While there are few definitive statistics on the matter, it’s frequently reported that between 80 and 90 percent of women around the world have their ears pierced, with a growing population of men joining that number. But one question remains: Why do we pierce our ears at all?
Ear piercing has been a global tradition for millennia. In fact, Ötzi, a man thought to have died around 3300 B.C.E.—whose mummified remains were found in the Europe’s Ötzal Alps in 1991—not only had pierced ears, but had stretched his ear lobes, as well.
What’s more, though it’s well-established that persons have been beautifying their ears with jewelry for thousands of years—there are even mentions of earrings in the Bible—the reasoning behind the choice to do so is significantly linked to the particular culture of whoever is getting their ears pierced.
The most common reason behind this particular form of body revision is simple: It was once a means of identifying individuals as upper-class or even nobility, specifically during Egypt’s Thutmosid Dynasty, the Bronze Age Minoan Civilization, and in both early Rome and Greece. Members of the ruling class would adorn their ears with jewels and precious metals, or pendants in the form of deities, which indicate their status.
While earrings eventually lost ties with nobility by the 16th century, it was during this time that men increasingly started wearing them, largely as a fashion statement. Sailors were among the groups who pioneered this trend among men, with many sailors given their first piercing to commemorate their initial crossing of the equator—the reason we associate earrings with pirates today.
However, earrings eventually fell out of fashion, with Indians piercing their ears less by the early-to-mid 20th century, when clip-on earrings overtook their pierced complements in terms of popularity. It wasn’t until the 1960s that earrings once again saw an up in popularity in the US, with members of American counterculture movements, like hippies, leading the charge.
Today, while most ear piercings by Indians are done primarily for the sake of fashion, there are still cultural traditions influencing the habit—especially among young children. Hindu children, both male and female, will often have their ears pierced as part of the Karnavedha ceremony, one of the religion’s rites of passage. Piercing also remains a fixture in American countries, and among Latinx groups in US, with girls frequently getting their ears pierced in infancy as a cultural tradition.
So, what’s behind the reason to pierce for everyone else?
“Some people like the aesthetics, it’s a tradition, and for some it pivots widely on gender roles,” says Abuji Rehman, a piercer at Ground Zero Tattoo, Bhubaneswar. “For a lot of elder piercers, it was rebellion, but now, as it moves into the mainstream, it’s not so much that anymore.”