The Methods, Types, and History of Gauging and Stretching

Updated on March 20, 2020
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My interests include world travels, adventure, tattoos and body modifications, cooking, and romance.

A woman with flesh tunnel gauges.
A woman with flesh tunnel gauges.

Body Modifications Have Existed Throughout History

Humans have been modifying their bodies throughout history. Tattoos, brands, piercings, implants, and even haircuts are just a few of the body mods that are out there. This being said, some body mods are more permanent than others. Here I would like to shine some light on the body art form of the stretching or gauging of piercings.

What Is Gauging?

Have you ever been walking around in public and noticed a person with irregularly large-sized holes in their earlobes, lips, septum, or even tongue, and wondered to yourself, "What the hell are those crazy things?" Often decorated with large pieces of jewelry, these large, stretched-out piercings are known as gauges.

How Big Can Gauges Get?

The sizes of the holes or piercings can be measured in gauge sizes. These measurements range from a 20 gauge (very small) and count down to a 00 gauge (much larger). The limits of how far one can stretch their piercings depends on the individual and the area that is being stretched. Some earlobe and and lip piercings have been gauged as large as several inches.

This is a gauged earlobe that has been stretched with a black acrylic tapper.
This is a gauged earlobe that has been stretched with a black acrylic tapper.

Methods of Gauging

If you have, in fact, seen someone with gauges, you may have wondered how these holes have gotten so large. The practice of stretching a piercing is one that should be done carefully and gradually over time to reduce the amount of pain inflicted and minimize the amount of scar tissue to the area of the piercing. There are two main methods that can be used to safely stretch body piercings.

  • The Gravity Effect: This method of gauging allows gravity to do all of the work and is less painful than other methods. This is accomplished by starting with a small gauged piercing and allowing the weight of the piercing to slowly stretch out the hole over time. After several months, gravity will have taken its toll, and a larger sized gauge can be inserted into the piercing. This process can be done over and over again until the individual reaches the desired gauge size
  • Tapering: This method is quicker, yet more painful and requires special tapered needles. These needles or expanders are cone shaped and start off at a very small gauge and gradually taper out to a larger gauge. These special tapers can be slowly inserted into a piercing to gradually stretch it out to a larger size. Several months should be allowed in between stretching periods to avoid any painful tearing of tissues, infections, etc.

These are flesh tunnel gauges with a spiral shaped captive running through them.
These are flesh tunnel gauges with a spiral shaped captive running through them.

Types of Gauges

Gauges can be decorated with several different styles of body jewelry. These different styles include, but are not limited to:

  • Flesh Tunnels: Tunnels or flesh tunnels are a hollowed-out gauge style that expose your piercing and allow you to see directly through it. Some flesh tunnels flare out on the ends; this keeps them from falling out of your ear. Other tunnels may use rubber or silicone O-rings or threaded stoppers for the same purpose.
  • Plugs: These are solid pieces of body jewelry that are used to plug up your piercing and stop it from shrinking. Like flesh tunnels, plugs are often held in place by flared ends, O-rings, or other forms of stoppers.
  • Captives: This style of jewelry often comes in a circular or crescent shape. Captives are held in place by a ball or two balls that are either threaded on or simply held captive by the ends of the jewelry.
  • Tapers: Even though tappers are used for stretching the piercing itself, many people sport them after the stretching has healed because they like the style or shape of the taper.

These are just some of the standard gauges that you may encounter. With a little bit of creativity, the possibilities are endless. I've seen people make plugs out of pen caps, chicken bones, and even cigarette filters.

Say hello to Otzi.
Say hello to Otzi.

Where the Hell Did These Things Come From?

Otzi the Iceman

Otzi is the oldest recorded primitive mummy to have had stretched earlobes. It is estimated that Otzi was alive some time around 3300 B.C.! His earlobes had been stretched to approximately 11mm.

Gauged earlobe and lip plates.
Gauged earlobe and lip plates.

Gauges in African Culture

Many African tribes throughout history have practiced gauging in the areas of the lips and the earlobes. The women of the Mursi tribe, for example, have their lips cut open at a young age. Once cut open, the women begin the process of stretching. When the holes are stretched to an appropriate size, the women insert clay or wooden plates into the holes. This is a symbol of their womanly strength and beauty as an individual in the tribe.

Ear gauging has also been a common practice amongst the African tribes. Both men and women of the Masai tribe in Kenya wear jewelry made of ivory, wood and thorns in their gauged earlobes to depict their beauty, power and spirituality.

The woman of the Fulani tribe wear a very unique type of golden gauge. The size of the piercing itself is relatively smaller than that of other tribes. The size and shape of the jewelry that these women wear is what makes them unique. These earrings have a large golden pendant-like center that is connected to the ear with a large circular hoop.

Jade ear plugs very similar to what the Mayans would have worn.
Jade ear plugs very similar to what the Mayans would have worn.

Ear Stretching in Central America

Central American tribes such as the Aztecs and Mayans of Mexico wore large diametered ear plugs or flesh tunnels as a sign of wealth or social status. The Mayans typically used jade as a material to fashion their ear jewelry, whereas the Aztecs crafted theirs out of gold, silver and copper.

A depiction of "the Enlightened One" with gauged earlobes.
A depiction of "the Enlightened One" with gauged earlobes.

Gauging Throughout Asia

Tribes in Thailand, such as the Lahu, practice stretching their earlobes with heavy pieces of jewelry. Other forms of gauging can be seen all across Asia in various cultures inhabiting regions including Japan, Myanmar and India. Many even believe that the Enlightened Gauatama Buddah had gauged earlobes that came from wearing heavy jewelry in the early wealthy stages of his life.

King Tut's coffin with gauged earlobes
King Tut's coffin with gauged earlobes

Ancient Body Gauging in Ancient Egypt

King Tut is an excellent example of Egyptian ear stretching. This Egyptian Pharaoh began his reign in 1332 B.C. The golden mask of his Sarcophagus reveals stretched holes in his earlobes. It is said that the youth of Egypt had gauges in their ears until they reached the age of full maturity. King Tut died at a young age which would explain the reason that he is depicted with ear gauges.

Tribal leader with facial gauges
Tribal leader with facial gauges

Septum Gauges in History

The septum (the thick flesh between the nostrils) has been pierced and stretched throughout various cultures across the globe. This practice is was common in Native American medicine men, tribal hunters, Shamans, and ritual leaders. This quite often symbolized leadership and a powerful connection to spirituality.

The Art of Gauging

I have always had a fascination with the practices of stretching piercings. The groups of people that i've talked about here are only a small portion of the people that have practiced this body art form in the past an of those who still do so to this day. My hopes are that more people will appreciate this amazing style of body modification and perhaps one day they too will give it a try!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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