Body modification has long since left the backroom and entered the board room, but for men, there seems to be one final frontier that still raises eyebrows in some parts of society: earrings.
Earrings have been around for about as long as people have been making objects, and in more recent history, have found their champions in male musicians, athletes and actors. And yet, there's still something about a man with a little sparkle in his ear that ruffles feathers in broader swaths of American society. Why all the hand-wringing about the ear-ringing?
Even as demand for high-end pearl and diamond earrings for men is on the rise, the anxiety and confusion about what an earring means doesn't seem to be diminishing.
In the recent past, the shifting mores of male earlobes has been given a substantial amount of ink in some of our nation's finest publications, both in trend pieces and in advice columns. Even today, message boards and advice sites are filled with requests: "But what does his gold hoop mean?" A look back at the history of earrings may illuminate.
In his book, The Naked Man: A Study of the Male Body, zoologist Desmond Morris sheds light on the ancient roots of ear modification. A 5,000-year-old mummy with pierced ears was discovered in Austria, and ancient depictions of the Buddha show stretched earlobes (to indicate wisdom and compassion).
During the Elizabethan era, Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare were no strangers to a little shine in one ear, as the Telegraph reports. Earrings for men fell sharply out of favor in the West as the Industrial Revolution and prevailing attitudes of practicality took hold. As the New York Times reports, prior to the 1960s in America, piercings had connotations of society's fringes, "gypsies and pirates." The Times also wrote that gay men used a single ear piercing in the right ear to indicate sexual preference. "In a world where you can't dress flamboyantly, that's a very discreet signal," David Menkes told the Times in 1991.
Again from Morris, as countercultures like Punk spread among American youth, so did jewelry in the ears of heterosexual men. Flash-forward to the '80s and '90s in America, and newspapers were aflutter, reporting on male earrings jumping into the mainstream.
The wider fashion world is currently nodding to the '80s, and it was in that decade that newspapers caught wind of American youth's acceptance of male earrings. In 1988, the Boca Raton News reported that even though previous generations thought of earrings for men as effete, wearing earrings was now a mark of "devil may care" machismo. The same piece also hints at male earrings as a form of class tourism. "Surfers wear them all the time," the article says. "Preppies wear them only when they go out." It's counterculture you can remove, leave on your nightstand and head to work.
The Philadelphia Inquirer investigated earrings on area young men in 1989. They found that the trend crossed boundaries of race and age, citing "gold orbs and hoops, dangling crosses and zippy lightning bolts, sparkling cubic zirconias and petite Playboy bunnies, all decorating the once-inviolate ears of brothers and sons and, in some cases, fathers." Also mentioned was the prevailing wisdom that the right ear signaled the wearer was gay. Two years later, in a piece marking the trend toward hoops for men, the Inquirer spoke to Joe Nulty, a straight student whose jaw was broken in a gay fight started because someone thought his earrings meant he was gay.
In 1989 in Ebony, actor Philip Michael Thomas explained his decision to pierce, saying "I was 11 when [...] I met a merchant marine who had a bald head and a gold hoop in his left ear. [He] explained that, in many places, particularly Africa, the wearing of an earring was the symbol of kings and royalty. I never forgot those magical stories."
Twenty years later, T Magazine repeated what is by now a familiar saying for some, "Left is right, and right is wrong," (in this case, "wrong" being a euphemism for "gay.") This cultural unease has spilled onto the internet, filling it with anxious queries from straight men about which ear to pierce, whether to pierce, or how best to broadcast their heterosexuality via their facial jewelry. Conversely, there are "which side?" requests from gay men looking to show off a little pride in their ear. The nice part is, it seems to matter less and less.
Before we had the ability to anonymously speak our collective anxieties to the void of the internet, there were syndicated advice columns, and at their forefront, two famously feuding sisters. In the '80s, both Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers took questions from readers about male earrings in their respective columns.
In 1984, a reader asked Landers what significance the left or right side had to men with pierced ears. While acknowledging that both straight and gay men have pierced ears, Landers also replied that for a gay man a right-side earring was code that "he prefers to play the submissive role." Subsequently, Landers posted a follow-up article where she shared letters from readers across the country confidently declaring disparate answers. It means a man is divorced and looking! It's secret code among pacifists! Left means Democrat, right means Republican!
We could all take a lesson from Van Buren, who in 1991 declined to give an answer to a wife's question about her husband's new earring. Instead, she published the variety of answers her readers happily supplied. A good rule of thumb? Avoid pathologizing the piercing of a stranger.
Earrings mean many things to many men. It might have religious significance. It may put them in touch with their ancestry. It may be a statement to potential partners. Or most likely of all, he just thinks it looks good. Unless you're the one sitting in the chair at Piercing Pagoda, it's none of your business.