What should I do about my stretched ears?
July 23, 2012 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Gauged ears - what to do? Cultural appropriation, work, your opinions and suggestions needed.

So it has come to my attention that gauged ears are kind of culturally appropriative, since tribal peoples of Africa and South America originated the practice. I have not read that it is a sacred practice or associated with religion like dreadlocks, however. They're a commonplace among white punks and queer folks. I've had my ears moderately stretched (to about 1/2" - I think many people believe I'm just wearing button earrings) since 2004. I do not have the huge gauges that some folks do, nor do I wear anything faux-"tribal", or the hollow plugs that call attention to the hole.

Let's be honest - I only did it because it looked neat and because my ears were kind of stretched (maybe to a 10-gauge, if that means anything to you) from wearing heavy ol' earrings anyway. I don't have any philosophical or spiritual reason to have the gauged ears. When I did this, the discourse around cultural appropriation was a lot less sophisticated, and honestly I was too ignorant to even realize that this ear-stretching thing was derived from tribal practices.

I still like them - I think they're pretty, I like having very simple jewelry without dangles or moving parts. However, this cultural appropriation thing gives me pause - I have definitely read blogs by people of color who view white folks having gauged ears as disrespectful (because we don't have any cultural context for it) and sort of thieving (white folks get all the privileges from colonialism and we come in and take the jewelry styles too.) I basically believe in not doing culturally appropriative things as much as possible, so I am trying to get into a headspace where I will actually take action instead of just think about it.

At the moment, I am unsure what to do for the best. My options seem to be:

1. Maintain the status quo - no one has ever mentioned the ear issue to me. Lots of queer folks have body modifications; there's a sort of queer-cultural-angle on this as well. Also, my ears aren't stretched that big and may not be super noticeable. Problem: Many people of color who find white behavior privilege-y and frustrating just don't have the emotional energy to deal with calling people out, so maybe this is bothering people and they just aren't mentioning it.

2. Switch to more earring-like earrings that sit flatter on the ears - glass or acrylic ones look less gauged. Problem: ears are still stretched.

3. Take out my current ones and let the holes shrink a little - they won't ever go back to normal without surgery, but they'll go down a couple of sizes - and wear acrylic hoops instead. Those look even more like regular earrings. Problem: very informal, maybe not suitable for work. Also, acrylic hoops are less widely available than other plugs.

Options that are a lot less possible: can't just take out the plugs, since although my ears are not stretched very large and thus do not droop emptily, they still don't look like regular pierced ears and people at work would notice. Can't afford cosmetic surgery to stitch 'em up at the moment, although I could save up in about two years once other financial/house obligations were completed - if that is the best option, that is what I will plan to do.

People who have thought about cultural appropriation, what do you suggest?
posted by Frowner to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
no one has ever mentioned the ear issue to me

Your universe is speaking to you and says to not worry about this. I don't know any African-Americans who think about gauged ears as reminiscent of the Motherland--I think most people think it's more Burning Man than anything else.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:31 PM on July 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

There are no clothes and no fashion that isn't culturally appropriated.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:32 PM on July 23, 2012 [36 favorites]

I have spent some time thinking about cultural appropriation, and I try to avoid doing things that are culturally appropriative. I am white.

In your situation, I would probably do option three; let the holes shrink down to whatever size they'll go to without surgery, and wear jewelry in them that looks most like regular earrings. I bet that with some searching you could find work-appropriate jewelry online. I, personally, would be uncomfortable wearing something that felt culturally appropriative, even if others didn't judge me for it.

However, I wouldn't think to judge someone who had small stretched ears with non-tribal earrings. Maybe that shows my privilege; it's something for me to think about. (Just so you know where I'm coming from/ my perspective, I totally judge white people who have dreadlocks, or wear "tribal" prints - I think it shows at the least ignorance, and often shows disregard for others' cultures and traditions).
posted by insectosaurus at 1:33 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

The post-colonialism theory as applied to cultural appropriation is just that-- a theoretical framework for thinking about and observing something in a certain way. It's not a dogma.

