Body art is as ancient as humanity itself. When mankind began to live and work together in groups and eventually tribes, this trend proliferated further. Whether it was tattooing, scarring, or piercing, man has always found it necessary, or just really awesome, to decorate their bodies. Oral piercings, however, have become a staple across the world and especially among younger people. While made more popular by the punk scene of the late 1970s, lip and tongue piercing were historically found among African and American tribes. Some of the more well-known practitioners were the Aztecs and Mayans, who rocked labrets—simple lip adornments—while playing ulama on the ballcourts.
In Africa, tribes like the Dogon of Mali and the Nuba of Ethiopia often had lip rings. Tribes like the Mursi have become recognized for their radical lip stretching. Painful to endure and to look upon at first, this practice is a crucial part of young women’s lives. 6 to 12 months before marriage, the woman’s mother or relative pierces her lip and inserts a wooden peg. With time, the size of the peg is increased until plates are inserted that can sometimes be 8 inches in diameter. Similar practices can be observed in the Amazon to as far away as Malawi. Yet in all cases, lip piercing was a societal symbol, not just the rebellious statement of a teenager.
Tongue piercing was also highly symbolic, but not a permanent feature. The Aztecs and Mayans used tongue piercing as part of a religious ritual. It’s purpose was to draw blood and inflict pain–which I’m sure it did when they pulled coiled rope through the hole–in order to please their almighty Sun god.
Oral piercings certainly mix things up a bit. But like anything that’s cool, fun or unusual, there are some hazards. The ADA has taken issue with piercings for a number of reasons:
- Effect on the oral cavity include increase risk for recession of gingival tissue, loose teeth, and even tooth loss.
- Blockage of airway from swallowing jewelry
- Prolonged bleeding
- Nerve damage at piercing site
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing and speech
- Tissue overgrowth
- Chipped or cracked teeth
- Scar tissue
- Jewelry interfering in the taking of dental x-rays
They’ve even gone so far as to call it a health hazard. While I find this a little extreme, people who get them should take care. Like anything that involves puncturing the skin, diseases like hepatitis, tetanus and, the big one, HIV, can be spread, so always make sure it is done cleanly and by a professional…not by a friend with a rusty nail and an ice cube.