Episode 27. From Tradition to Rebellion: The History of Body Piercings

A little poke of a needle and a moment of pain in the name of what? Beauty? Wealth? Tradition? Maybe all of the above? The history of body piercings is a long one, dating back millennia and spanning many civilizations. In this week’s episode, we dive into why Egyptian pharaohs would execute anyone with a belly button ring and how in Ancient Mesoamerica, shamans would pierce their tongues as blood sacrifice. Beyond the ancient histories of piercings, this form of body modification is now also a part of modern life–in some ways as a very accepted practice and in others, not so much. Join us as we talk about all things piercings and the ways that gender plays a role in our understanding of this age-old practice! 

Feminist Corner:

When you think about body piercings, what do you associate them with? What comes to mind? 

Why do people get piercings? What piercings are “acceptable” and why?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

The oldest mummified body found with piercings was found frozen in an Austrian Glacier and was about 5300 years old.

Ancient Mesopotamia: There’s evidence that men and women wore earrings, but they were much larger for women and usually made of materials like gold or lapis lazuli.

Ancient Egypt: These are among the oldest bodies found with stretched ear lobes and apparently other body piercings, particularly belly buttons, were a sign of royal status in ancient Egypt and only the pharaoh could have his bellybutton pierced. If anyone else did they would be executed if found. 

Ancient Greece: The only thing I could find about Ancient Greeks and earrings was that they would wear paste pendant earrings shaped like sacred birds or demigods. 

Ancient Rome: Ancient Romans wore subtle studs in their ears and also had their nipples pierced as a sign of strength and virility. It was a badge of honor that demonstrated “dedication to the Roman Empire.” 

Ancient Mesoamerica: The Olmec, who are a tribe who resided in Mexico, would give men giant plugs in their cheeks which were meant to be expanded gradually as they got older. The Aztecs, piercings in men indicated a hierarchy because where the piercing was located on the body and what material it was made of showed where you stood in the world.

Ancient India: Nose piercings had a long history in The Vedas, which are the sacred ancient Indian texts that we actually discussed in our episode on ayurvedic medicine, and in them there are references to the goddess Lakshmi, who had nose piercings. 

In the Middle Ages, piercings actually became an Anti-Christian threat because it was seen as “pagan” and “subversive.” This was particularly a belief in protestant countries in the UK where there was a major distrust in overly flamboyant things which they associated with the Catholic church and Rome. 

In the 1600s, it was apparently expected and fashionable for young European noblemen to show off themselves on the marriage market by wearing fancy earrings with diamonds and big dangly gems. 

Nipple piercings among women were said to maybe have become more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and between the 1500 and 1800s, hairstyles that exposed the ears became more popular among women which then led to more women wearing earrings!

But ear piercings weren’t super popular among women until the 1960s, when the punk movement and rebelliousness became a big part of cultural movements in that decade and the ones after.

In the 90s, the belly button piercing takes off because celebrities and influencers of the time were getting them. Also piercings became popular among gay men and in the 80s and early 90s. The NYT reports that right-ear piercings were even meant to be a way for gay men to signal their sexuality. 

Popular piercings based on gender (in a binary model):

  • Women: belly button, nose, cartilage, tongue, nipple, eyebrow, lip and genital in that order
  • Men: nipple, eyebrow, cartilage, tongue, nose, lip and genital in that order.



A Historical Look at Body Piercings. (2017, January 6). Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.kolopiercing.com/blog/a-historical-look-at-body-piercings/

AfroBeauty. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://afrostylemag.com/ASM8/afro_beauty.html

Earrings Reveal Ancient Tradition. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2021, from http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/70422.htm

Hashempour, P. (2021, March 3). A brief history of piercings and their controversial beginnings. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.dazeddigital.com/beauty/body/article/52074/1/brief-history-piercings-political-controversial-aerosmith-bdsm

History of Body Piercing. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://tribu.co.uk/pages/history-of-body-piercing

The History Of Piercing: Ears To Genitals And Everything Between. (2019, February 20). Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/history-of-piercing/5

Piercing FAQ – Association of Professional Piercers. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://safepiercing.org/piercing-faq/#1603468661049-023deb23-9d33

Satenstein, L. (2014, January 6). Ouch: The History of Piercing. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.marieclaire.com/beauty/a8791/history-of-piercings/

Thorpe, J. R. (2017, May 16). The Surprising History of Piercings. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.bustle.com/p/the-surprising-history-of-piercings-58085

Unpacking the history behind the single earring trend for men. (2019, December 4). Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.sleek-mag.com/article/unpacking-history-behind-the-single-earring-trend-for-men/

Like the episode? Send us your thoughts and questions!

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