If you really believe that ear gauges are akin to taking over a country, stripping a nation of its natural resources without compensation or control, and selling finished products back to them, then fine. But you are not obligated to hold this belief. The idea is just a prism through which to observe, as is to say, "the act of doing X can be mapped to the act of doing Y, and isn't that interesting?"
posted by deanc at 1:36 PM on July 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

So it has come to my attention that gauged ears are kind of culturally appropriative, since tribal peoples of Africa and South America originated the practice.

So ... are white people supposed to stay away from doing anything remotely resembling anyone in Africa or South America? That sounds more racist than just going ahead and doing what you feel like. Your line about how "white" people "take" from other cultures is unconvincing. You're using "take" as if there actual stealing going on, but it's just imitation. People imitate each other all the time, and I don't see how it's worse to do it across different cultures than within one culture. Copying is not theft! And again, if the suggestion is that whites are supposed to be afraid of having anything to do with black culture, well, I can't imagine anything more racist than that.
posted by John Cohen at 1:39 PM on July 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, I'm just gonna threadsit here: if folks want to talk about cultural appropriation as a thing itself, let's make a post for the blue! There's lots of stuff that could be linked.

Right now, just assume that my belief is that cultural appropriation is a real thing. And that I'd like answers based in cultural appropriation being a real thing. Also answers based in my desire not to tread on the feelings of those POC who feel strongly about this - I have no wish to challenge/undercut people's feelings that POC culture is being appropriated.

I should have put that in the OP.
posted by Frowner at 1:47 PM on July 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

Unlike say, ritualistic scarring which is a still breathing and specific cultural practice with lots of issues tied up in it, eat gauging seems broad enough to fall under standard piercing/body mod stuff and in the US culture it says "Burning Man" or "Queer" or whatever and is pretty devoid of African/South American connotations.

You might want to hit up Spike Trottman @Iron_Spike on twitter about this, she talks about this kind stuff all the time (
posted by The Whelk at 1:48 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Right now, just assume that my belief is that cultural appropriation is a real thing.

But your question is whether or not this particular practice should be regarded as cultural appropriation--so that issue can't be taken off the table. If you believe it to be cultural appropriation (despite the fact that you engaged in the practice with no knowledge whatsoever of these other, similar, cultural practices and despite the fact that you are in no way alluding to or quoting from specific elements of those other cultural practices) then your question is already answered.

For myself, I set a much higher bar for offensive "cultural appropriation" than you appear to do (and yes, I think there are offensive cases). The mere fact that some other culture engages in stretching the earlobes cannot possibly, in my view, mean that it is offensive and culturally insensitive for all other cultures ever to engage in the practice. It is too unspecific a practice, too obviously a development of already existing cultural practices which could easily have been independently hit upon etc. To me, it seems like thinking that pointilliste painting is culturally appropriating Australian Aboriginal art because they both happen to use dots of pigment. Producing something that deliberately tries to look like it might have been painted by an Australian aborigine is cultural appropriation. Using dots to create a painting that could in no way be taken for Australian aborigine art is clearly not. I think that is where you are with your gauged ears that don't for one second make anyone think "oh, that person is trying to look like a member of X South American culture."
posted by yoink at 1:57 PM on July 23, 2012 [13 favorites]

Maybe I'm oversimplifying, but I think you have two basic choices here:

One, to decide that the jewelry makes you uncomfortable and remove it. There are some practical questions, like will your lobes shrink back up or not, but that is just stuff you solve as it happens rather than worry about it. I'd guess you would gradually downsize with professional looking jewelry, and then hit a point where you would need to either get surgery or accept the holes as-is, but you won't be able to predict that accurately.

Two is to choose to keep them and (importantly) to own that choice. So in the very unlikely event that some person criticized them, you would have a smart and critically informed answer.

