Nipple piercing has a rich history in antiquity. It has been practiced throughout the world for centuries. Nipple piercing has been practiced by the Karankawa Native Americans in the 1800’s, the Kabyle from Algeria, British and American sailors, as well as upper class women of the 14th Century. Its popularity was renewed in the 1960’s when sexuality and self-expression started blossoming. Its recent popularity has even been trickling into mainstream society.
Lets begin with the Karankawa. Nipple piercing has been recorded as being practiced by the now extinct Karankawa Native American males. The Karankawa were located at the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Bay in the present-day Greater Houston area, then southwestward to Corpus Christi Bay. Genocide made this tribal people extinct before1860! In non-western culture female nipple piercing is still practiced today by the Kabyle, originally from northeastern Algeria.
Male nipple piercings are not as popular in history as the female nipple piercing is. Though it has been understood that American and British sailors, while sailing the high seas, would pierce their nipples after crossing a certain longitude or latitude. Perhaps this gave the sailors something to look forward to during the long days and nights on the sea; maybe it even increased moral.
Female nipple piercings, in western culture may have been dated as far back as the 14th century. Women of wealth would wear low cut dresses to show off their adorned nipples. It is believed that Queen Isabeau of Bavaria was the first to pierce her viewed nipple for the purpose of decoration. This would lead one to consider that pierced nipples were seen as a work of art and the dress was a mere frame for this art.
“In the late 1890s the ‘bosom ring’ came into fashion briefly and sold in expensive Parisian jewelry shops. These ‘anneaux de sein’ were inserted through the nipple, and some women wore one on either side linked with a delicate chain. The rings enlarged the breasts and kept them in a state of constant excitation… The medical community was outraged by these cosmetic procedures, for they represented a rejection of traditional conceptions of the purpose of a woman’s body.” (Greenblatt) This was called “Victorian extremism” by Bernhardt Harwood in his book The Golden Age of Erotica (Paperback Library, 1968, p. 264). Even today the medical community has a reluctance to accept piercings as healthy expression. A great many doctors and nurses have a tendency to reject piercings and shun them with a vengeance. A note on “the rings enlarging the breasts”, I think this was once believed to be the case because they brought attention to the breasts via the enlarged nipples and jewelry, therefore appeared to make them larger.
The 1920’s found Ethel Granger, a very modified woman for her time. She was born in 1892 and she too had pierced nipples among other modifications. She was very outstanding for her era and has been an enduring figure throughout the ages. She is used as an example time and time again of a very modified woman. Even by today’s standards, Ethel is heavily modified.
Fakir Musafar (Roland Loomis) and Jim Ward also pierced their nipples in the 1950’s and 1960’s. These practices were the foundation of some of what one may see in the BDSM, fetish, and body modification cultures of today. In these subcultures nipple piercings are more prevalent. People may have a single nipple pierced or have both nipples pierced. In some cases, an extra third nipple can be pierced.
In the BDSM community a dominant may pierce their submissive’s nipples as a sign of ownership. The Dom may also choose to attach bells to these piercings to act as a form of humility for the sub involved. Also hear every move and be able to hear, at all times, the location of the sub. The submissive may also be lead by a chain/tether attached to these piercings. Some folks in the BDSM subculture pierce the left nipple as an outward sign of dominance and the sub’s right nipple would be pierced as an indication of being a submissive.
Womyn/women have used nipple piercings as a way to reclaim their bodies from sexual assault, emotional suffering, a sick society, family disturbances, etc. Chances that a woman will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being raped are between 50% and 95%. (Population Information Program, 1999) (statistics) In this society women are still, in many ways, second -class citizens and are treated as such. Most women have been the target of sexual misconduct in some way, shape, or form. There is much internalized sexism and external sexism prevalent today. For a woman/womyn having pierced nipples can mean taking back their bodies, being empowered by their bodies, and taking sexual stimulation and making it their own again. It is self-expression. Having pierced nipples can set a new mode for the subconscious mind and can mean healing and acceptance of the mind and of the body. For some women having their nipples pierced is contradicting what our society sees as being a “beautiful female body.” It is a direct subversion to the dominant paradigm in operation today.
Once again celebrities can hold the responsibility of popularizing this piercing as well. Tommy Lee and Lenny Kravitz confessed to having nipple piercings. Dennis Rodman is photographed having nipple piercings. One may even see them under sheer fabric on models sauntering down runways giving the piercings more appeal for the general public.
Piercing the nipples has been around for a very long time and will continue to be. Whether it is for the purpose of adornment, heightened sexual stimulation, power play, reclamation, or pissing off “the norm” piercing the nipples is powerful magick.
Greenblatt, A. (n.d.). 8.1a History of the Nipple Piercing. Retrieved 02 03, 2009, from stason.org: http://stason.org/TULARC/art/body-art/piercing/8-1a-History-of-the-Nipple-Piercing.html
statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved 02 04, 2009, from PCAR: http://www.pcar.org/about_sa/stats.html