewelry. I did this for two reasons. The most obvious reason to many is the fabulous ethnic jewelry we tribal bellydancers love to indulge in. Large gauge hoops, wood and bone plugs, the works. I of course adored these aesthetics and wanted them for myself. But even before that I had considered stretching to accept simple tunnels for a reason not everyone would know about.

My mother was a lover of chunky gold jewelry in the 80’s. She was always wearing some large, heavy earrings of some ilk every day. And as the years wore on, it took its toll on her lobes. The hole continued to stretch, looking somewhat like a cheese-cutting wire slicing downward due to weight and gravity. Finally, several years back, one of her earlobes split, and she had to get surgery to repair it. It was at that moment I started taking a closer look at stretching, because now I, too, wear some pretty heavy jewelry regularly (not every day, but frequently). My ears would often ache after performances from the weight of the jewelry, or even the simple act of wearing a slightly thicker wire than my regular fashion jewelry earrings. And finally, there was the mixed metals and materials these items were made from–some of which when worn in necklaces can cause dancers to suffer rashes or greening or blackening of the skin. I already have a mild silver reaction sometimes with earrings and nose rings, to boot. Putting these metals into the enclosed channel of my ear piercing was surely asking for continued issues down the road. So I was inspired to work toward wearing some smaller tunnels, to reinforce my lobes against the “cheese-cutter-syndrome”, as I now call it, and to keep the mysterious metals from direct contact with my skin.

So I did a lot of research online, then went to my local “alternative” shop, and picked up a pair of very tiny tapers and began my journey. I Tweeted and FB’d my progress as I went, and I got a lot of questions along the way about how I was doing it and what the results were. My troupe-mate Gen followed close behind, using my (sanitized) hand-me-down stretching jewelry, following along the same successful path. Then my husband followed suit, but had his rapidly stretched at Club Tattoo in Las Vegas on our 10 year anniversary trip. This past weekend, another troupe-mate, Kym, began her first baby steps, and my co-director Renee started asking some questions about it as well. This volume of questions over the last year have inspired me to share with you some places I got my information, and what I did specifically to stretch to where I am at my goal-gauge now: 00 or ~9.5mm-10mm.

The Research
There are many many sites out there which address stretching techniques and warnings, and anyone with even a single finger on their hand (or the tip of their nose!) can make a Google and get themselves some hits. So I will focus on my favorite site I used for my process.

One Tribe has a really great FAQ that is concise, clearly written, honest, and a wealth of info on the details you likely want to ask.

To sum up some important points:
1) Cleanliness is KEY. Don’t skip your sea salt soaks. Don’t touch them outside of when you are cleaning them.
2) Don’t rush. Take your time. A gauge at a time is plenty, and at least a few weeks in between is best to avoid tearing or the dreaded “cat butt” or “blowouts”! Some gauge jumps will take longer than others, so treat each stretch as its own animal and work with your body’s limits.
3) Use the right materials – not all jewelry is appropriate for stretching. Porous materials such as bone and wood will harbor bacteria and increase the risk of infection. Stick with stainless and glass. It limits your jewelry options at first, but will reduce risk of infection.
4) Be prepared to pay about $15-$40 per stretch in jewelry, depending on your budget for jewelry.
5) If buying from a shop that does not do piercings, or if using hand-me-down jewelry, make sure the jewelry is sanitized before you use them. Best is to take them to a local piercer and get them to pop it in the autoclave for you–some piercers will do this for you for free to help promote health among their customers. In a pinch, boiling hot water, or soaking in hydrogen peroxide for a few minutes, will do the trick. Make sure they are cooled/rinsed before putting them in.

How I Did It
So as I mentioned previously, my ears would ache if I even used a slightly larger gauge regular wire in my ears. I was pierced when I was 12 years old at a mall, and didn’t wear jewelry daily all my life, so even wearing a 16 gauge earring would sometimes cause a little heat and discomfort. So the first stretch was a little painful, but not too bad.