There is no external authority to decide this, or to assess the relative appropriations in your ears, the food in your kitchen, and the music you enjoy. It has to be about your comfort, not some imagined criticism.
posted by Forktine at 1:59 PM on July 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

I will be honest that it bothers me to see people wearing toerings (without knowing what they mean in my culture - a sign of a married woman) or the wide variety of ethnicities who today wear tiny pierced nose jewellery (again, those for whom its not traditional i.e. its not just the "white" bit, but the cultural appropriation part of it since the Chinese do not traditionally pierce their noses like the Indians do nor the Zimbabweans but I'm seeing this all over the place). But it not enough to speak up about it. Like, whatever....

However, what you are describing may not be as mainstream as the piercings I am describing, in that, the cultures who tend to stretch their ears may never pass you on the street where you live. Though where I am at right now, I see the stretched ears common to the Maasai, for eg, so if you were here then it might be case of cultural appropriation and observed by those it may bother.

So, having circumlocuted around this without getting to a point ;p I realize I'm trying to say what The Whelk has said above - that within the context of your own milieu, your gauging has no signals it sends other than those locally contextual.
posted by infini at 2:00 PM on July 23, 2012

I was a white person with dreadlocks for a long time and I occasionally got some attitude for it. I had dreadlocks primarily because I liked the way they looked (ymmv) and because I was actually fairly interested in Rastafarianism's attitudes and beliefs about poverty and inequality. If people flipped me shit about the dreads and I felt they wanted to have a sincere conversation I'd talk to them about it. If my explanations weren't okay for them, then we'd have to get into agree to disagree territory. It is literally impossible to have a style that someone else doesn't find wanting and it's very difficult to decide you have to change up something difficult-to-change about your own personal look based on ... I'm not sure what "it has come to my attention" means if no one has spoken to you about it, or did you mean no POC have spoken to you?

On seeing your update, you're still going to have to decide what you personally feel about this and if no one has spoken to you personally your realistic choices are to minimize the "I am taking the parts of your culture that I find fashionably appealing and discarding the rest" thing by either minimizing the appearance of the holes [your option #2] or by expanding your ideas of cultural appropriation somewhat to allow for second and third generation appropriation. I think of things like tattooing and punk haircuts and piercings which also have come from not-my cultures but also I find aesthetically as well as ... I'm not sure, spiritually appealing?

One of the things about cultural appropriation is that while it's a real thing, there is also a broad-based pattern of cultural appropriation accusation which is different [the whole "you stole that mohawk hairstyle from the Native Americans when really you thought you stole it from the UK punks]. There is no absolute answer. This becomes challenging because, as you observe, POC may just be tired of telling people "hey that thing you do that is reminiscent of my ethnicity sort of annoys me because you are not of my ethnicity" or they may actually not care. And for some people that difference matters and for some people it doesn't. And for some people there are misunderstood cultural heritage claims being made that may be inaccurate and then you still need to determine where you stand. It's all very fraught and while I appreciate your trying to do the right thing, it's still always going to come down to how serious you feel the problem of cultural appropriation is relative to how simple it will be to solve the problem on your own end.
posted by jessamyn at 2:00 PM on July 23, 2012 [13 favorites]

I think you are looking at cultural appropriation the wrong way in re: your earlobes. You say you are at least sympathetic to the "white folks get all the privileges from colonialism and we come in and take the jewelry styles too" point of view. But why are you framing this as cultural appropriation, and not through some other framework?

First of all, there are numerous cultures from time immemorial from many continents, not just Africa, that have stretched their earlobes for aesthetic and/or religious purposes. You're not showing an African aesthetic style any more than Southeast Asian, or Polynesian. You do not wear jewelry in your stretched earlobes that holds religious or cultural value to others for the sake of novelty. No disrespect is on your earlobes.+

Second, you chose to stretch your earlobes out presumably because you liked the aesthetic, which is not any different from anyone else from any other country on earth choosing to do it. Your action is not inherently saturated with white privilege. You do have a cultural context for it - YOUR cultural context, as someone who is a self-reported participant in queer culture.

