"Is it bloody?" asks Joel Sheffroth, unaware the dark red gore streaming from his earlobe has soaked through a bunch of wadded paper towels and a protective mat, and is now pooling under his hair. "I feel like there's sweat on the back of my head.
Sheffroth is having his earlobe ripped apart with a scalpel to correct a problem common among the tens of thousands of people now rocking stretched earlobes: a blowout, where flesh is forced out from the fistula in an unsightly lump. The 21-year-old is surprisingly chatty for someone losing massive amounts of blood.
"I'm really influenced by music," he says. "I watched a Linkin Park music video and thought, "Oh, cool, you can see right through his earlobes, I want to do that.' But I was silly and stretched my ear too fast." He hopes to go even bigger: hence the operation to remove scar tissue.
As body piercer Matt Day-Holloway slices away bits of ear, he explains some of the risks. "These are permanent or semipermanent invasive procedures here," he says. Day-Holloway, too, gave himself a blowout once while stretching his ear holes to their current three-quarter-inch size. "I scalpelled off my skin in the mirror. It's not something I suggest most people do."
While an ancient practice, earlobe-stretching may have reached its zenith as a North American fashion trend in the early 2000s, when celebs from Lil Wayne and Adam Lambert to the dudes from Linkin Park and Incubus all sported large-gauged lobes. Tens of thousands of wannabadasses followed suit, either stretching their ears themselves with tapering jewelry, like Sheffroth, or getting instant gratification with a large-gauge dermal punch. Despite the baffled reactions and declining trendiness of the look, tons of folks are still doing it—and many, many more are living with big, floppy lobes long-term. Unlike most piercings, lobe stretching is basically permanent. Once you go beyond about a half inch—or 12.7 millimeters—you'll never have to worry about storing your pencils, lighters, or soda ever again.
There are other downsides: the jewelry is pricey ($30 for a pair of cheap plugs to $500 for high-quality metal implants) and plugs can fall out and get lost easily. Cute little studs or delicate, dangly earrings are out of the question unless you invest in specially designed jewelry. Worst of all, earlobes stretched to really large sizes can develop a pungent, disgusting smell if they aren't kept clean. Plus, as plastic surgeon Dr. Julie Khanna points out, "you can get true keloid scars that grows beyond the limits of the gauging—a big, tumour-like bumpy scar that we have to treat with lasers. They can get infected and develop asymmetries or tearing that leaves you with a split earlobe." Understandably, some former body-mod enthusiasts are now living in Regretsville, wearing flesh-coloured plugs to make their stretched ears look more normal.
The rise and fall of stretching has also created a new niche in plastic surgery: returning people's gigantic ear-holes to their original state, or as close to it as possible. "We see it consistently, and more and more often," says Dr. Jeffrey Spiegel, a facial plastic surgeon and professor at Boston University School of Medicine who has repaired dozens of stretched lobes, the biggest of which were two inches.
"Ideally," he says, "they would have the piercing out for a while so that the holes contract as much as possible, and then we'll discuss the goal." In most cases, an incision is made to complete the tear in the ear. Then, the split lobe is stitched up again to restore a more natural shape. If there's significant damage or a full tear (see Lil Wayne, whose plugs ripped out, splitting his earlobe), the procedure is completed under local anaesthetic.
If you've only slightly stretched your lobes, you might not need surgery at all, according to Dr. Julie Khanna, a certified plastic surgeon in Canada and the US. "For small holes of a couple of millimeters, we can do an acid peel to stretch them down—if the skin quality is good and there's not that much loose skin. Large ones don't stretch down enough to do that."
But things get a little more complicated with "large, really thinned out earlobes," according to Dr. Khanna, which can "lose a lot of bulk. In those cases, we first have to repair the hole, then do a fat injection to get the bulk back. It can be really complicated, or easy, or anywhere in between."
While people who opted to stretch their ears in the first place might think they'll be cool with the pain of fixing them, be forewarned: "It's a little more painful than actually getting it stretched," says Dr. Khanna, who usually doesn't give any prescription medication post-op. The stitches stay in for about a week, leaving a scar which takes about a month to heal. Then it's "a minimum of three to four months before you can re-pierce it." With a normal earring, that is: truly indecisive types who decide, for some reason, to stretch their lobes again, "could split the earlobe right in two," according to Dr. Spiegel.
Does the earlobe actually look normal again after all this? "It's tricky," he says, "but we can do it with very well-hidden scarring." After the healing process is complete, a U-shaped scar running from the front to the back of the earlobe is typically the only evidence of your misspent youth as a modern primitive.
If you're in the market for a new earlobe, it pays to shop around. A few inquiries to plastic surgery clinics netted quotes ranging anywhere from $600 to $1,840 CAD, depending on the size of the hole, condition and thinness of the extra skin. Since it's a cosmetic procedure, it's not covered under most health insurance plans.
While Day-Holloway says he's "never regretted his [stretched lobes] for a heartbeat," he sees plastic surgery to reverse body modifications as "a necessary side effect when something gets on-trend, and people want it right away instead of thinking about the long-term fallout." He's seen people with gauges as large as three inches.
In some cases, he sees it as his responsibility to save customers from themselves. "Usually there's heavy consultation before that kind of work. I don't want anyone to make any decisions they'll regret later on. I'd rather someone walk away disappointed that I won't do something than watch them walk away with something they'll regret a year later."
Given what a pain in the ass it is to stretch your ears, most who have submitted to the procedure are fine with simply having them indefinitely.
"When you stretch them to a certain size," says Day-Halloway, "you really are dedicated to that. I've retired tonnes and tonnes of piercings, but my lobes are the thing I like the most, and the one I spend the most money on for jewelry."
"I've gotten so used to them that if I didn't have them in I would be kind of unrecognizable."
As with most body modifications, it seems like ear-stretching is here to stay—only maybe not taken to the extremes widely embraced in the early days of the trend.
"It seemed to be like a pissing contest, with all the scene kids involved, as to who could get the biggest lobes," says Day-Holloway. "The one-upmanship seems to be taking a backseat now. A 00 gauge is the new normal."
The more moderate shift makes sense to Dr. Spiegel. "People when they're younger have a different aesthetic than when they get older," he says, adding that the American military won't accept recruits with stretched ears big enough to see through. "They gauge their ears thinking that it's a cool thing to do, but then they've met the man or woman of their dreams and they think, I don't want to marry them looking like this. Or they'd like to get a job other than at a coffee shop or bookstore."
Day-Holloway, however, disagrees. "In 20 years," he says, "we're going to look at these piercings like we've always looked at anyone with their ears pierced. It's just normal."
Follow Julia Wright on Twitter.