First Step – 16 gauge to 12 gauge
I am estimating where my piercings began at for this, since I am not certain. Most mall piercings are somewhere around 18 or 16 gauge. I bought simple tusks with a slight curve to them, with a very narrow/pointy end to get into my tiny little original piercing hole, and went up to a 12 gauge at the end. After a hot shower, I rubbed my ears with some vitamin E lotion (note: lotion is not recommended for piercings as it can harbor bacteria, but this is what I used), and pushed the little buggers in as far as I could stand, which was not very far–it was difficult to get the tiny washer to stay on the end because so little of it was protruding through the hole. It felt really HOT, but no sharp pain. Regardless, I did get some bleeding, and I immediately soaked my ear in some hot salt water to wash away the blood and make sure I was getting a clean start.

I was actually afraid these would be uncomfortable to sleep on due to the curve and the spiky little end I needed to have to get it in place, but surprisingly it was quite comfortable to sleep on and I had no issues. Every single evening I would boil up some hot water, dissolve some sea salt in it, add a little cool water to make it bearably cooler, and soaked my ears. I attribute my infection-free success and fast stretching to this diligence.

I continued with this regimen regularly, gently pushing the jewelry through a little further each time it felt like my ear was ready to accept it. It never got so hot or painful again–just heightened “awareness”, if you will…sensitivity. I was up to the 12 gauge thickest end within a couple weeks.

Next Gauge – 10 gauge
I next bought what many term a “claw”. Some call them “pinchers”, but I think that is a misnomer for this style, which only has a single pointed end, and tends to be more circular than crescent shaped as the pinchers, which I did use extensively in future steps.

This was one of my favorite steps. It really felt like I was starting to wear something that was obviously stretching jewelry, and the circular design was softer than the dark black claw I had begun with, and because it was so large a curve, the taper was far more gradual than some of the smaller pieces I wore later down the line. This one was slipping through within a week without my having to push it at all, but I kept wearing it a week longer just to be safe and not rush the process.

6 Gauge…er no…8 Gauge

The tapering was going so quickly at this point–I would wake up and the jewelry would be loose, having slipped through a little in the night–I thought I could buy jewelry two gauges up and just taper my way through more swiftly and save some money with not having to buy the interim gauge. That might have worked, except that due to the limits of the jewelry I had access to at the local shops, when I tried, I would get jewelry that thickened up from the point too fast, and this wouldn’t stay in. I couldn’t get the piece in far enough for the rubber washers to stay in place. The weight of the jewelry would work its way out within seconds. So I had to go back to the store to get the interim 8 gauge as well. I wish they had had the claw from my previous step available in the gauge I was working toward, but unfortunately they did not, and I only had pinchers to work with, which tend to start with a very sharp point and a thick center, as you see in the picture.

During these steps, I would leave the jewelry in for a week or so, and then would begin taking them out when I got into the shower. I would wash my ears gently with antibacterial soap, was the jewelry, massage the lobe with the vitamin E lotion, wipe my skin as clean as I could to not keep lotion on the surface, and put the earrings back in. This is not recommended by most FAQ’s, but I felt the need to really get everything as clean as possible, and I did not get any infections, I feel due to my diligence in continuing to wash, massage, and soak every chance I got.

About this time, my troupe-sister Genevieve got interested in the process, and I was able to pass on my few starter pieces for her to get going. Boiled ’em up, plopped them into the little boxes they came in, and handed them off for her to get started.

4-2-0 Gauge
Things went pretty quick here, but I was getting a little impatient with only having rather bland stainless pinchers to wear all the time. When was the fun stuff going to start?! Sure, I could have let things heal completely and just started wearing jewelry at that gauge for a while if I wanted, but I didn’t want to invest too much in jewelry at stages I didn’t intend to stay at. It would just be a waste. But when I reached 2, I did invest in a small pair of orange stone plugs to wear to a family function.