I believe that you should consider the possibility that you are not doing anything wrong, and that your belief that you are engaging in cultural appropriation is incorrect. No, you can't disengage yourself from white privilege, but you can absolutely acknowledge that your stretched earlobes are an entirely different social construct from the cultural or religious stretched earlobes from people of other cultures through time.
posted by juniperesque at 2:02 PM on July 23, 2012 [14 favorites]

> we don't have any cultural context for it

Are you sure? What about Ötzi the Iceman?
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:09 PM on July 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

Just to add to yoink's and jessamyn's excellent points, I think you need to determine, for you, what the line between cultural appropriation and problematic cultural appropriation is. It's unlikely there's anything aesthetic you do that isn't somehow appropriated from a culture that isn't your own.

Consider a continuum:
1. Hipsters at Coachella/Sasquatch/etc with "war paint" and feathers in their headbands.
2. [giant chasm]
3. White people playing jazz, or POC playing classical music, or Asian people wearing western formalwear.
4. No cultural appropriation anywhere anytime anyhow. You wear only the clothes, eat the food, and listen to the music of your ancestors.

I can't speak for everyone, but I think the cultural consensus is that gauged ears are way, way, way closer to #3 than they are to #1. You can draw the line at #4 if you want, but it's probably not solving any Real Problems.
posted by 0xFCAF at 2:10 PM on July 23, 2012 [12 favorites]

White, queer lady with 15mm lobes here. I think the act of stretching body piercings is one that exists in a variety of cultures, not because of appropriation, but because of convergent evolution and some cross-cultural pollination. However, particular implementations (eg, specific styles of jewelry, methods, rituals, etc) of stretched piercings are unique to particular groups or have specific religious/cultural meanings and adopting those implementations as a white person not raised in that culture is problematic.

To frame this in a different way, the Maasi practice male circumcision. Many, many, many other cultures practice male circumcision. The white couple in Small Town, USA who has their baby circumcised is not culturally appropriating the Maasi. But if that couple decided to perform a Maasi ceremony for the circumcision, they would sure as fuck be appropriating.

So, like juniperesque said, so long as "you do not wear jewelry in your stretched earlobes that holds religious or cultural value to others for the sake of novelty," you're not appropriating. In my mind anyway. There's always going to be someone who thinks differently.
posted by radioaction at 2:18 PM on July 23, 2012 [14 favorites]

And that I'd like answers based in cultural appropriation being a real thing.

I believe it's a real thing. And it sometimes it pisses me off. But I've never heard of this as an example of it. I've seen a lot of people who have this done to their ears, all white as far as I can remember, starting about 20 years ago, and I never thought of it, or heard anyone else refer to it, as anything other than a fashion trend. I'm not descended from Africans or South Americans, so I may have missed something. But this is the sort of thing I'd be interested in if it ever came up, and I think unless it was a very esoteric topic of conversation that took place only in certain communities, I'd have heard of it. I think it's unlikely anyone will think of this when they see your ears. (And if they do, they'll probably think it's not offensive so much as silly-looking.)

I would wear whatever earrings/plugs you like, except if there is a traditional type of decoration that's known to be what a particular ethnic/cultural group wears, I would avoid that and stick to more contemporary (for lack of a better word) styles.

(I also think that there's an aspect of this line of thinking that sort of diminishes instead of respects the minorities you're trying not to offend. I know your intention is not that in any way. But as someone whose culture is sometimes appropriated in various annoying ways, even if someone is offended by your ears, they're not so helpless that they can't deal with it. They probably have far greater problems to deal with, as well. They'll be fine. It seems to me that part of treating everyone equally - the ideal to me, maybe not to everyone ? - is assuming everyone else is an adult who can deal with this stuff and not be too hurt over it. I hope you don't take that the wrong way; I think it's considerate of you to be concerned about this type of thing in general.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:19 PM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have definitely read blogs by people of color who view white folks having gauged ears as disrespectful

Are those blogs by people in the cultures that do this as a traditional practice? If not, why is their opinion about gauged ears any more valid than yours?

