Sara and Peter, a Mt. Kisco couple, were adamantly opposed to their 14-year-old daughter, Jen, getting a belly piercing. “I thought it was a sign she was headed in a bad direction,” says Sara. Jen lobbied for the piercing for months, and though she began to win over her mother, her father remained firm. Finally she wrote a six-page presentation based on research from the Internet, including personal and positive accounts of teens’ piercings, information on how to care for a belly piercing, and a statement of why she wanted and deserved it. Jen’s parents, both impressed by her commitment and effort, were persuaded to let her get her navel pierced. When 16-year-old Autumn Lane’s mother, Ann, discovered her daughter’s tongue had been pierced, she was speechless. Autumn had asked on a number of occasions for a piercing. Ann had okayed the navel but had drawn the line at the tongue. Autumn had gone ahead and disobeyed her parents. "We had no idea. I was just blown away," says Ann. “She had a friend do it four months earlier, which makes it even worse. She could have gotten an infection or had terrible complications. We have demanded she remove the stud and let it grow back."
Body art — whether it is holes in the earlobe or an intricate rose tattooed on the hip — has been common for centuries. In ancient Egypt, royal families often pierced their navels to represent their supreme social standing, and tattooed their mummies, as did the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs. The Vikings tattooed family crests and tribal symbols on their bodies, while the Romans associated ear piercing with wealth and luxury. And nose piercing dates back more than 4,000 years ago in the Middle East, then spreading to India where many women adorn their noses. However, it’s the Western world that has used piercing and tattoos as an expression of individuality; it was popular during the hippie era of the 1960s, enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s with punk rockers and is hipper than ever today. But just because royal families, pharaohs and sailors have done it, does that mean your own child needs to? Only you (and your child) can make that decision. Body piercing and tattooing are unregulated in most states and even illegal in some. New York State law makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to tattoo a minor under age 18 and New York City law requires parental consent for body piercing (not ears) for those under age 18. In many states, tattoo artists must meet state sanitation requirements and have a permit. If your child has approached you about body art, examine her motivations and do some research. Dr. Ann Engelland, a specialist in adolescent medicine with a private practice in Mamaroneck, observes, “While multiple ear piercings and belly piercings have become quite acceptable, nose rings, breast, and genital piercings still seem to run parallel with other high-risk behaviors and are also higher risks medically.” Consider these facts and tips to guide you as you (and your child) make the decision to let the needle fall where it may:
Holes Here and There Lane first became suspicious about her daughter when she overheard a neighbor’s child ask to see Autumn’s piercing. Rather than confront her daughter, she contacted their dentist, with whom Autumn had an appointment the next week. Dentists are the often the first to detect tongue piercing in teens, far earlier than many parents learn the truth. After Autumn’s check-up, Lane called the dentist. She discovered her quiet, smart daughter had convinced a friend to perform the piercing. "I thought it looked cute. It was just something I always wanted to do," Autumn says of the stud with clear ball that had eluded her parent’s notice. "It didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would, and I thought it was pretty cool. My mother thought otherwise." In a 2002 study of 454 university students, more than half said they had a body piercing and about a quarter said they had a tattoo. The Mayo Clinic reported that, of those students with piercings, nearly one in five reported a medical complication due to the procedure itself or how they cared for the piercing afterward. Complications included bacterial infection, bleeding and injury, or tearing at the site. The American Dental Association opposes tongue, lip or cheek piercing and calls it a public health hazard, while the American Academy of Dermatology has taken a position against all forms of body piercing. And both the U.S. and Canadian Red Cross won't accept blood donations from anyone who has had a body piercing or tattoo within a year because both procedures can transmit dangerous blood-borne diseases. Those who are pierced run the risk of chronic infection, prolonged bleeding, scarring, hepatitis B and C, tetanus, skin allergies to jewelry, abscesses or boils, permanent holes in nostril or eyebrow, chipped or broken teeth or choking from mouth jewelry. The end of the nose is made of cartilage which, if it gets infected or has a blood collection, can wither away because blood can't get to it properly. Last fall, researchers with the Infectious Diseases Society of America announced that piercing body parts containing cartilage — especially around the tops of the ears — can be more hazardous than piercing flesh because the cartilage heals so much more slowly. Ear lobes are generally safe to pierce because the lobe is made of fatty tissue and has a good blood supply, which can help prevent infection. Dr. Engelland advises parents to judge each case individually because each teen is motivated by different issues. And be aware that the location, size and statement of the piercing or tattoo can be indications of high risk behavior. “When a teen wants a piercing or tattoo, look at the whole picture of her life, at what else is going on and how the body art fits into it,” says Dr. Engelland.“ If your child is focusing on a high risk body part, have her examine why she wants it and make sure she understands the increased health risks.” Sara eventually took Jen to have her belly pierced at a place in Dobbs Ferry which seemed clean. In the end, Sara was actually glad that Jen had gone through the process of working to communicate her desire and earning it through writing the research paper. Sara’s perceptions about the piercing itself have also changed. “It’s not as strange or depraved as I originally thought,” she confesses, “but rather simply another fashion statement. Now Jen is obsessed with shopping for belly-button rings!” If your child is intent on a piercing, make sure the shop: • is clean • avoids the use of piercing guns, which aren't sterile • uses needles once and disposes of them in a special container • sterilizes everything that comes near the customer in an autoclave (a device that uses steam, pressure, and heat for sterilization) • has a piercer who wears disposable gloves and a mask Keep a close eye on aftercare. Remind kids not to pick or tug at the area, to keep it clean with soap (not alcohol) and not to touch the area without washing their hands first. Those who have a mouth piercing should use an antibacterial mouthwash after eating. Skin Art A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made on the body with pigment inserted into the dermal layer of the skin through ruptures in the skin's top layer. A small needle pierces the skin repeatedly — an action that resembles that of a sewing machine — inserting tiny ink droplets with every puncture. A small tattoo takes about 45 minutes; a larger tattoo may take several hours and possibly several visits. Before your child indulges, remember that tattoos are painful, can be extremely expensive to remove, and involve health risks. If your teen is serious about getting a tattoo, find a tattoo studio that is clean, safe, and professional. You can call your local health department to ask for recommendations and check for any complaints about a particular studio. Keep in mind the following essential questions. Professional studios usually take pride in their cleanliness and won't mind if you ask: • Is there an autoclave? You should be allowed to watch as needles and any other equipment are sterilized in the autoclave. • Is the person a licensed practitioner? If so, the tattoo artist should be able to provide you with references. • Are "universal precautions" followed? These are precautions listed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that outline a certain procedure to be followed when dealing with bodily fluids (in this case, blood). • Most of all, trust your gut. If the studio looks unclean or anything looks out of the ordinary, find a better place. Getting a tattoo at a place that doesn't adhere to these regulations puts your teen at risk for HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. And those with tattoos are nine times more likely to carry the hepatitis C infection. Those who do get a tattoo should take care of it until it fully heals — protecting it by applying an antibiotic cream (such as Neosporin) and wearing sunscreen or covering it while in the sun. It's recommended that the tattooed always wear sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 on the tattoo because the area will always be more susceptible to the harmful rays of the sun.