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Body Language


A daring pastime among the punks at my suburban high school in the mid-'80s was sticking their brows, cheeks and ears with safety pins. The counter-culture was collecting ear piercings like crazy then. One hard-core friend had what resembled a robot's appendage on the side of her head, what with all the silver studs pinned in.

I kept it simple with three holes lined up in a triangle in my left lobe--a sort of statement to the world of my being left-handed. (I don't think anyone ever got the significance).

At around that time, a boyfriend and I decided to go a step further and pierce our noses. We knew of no one in our nightclub scene with jewelry there and thought it wildly brave and innovative.

It ended up being the one time in my life I buckled under to peer pressure. On the hysterical advice of my girlfriends, I didn't go through with it. As for my beau, he looked all the cuter with the metallic speck. In retrospect, it probably looked more like a blackhead.

It all seems so tame a decade later. As the "alternative" label becomes more a description of a generation than of a fringe subculture, physical adornment such as body-piercing and tattooing are part of coming of age in the '90s. Many teens and twentysomethings say they share a sort of kinship because of it despite their different personal interests in music, clothes or culture.

"You feel a common bond when you see others," said Fountain Valley High School senior Lisa Burk. The 17-year-old pierced her septum, the part that separates the nostrils, in January; she added a second hole there this month.

"I'm proud of it, because I had to go through a lot of pain to do it," she said. "It's like a badge, almost like an accomplishment."

The reasons for doing it are as diverse as the artwork inked on skin. Among them is a need for a significant rite of passage they feel is lacking in our culture. That is one of the reasons documented in the popular book "Modern Primitives" (Re/Search Publications, $19.95). In its eighth printing, the 1989 book is "an investigation of contemporary adornment and ritual." The book helped catapult the boom in body adornment among "Generation X-ers" in the last couple of years.

Among teens, however, the influence is not so much the book as it is older siblings and other members of Gen X who have made it as cool as owning a pair of clunky Dr. Marten boots. Surprisingly many teens manage to get tattoos without parental consent, even though it is illegal in this state. And there are no laws against body-piercing.

While the less committed have turned to faux tattoos and body rings that don't require a hole for a look that's become fashionably mainstream, on the other end are those who now find body-piercing more visually provocative than tattoos.

Take Alicia Libbey. After a year thinking it over, plus an unsuccessful attempt at doing it herself, the Trabuco Hills High School junior scraped up $41 and got her tragus (the pointy part of the ear that extends over the canal opening) pierced professionally at Rack N Ruin in El Toro.

The cost covered the sterling hoop and the piercing. Libbey only had to wait 30 minutes for piercer Craig Rhodes, who twice a month offers his services at the alternative clothing store. Like most trained piercers, Rhodes learned from apprenticing. (There are no regulations or governmental permits necessary for piercing).

Alicia also considered piercing her navel again. She had tried to do it herself last year, but she got an infection, and the ring ripped out. Pierced navels, she said, have become "totally trendy."

That's right, the rage at the beach this summer among young women won't be a particular bikini style, but hoops through belly buttons. Blame it on the media. On regular rotation on MTV is an Aerosmith hit depicting a teen girl getting her navel wired, while super-model Christy Turlington, who sent the fashion world reeling when she revealed a tiny flower tattooed on her ankle last year, bared her hooped navel in last month's Harper's Bazaar.

As beach babes prepare for summer, the tanning salon isn't the only happening place.

Navels account for 90% of professional piercer Aimee Echo's business, with the average customer somewhere between 16 and 23. Echo, of Huntington Beach, has performed as many as nine in one day. The youngest customer was 13. She frequently cards customers, requiring a parent present if they're under 18.

One girl was accompanied by her whole family, which packed the tiny private room where Echo works. The attitude among parents, Echo said, is that "I'm going to let you get away with this, but any other piercings and tattoos are out."

With that in mind, many teens opt for places on their bodies that are easy to hide from parents. One Foothill High junior spent an excruciating 45 minutes over Presidents' Day weekend getting a safety pin through his nipple.

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