Ear stretching, also known as gauging, has gained popularity in the United States and other Western societies in recent years. In the process of ear stretching, a healed piercing is slowly enlarged using progressively larger pieces of jewelry. Stretching an ear piercing takes time and must be done slowly and patiently to avoid tearing of the earlobe. Once the piercing has been stretched as far as you want it, you can wear wide-gauge or hollow jewelry in the enlarged hole.
Trends in body piercing and body modification tend to come in waves. In the United States, ear stretching has been fashionable for several years. According to Elayne Angel's 2009 book, "The Piercing Bible," ear stretching is receiving greater visibility and acceptability in wider society as more people choose this form of body modification. Ear stretching is also associated with certain social cliques and subcultures. Punk and emo musicians and fans, for example, are relatively likely to stretch their ear piercings, as this body modification is associated with contemporary punk fashion and lifestyle choices.
The stretching of ear piercings is traditional in certain tribal and indigenous cultures of the world, according to "The Piercing Bible." An individual in the West today may choose to stretch an ear piercing as a cultural or ethnic reference or to show respect for a particular tribal culture in which ear stretching is practiced. A person of an ethnic or geographical heritage in which ear stretching is a cultural tradition may choose to stretch a piercing as a way to staying connected with her cultural roots.
A regular ear piercing is not inherently permanent. A small-gauge piercing, if left without jewelry for a long period, will typically heal itself. Even if you have had a small-gauge piercing for years, it will usually heal if you take your jewelry out. A stretched ear piercing, however, is permanent. Once the ear is stretched past a certain point, it loses the ability to heal the larger hole -- or "flesh tunnel" -- created by the stretching process. Therefore, stretching is a way to make your piercings permanent.
An ear piercing that is only slightly stretched -- increased by a few gauge numbers -- will likely have the ability to shrink back down or heal completely given time. However, if you stretch a piercing too quickly or stretch to a very large gauge, it may not be able to close and heal. Then your only option for restoring your ear to its prestretched state is to have plastic surgery. An article in the October 2010 issue of the journal "Aesthetic Plastic Surgery" reports that such restoration surgery is typically uncomplicated and successful.