When I reached 0, where I thought I might originally stop before I had decided to go to 00. So I thought it was a nice plateau to buy a little something to wear while I healed. I invested in a pair of double-flare titanium tunnels which screwed in. I loved having these, because they now allowed me to wear some of my old favorite jewelry, as well as a pair of big Miao hoops I had bought a while back (pictured in the original image up top). My older “fish hook” wire jewelry was another story. For the most part, they are not deep enough to seat in the deep metal tube that is a tunnel. So the curve of the earring wire doesn’t go through or can’t hang there and fit. So you have to replace much of your earring wires with wider ones. Instead of the somewhat egg-shaped oval top, look for ones with more round arcs. I still haven’t converted some of my favorite pieces, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind for if you decide to go this route.

I was also being gifted jewelry from friends who had been following my progress, and who had gone past my intended 00 gauge goal. They not only sympathize with the whole having to buy new jewelry all the time, but there was a symbolism in the passing of the jewelry involved–a sort of sharing in the ritual with me and encouraging me to my goal. I was gifted a lovely pair of silver 00 double flare tunnels from my troupe-mate Erika, and a pair of amber plugs from Julia of Gypsy Fire, which made me cry when she told me she had been holding on to these for years–her favorites from a previous gauge she had passed long ago–wanting to give them to someone special. She said when she heard I was going to 00, she knew they were meant for me all this time.

By this time hubby was getting interested, and really wanted to get his ears stretched. He had planned to go the same route as I had, and Genevieve had returned the starter loaners as she had already gone up several sizes since, and had her own jewelry collection accumulating. But when we were in Las Vegas for our anniversary vacation, we were window shopping in the Desert Passage Mall at Planet Hollywood (RIP Aladdin), and came across the newly opened Club Tattoo.
Wandering around, looking at some truly gorgeous ethnic jewelry, he decided to get his ears stretched to a 0, with the goal of going to 00, as I had decided, so we could share jewelry eventually. The process was more gruesome than my gradual process, but the outcome was some immediate gratification for him, and we walked out the same gauge…for now.

Once home, he was a rabid websearcher, tracking down some designs he wanted for when he got to 00, and encouraging me to make some purchases for my final destination as well. Damn you, Tawapa!! A chunk of change later, we had two or three new designs each we couldn’t even wear yet. But it was still fun to shop for some jewelry I would actually get to wear for years to come! Something to look forward to!

The End of the Journey
Going to 00 was definitely the hardest step to date. By hardest, I mean it took the longest. It seemed the days of waking up and my jewelry falling through were over by this time; but so, too, was I not soaking every single night as I had in previous steps. I am sure that was part of the issue, as the warming of the skin, the rubbing with softening agents definitely is key to your happy ears. 00 was when I also started getting a little scarring–not so much to call it “cat butt”, but definitely a close cousin.

I am sure part of my impatience with this step was that I had such wonderful jewelry waiting for me when I got there. And then to add to that, the aqua blue spirals I had bought were not quite 00 gauge. There is always some expected variation with the jewelry, but even after weeks of wearing them, and then trying to put in some of the plugs Chris had been wearing happily for weeks now himself, I couldn’t get them in. I switched to some black stainless pinchers that were a little larger, and still for weeks I could not get double-flared anything through my lobes. So the gorgeous silver Tawapa plugs I had bought were taunting me and I couldn’t give them any love. And forget the sentimental ambers or even the infinitely versatile silver tunnels!

I am happy to report that as of this morning, my ears have given up the fight. After my morning shower, I gave my lobes a good rub down, made my prayers, and pushed through the tunnels so generously gifted to me by Erika. Hooray! I will let my ears rest a smidge today, and then hope to try on some of my other beauties maybe tomorrow or the next day.

So there you go, that is the story of my stretching. For me, it was a fairly simple, pain-free process. I feel I was fairly smart in following the common advice on cleanliness and pacing. If you are considering stretching, I wish you luck in your process. The bottom line is to listen to YOUR body. Everyone’s stretching will be at its own pace and will have its own issues to deal with. So get to know your lobes well, and watch for changes in sensation, coloring, and the like to stay alert for possible infections and scarring issues.

This past weekend, Renee asked what gauge we felt was necessary to have a tunnel that can accept a regular earring wire. Really, I think most people need only go to a 6 or 4 to get a regular earring wire through. But if you want to wear some of the ethnic jewelry with the thick ends, spirals and the like, I would plan to go to at least a 0. Besides, around 0/00 is when the plugs start to get really beautiful and interesting, with the materials and/or the end designs being large enough to appreciate.

