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Why the Belly Button Ring Is Set for a Comeback

In the 1990s and early 2000s, you couldn't go to a pool or watch a red carpet event without the glint of a navel piercing catching your eye. Where did they all go?

by Taylor Prewitt
Aug 22 2016, 4:21pm

Photo via Getty Images

The year is 1994. You're feeling yourself and want to signal that confidence to the world. You get a belly button ring.

Fast forward two decades to present day. You're feeling yourself and want to signal that confidence to the world. You—record scratch—get a belly button ring?

The choker, the crop top, even the goth lip—if pop culture is the barometer, the 90s are thriving in the year 2016. But the belly button ring, for all its semi-permanence and agreeable healing time, has yet to rise to its former glory.

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"It has a stigma, much like a lower back tattoo, which has been called a tramp stamp," says Paul King, a professional body piercer and anthropologist. King's claim to fame is starring as the piercer who faux-punctured a then-unknown Alicia Silverstone in Aerosmith's 1993 "Cryin'" music video. "It has suffered from its popularity."

That video, the winner of 1994's MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year, is widely credited as the belly button ring's inciting event—an easily pinpointed moment in history when the piercing was first introduced to the masses. In it, Silverstone spurns love and male attention to embark on a journey of self-realization—and it's a path paved with body modification, including a tattoo and a navel piercing. (All of this is interspersed with shots of Steven Tyler's giant mouth.)

"She takes charge of her body through tattooing and through piercing," says King. "As trivial as pop culture can be, that so resonated at the time. I think young women and girls just wanted to be like that."

Women began "having their belly buttons perforated" in droves. The year after Aerosmith debuted the video, according to the New York Times, one New York-based piercing studio saw their navel piercing requests skyrocket from one a day to 20 a day, and even 50 a day on weekends. A who's who of toned tummies of the 90s—Britney Spears, Rose McGowan, and Fiona Apple—were soon sporting bejeweled bellies of their own. The piercing remained one of the most popular in King's practice for the next two decades.

It has a stigma, much like a lower back tattoo. It has suffered from its popularity.

Though its current perception is marred by the glare of tacky, sparkly gems dangling in teenaged innies, the navel piercing first found its niche in the 1970s among an underground, primarily gay, fetish community just beginning to experiment with different, piercable parts of the body's flesh. According to King, the first pierced navels likely belonged to men, and were outfitted with masculine jewelry, including thick gages or barbells.

For a scene that deals in permanent and semi-permanent body modifications, the navel piercing was the first to "trend" on any wide scale; to even call the navel piercing a "belly button ring" is a symptom of the way its origins have been feminized, and consequently trivialized, to be more commonly associated with barely legal teens. Alongside runway appearances on the bellies of Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, the Aerosmith video helped vault the the navel piercing into the mainstream—a first for any non-earlobe piercing at the time. And though it required more of a commitment than, say, a grungy, plaid T-shirt, the sparkly navel was still a way to convey the type of person—or, in the case of this gendered piercing, the type of woman—you were to the world.

That, more than anything else, has been the piercing's lasting impact. Even as it is sometimes mocked today, the navel piercing was instrumental in penetrating the cultural consciousness to allow piercings of all kinds to become more widely accepted.

Fiona Apple in the video for the 1996 song "Criminal." Screengrab via YouTube

"Now we look at [piercing] much more as self-expression and self-chosen and maybe even as works of art. I think we understand that as a culture more," says Christina M. Frederick, a professor of human factors and systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who examined at the psychological motivations behind body modification in 2000, at the height of the navel piercing's popularity.

Her study found that body modification, including piercings, is self-motivated to the extent that it is consistent with one's self-image—though it's a self-image informed by external influences. Whether a navel piercing is perceived as cool or played out likely influences whether you rock one, even if the choice is ultimately yours. You may choose to flout what's considered cool, but even so, you position yourself in relation to that belief. And in the 90s, a bejeweled navel was fresh, racy, and a little bit wild.

But today? It's a little bit "suburban," in King's words. Though the navel piercing remains a standard in the piercer's repertoire, it's not nearly the icon it once was. It's the catch-22 of identifying with anything edgy, cool, or individual: At some inevitable saturation point, that edgy, cool, and individual thing becomes mainstream, played out, and boring.

To even call the navel piercing a 'belly button ring' is a symptom of the way its origins have been feminized, and consequently trivialized.

"Nowadays, when you see it, it's not like, 'Whoa that person has a belly button piercing.' It's just like, 'Oh, they have one,'" says Cora Lundquist, a 20-year-old with a belly button ring, pierced earlobes, and a pierced septum. "People have been doing that since the 90s. [Trends] are moving on to different things."

Now, the septum is the reigning It Piercing, currently snuggled between the nostrils of a younger crop of celebrities like FKA Twigs, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. But even the septum's edginess as it came onto the scene was diminished by its frillier-seeming southern cousin.

"I don't think that there was nearly as much shock value [with the septum] because people had gotten used to piercings in general," says King.

Whether they're in your belly button or in your nose or on some other soon-to-be-unleashed-via-music-video (or Instagram) location, using piercings as a form of self-identity has become the norm. "[Piercing] is just part of the menu of options, whether it's cutting or coloring your hair or whatever it is," says Elayne Angel, author of The Piercing Bible, the only mainstream piercing reference book. "There are just more choices, and people are taking advantage."

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There is, however, a tiny, likely zirconium, glimmer of hope for the navel piercing's revival. As precious metals continue to trend in piercing culture, jewelry is becoming more customizable than the mass-produced stainless steel of yesteryear. New designs—currently skewing toward the gold and dainty—allow for the kind of novelty the navel must cling to if it expects to be a fashion statement in 2036.

J. Colby Smith, a New York-based piercer and jewelry designer who has worked with clients like Emma Stone, Zoe Saldana, and Into the Gloss founder Emily Weiss, says he "resurrects" old navel piercings "quite often," using delicate, subtle, and frequently gold jewelry to update old or filled holes on clients aged 25 to 45.

For his part, King isn't counting out the cultural force he had a small hand in creating quite yet.

"I don't think [the navel piercing] has the negative, burned-out, trendy connotation anymore," he says. "I think it's matured. I think it can be elegant now. It's sort of grown up in some ways."