Officially known as ear gauging, the procedure to create holes in the earlobe was very popular in the 1990s but, according to cosmetic surgeons, the operation to repair stretched earlobes is now one of the fastest growing cosmetic procedures in the UK.
The holes - or flesh tunnels as they are also called - are made by placing a cone-shaped taper into the piercing and pushing it through slightly more each day or by placing larger-sized tunnels into the piercing every few weeks to slowly widen the gap. In many cases this can create holes large enough to push a carrot through. Once the holes have been stretched more than 1.5cm in diameter, the earlobe will never return to its original shape without surgery.
Although these flesh tunnels were at the forefront of young punk aesthetics, surgeons are now reporting a surge in requests for surgical repair. There is now a stigma attached to ear piercings and employers such as the British Army do not allow them. Liam Palmer from High Wycombe says that his dream is to serve in the British Army but the military will not accept the 21-year old with gaping holes in his earlobes. The US Army announced a crackdown on piercings larger than a standard earring in May and its website highlights a new regulation banning soldiers from “willfully mutilating the body,” a prohibition that includes ear gauging.
Surgeons say that, once earlobes like Palmer's are stretched more than half-an-inch in diameter the holes will not shrink or close up. Cutting away the excess skin is the only way to fix them. Palmer has now had cosmetic surgery to reshape his earlobes. The procedure is performed under local anaesthetic and typically takes 20-30 minutes per earlobe. It involves removing the excess tissue and using fine internal and external stitches in the earlobe to create a normal shape. After the surgery there will be small scars on the ears which will be red at first but will eventually fade to a pale silvery colour. After four to six months the earlobe should look almost completely normal with no obvious signs of the previous piercing.
Earlobe reconstruction surgery is currently more prevalent in the UK than in the US but it is becoming increasingly popular over there. One clinic in the US has reported receiving about 10 new enquiries a month from patients. In the UK the procedure costs around £1800 for the pair.
While the flesh tunnel is relatively new in Western culture, these body modifications have been made around the world for centuries including in ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom, among Pakistan’s Harappa people, and the Totonac people of Mexico. The record holder for the world’s largest flesh tunnel is a Hawaiian man called Kala Kaiwi, whose tunnel measures more than 10cm in diameter, big enough to put a fist through.
Elise Bevan, a solicitor in Penningtons Manches’ specialist cosmetic surgery team, said: “Reconstructive surgery to repair stretched earlobes is the latest trend in tribal piercings. This is probably because ear gauges are often considered inappropriate when job hunting or at work. Fixing gauged earlobes is such a new cosmetic procedure that there are no reports in the surgical journals on how to repair the problem, although it is a pretty simple procedure for an experienced surgeon regardless of how much the lobe has been stretched. The surgery is low risk and carries a high success rate but, as with all cosmetic procedures, it is important to do your homework. Always check the surgeon’s experience and make yourself fully aware of what is involved and the likely outcome.”