If you have stretched, leave a comment and tell us a little about it! If you plan to stretch and have any questions, please feel free to ask. If I don’t know, I will be happy to help you find the answers you seek!

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

4 Responses

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    I’ve stretched from a normal earring gauge, around 18, to a 00 as well. I also used tapers, and made it a very slow process, though I didn’t let the hole relax as you did when gauging up. I’d usually use the taper to stretch all at once, but then keep it in, and soak it once a day over time (the rubber bands would never stay put on the skinnier part to keep it in!) Over about 2 years I got up to a 0, and was quite happy there. Then, during a time where I was wearing heavier earrings, all of my plugs started popping out, I happened to have a pair of accidentally bought 00’s and tried them on, and whoops! 00 gauge. I’m pretty happy here, and am glad with the gradual process I took to get to this point. I really respect the care and keeping you took in your stretching process, bravo!!!

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    Hey Shay girl! Hope you had a blast at Jamila… and I hope you are feeling better. You’ve been in my thoughts…

    Stretching… I stretched for the same reasons you did. I went from a 10g to a 0g in one year. I started at a 10, because that’s what fit my ears with only micro-tears and not having to punch the skin.

    Personally, I don’t recommend that anyone stretch themselves without seeing a professional at a trusted piercing parlor. There are very few people in this world who are responsible enough, patient enough, and “hygienically inclined” enough to stretch their own ears with tapered earrings. You would happen to be one of them, my dear.

    Each time I stretched I went my favorite shop, and saw my trusted piercers. They get to know a persons ears. They remember which ear would be a little tougher to stretch than the other. They are sanitary and knowledgeable and shared in my stretching experience along with me. I got stretched with steel single flair eyelets each time.

    Anypoo, just my 2 cents. More food for thought, everyone has a different answer when asked…. “What’s the point of no return?” Meaning, at what stretched will your ears not shrink back to a ‘socially acceptable'(whatever that means) size if you decide you don’t want it anymore?
    I’ve heard 2g, 0g, 00g. For people thinking about stretching, wait until you’re old enough to know yourself a little better. Wait until you have a relative idea of your chosen career path and lifestyle.

    Love you Shay!

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    Mine are also stretched to a 00, which I did myself over the course of several years (’cause I’m lazy). I started when I was 20, by slowly adding more and more hoops to the holes I had until I was wearing a pile of them in different diameters, and I would slowly twist one at a time from the wire to the thicker hoop part. This went on for quite a while. Then I was gifted a pair of wood tapers from a friend, which I used to get up a few more gauges (no idea what size!), then I bought another set of tapers to get me up to 0. I had those in for a few years, then I got a pair of screw in stainless steel plugs with solid flat disc ends put in. The piercer thought they were 0, but someone had put them in the wrong compartment, so she kept wondering why they didn’t slide right in my ears. She realized what was doing on and I decided what the hell, I’d size up! That one was the toughest, and the only time I was sore.

    Now my default earrings are a pair of charcoal wood spirals from One Tribe (I’ve been ordering from them for years). I have a few of their drop styles too. My SO bought me a pair of Tawapa blood wood earrings this past Christmas, but sadly they’ve both snapped at a think part of their curve (one while I was putting it in and the other I have no idea when, I found it broken in the basket where I keep my jewelry). I’ll also put in tunnels and wear big hoops. I have a pair of spiraled Miao earrings I bought at TribO but they are too large really to wear as they swing around too much, so they’ll end up sewn onto a headband or something. I can’t wear metal too much, my ears don’t like even the ss, so I stick to wood and keep it washed and oiled.

    I love having my ears stretched! It’s been 14 years since I started and 10 since I got them up to 00 and I don’t regret it at all!

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    Hello! I’ve been wanting some miao/dong earrings like the ones you have for a while and I was wondering what gauge size you must have to get those on? My earlobes arent stretched at all, I’ve just had a normal ear piercing since i was 3 weeks old hehe. Thank you for sharing your experience ­čÖé

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