Are you likely to ever meet someone of one of said culture? My understanding is that we're not talking about, like, Rastafarian people from the Caribbean who you could easily run into if you lived in a big city, but more like the Yanomamo tribe who exclusively live in the Amazon. Which isn't to say that their perspective doesn't matter, but how likely are you to be in a situation where you meet someone of that group and they would even have the opportunity to care about your ear jewelry? How likely is it that anyone from that group knows that there are white people in the West who do this?

Is ear-stretching jewelry actually similar to what said tribes wear? I see how Ke$ha wearing a Native American headdress is offensive cultural appropriation -- that's an actual item used for a specific purpose by a specific group of people. And I see how, say, wearing a t-shirt with an image of Ganesh on it might be offensive cultural appropriation -- Ganesh is a god worshipped by a specific group of people.

But if your jewelry isn't tribal, and doesn't directly correspond to the way that any specific group people actually wear stretched lobe jewelry, then it's not cultural appropriation. That's like Iranians saying that anyone who wears pants is "appropriating" their culture, because the ancient Persians invented bifurcated garments.
posted by Sara C. at 2:21 PM on July 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

I only know white and Asian people who have stretched ears. They are artist types who make their own gauged earrings. I wouldn't worry about your ears for appropriation purposes. About the only thing I'd worry about if I were you is if jobs had objections to your ears--but at this point, there isn't much you can do about that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:23 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

#2 sounds right. What does it matter if your ears are still stretched, if they're stretched in a manner unlike what you fear you've accidentally appropriated?

I'd also say that #1 would be theoretically fine, so long as you're not, as mentioned above, using any jewelry or symbols with a specific meaning for other cultures. However, it sounds like the whole idea of having gauges gives you anxiety regarding this issue - wondering if people of color are secretly judging you - so it would make sense to choose an option which will foreclose this possibility, barring any sudden changes of heart on your end.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:24 PM on July 23, 2012

I, a white, queer, married, 45 year old woman have thought about getting my ear-lobes stretched a bit. I've had my nose pierced (twice, currently un-pierced), I have three tattoos.

As stated above - you'll have to decide where you stand on appropriation. Also as stated above - everything comes from somewhere else. Many times it comes from a multitude of somewhere elses.
posted by deborah at 2:38 PM on July 23, 2012

It occurs to me that the best way to figure out whether this is cultural appropriation or not is to do some research into the cultures that do it.

I mean, surely it's more colonialist and privileged to just say, "so apparently there are some people somewhere one one of those other continents who stretch their earlobes, therefore this is wrong and I have to take mine out," than it would be to go and find out who these supposed groups are, how they view gauged ears, what kinds of jewelry they wear, what it looks like, etc.

If you do that research, and what you find is problematic to you, then go from there. But without lifting a finger to find out who these people are and what it actually means, you're relying on cultural privilege every bit as much as someone who is lazy in the opposite direction (e.g. "I don't know about these people, therefore it's OK.")
posted by Sara C. at 3:00 PM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Can you point us to the blogs you're referring to? My googling is coming up with a lot of white people carefully explaining that there's nothing to worry about, but any other perspectives seem to be largely drowned out.
posted by endless_forms at 3:35 PM on July 23, 2012

I can get why you'd want to stop drawing attention to your gauged ears -- even if you never run into someone who'd be irritated by it, it's probably a good impulse just to get in the habit of being sensitive to cultural appropriation. Anyhow, you sound like you're just already uncomfortable with it. But I think Option 2 is probably about as far as you need to go. If the stretching isn't visible, you're not going to be causing any extra stress or frustration to people of color who encounter you, so why spend effort and money just to restore some kind of "purity" to your body? If anybody ever asks you about it, you can just say that you got it done at a time when you weren't thinking as much about cultural appropriation, but now you've thought about it more . . . etc etc. As a comparison, if you'd been wearing an "ethnic"-print shirt and then realized the problems with that, your responsibility would be to just stop wearing it -- you wouldn't have to, like, burn it or bury it to remove any trace of it from your closet.
posted by ostro at 6:17 PM on July 23, 2012

If you're looking for jewellery suggestions perhaps consider the circular or horseshoe barbell? My gauges are shrunk down to about a 4g or 6g and titanium barbells in particular are pretty light and regular-earring-y looking. I'd actually have put CBRs in but like having the option to remove them entirely sometimes. You might be surprised how much the holes shrink if you've not removed the jewellery for extended periods. All lobes are different though and I don't presume to know yours.
posted by last night a dj saved my life at 7:21 PM on July 23, 2012

To answer the question without an opinion in the cultural aspect, I would let them shrink to a size where you can choose many different options, depending on how you feel at the time.

I have 2 ga sized holes and they are perfect, as I can wear plugs, hooks, weights, etc., quite easily. It leaves my options very open, (although I almost exclusively wear eyelets with regular (non-body jewelry style) hoop shaped earrings in them).
posted by Vaike at 4:13 AM on July 24, 2012

Hmm. Options 1 & 2 both sound reasonable. (3 does not, given the workplace issues.)

Since as you note, ears can't be entirely unstretched, may I suggest an additional/alternative means of coping with your guilt? BECOME AN ALLY. As you've doubtless experienced in queer cultural politics, allies get cut a lot more slack in the appropriation department. Also, it will make you feel less stupid. Educate yourself. Take political action. Turn those ear-lemons into ethical lemonade.

For example: the Kayapó stretch their personal ears to enhance their listening, by which they mean: absorbing Kayapó cultural knowledge. I'm confident they'd be happy for you to absorb some too (publicity has long been their best weapon). A good place to start is by watching a cheesy BBC documentary and its nifty sequel, Kayapo:Out of the Forest. Or you might be intrigued by essays by Terry Turner, a Marxian anthropologist who's been a long-term ally of theirs. Or you might want to pressure the Brazilian government. Or you might feel good about donating to Conservation International, who work closely with the Kayapó to provide collective resource management, and have a decent rating on Charity Navigator.

Or ... not. No pressure here. Just expanding your ear-remediation options.
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:12 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I had my ears stretched to 7/16ths and had five months to let them shrink before I left for basic training. What I did was buy the skin-colored Kaos plugs in a few smaller sizes (they're about 8 dollars a pair) to wear when I needed to hide the gaping holes, although the "skin color" looked really strange. Most of the time, though, I didn't wear any jewelry and massaged the hell out of my ears when no one was looking. In five months they shrunk down to around 2g, and my earlobes managed to go unnoticed during basic training and the rest of my time in miltary. I'd say they're done shrinking now at 10g or 12g, but you can't see the hole unless I tug on my ear. So option 3 is feasible.

That being said, I think options 1 and 2 are better choices.
posted by zap at 6:46 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update: I mulled for a while and then just took them out. The things that made me decide this finally:

1. Seeing a really racist GLBTQ message board post that showed a picture of a tribal elder (with no location or tribe given) with very stretched ears and a remark on how ugly that was, followed by a post commenting on "ha ha some people might think that was racist but it's not!" This made me realize exactly what "it's fashionable when white people do it but criticized when POC do it" could look like. I was also deeply disappointed that it was a GLBTQ board and it made me feel that I want no part of racist queer community stuff.

2. Reading a tumblr comment that was on "ewwhitegirls" about how she felt that stretched ears were appropriative - seeing the same sentiment repeated made me feel like I should act

3. Realizing that having "is this culturally appropriative?" in the back of my head took all the joy out of having them. Realizing that every time I have applied "when in doubt don't" to cultural questions I have felt good about it and every time I have not I have done something foolish.

4. Reading a lot of critiques of "hipster" fashion by POC. It's still a bit of a balance because frankly some of the dapper queer stylings to which I am partial are a little hipsterish, but I don't want my clothes to get in the way of good relationships with actual people.

I regretted it a lot for a week and wished to put them back in, but now I feel good about it and think it looks fine. In fact, I think I'd been more anxious/guilty about it than I realized and feel a sense of relief now. The holes have shrunk up a lot in just a few weeks. I don't know if I'll ever be able to wear regular earrings in them, but they are not noticeably stretched out when empty.
posted by Frowner at 11:24 AM on September 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

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