Aaron Storck was 12 when he started stretching holes in his earlobes, aspiring to be as cool as his big brother.
Storck wound up with 11/2-inch-wide earlobe plugs (a.k.a. flesh tunnels, spools, flares, gauges) - bigger than bottle caps.
What he didn't foresee was that he would mature, move into the work world, and rue having eye-catching ears that the staid mainstream found unappealing. Now 29, Storck, of Easton, Pa. spent $1,200 on reconstruction of his holey lobes this year.
"Every now and then I miss having them," said Storck, an information technologist in Pen Argyl schools. "But when you're trying to have a serious conversation and people keep staring at your ears, it's a problem."
Physicians and professional piercers agree that over the last six years, plastic surgery on enlarged earlobes has become common enough to earn a name: Earlobeplasty. Cosmetic surgeons' groups aren't yet surveying members about it, unlike procedures such as liposuction, breast implants, tattoo removal, and otoplasty (fixing protruding or defective ears). But that could change.
Earlobeplasty is still new, said Gloria Gasaatura, spokeswoman for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Only time will tell its significance, she said.
Anecdotally, though, the trend is clear, as are the sociological reasons for it. Giant bejeweled earlobes are marks of beauty, nobility, bravery, or wisdom in many indigenous and ancient cultures. (The Buddha is often depicted with stretched lobes.) In modern Western cultures, not so much.
"These individuals are now thirtysomething. They're done rebelling - I know that's a judgmental thing to say," said University of Virginia plastic surgeon Stephen S. Park, president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. "But they now realize that to succeed in some circles, [stretched lobes] are a real hindrance."
James Weber, owner of Infinite Body Piercing in Queen Village, said people who opt for earlobe surgery "are tired of getting stared at, or it doesn't fit a new lifestyle."
Weber's store opened in 1994, about the time lobe-stretching caught on. Philadelphia was in the vanguard, he said, because a now-defunct local company crafted the special jewelry, made of nonporous steel, titanium, or glass.
"They started making ear-stretching jewelry when the trend didn't exist," Weber said.
A regular ear piercing can be widened into a tunnel, or fistula, using cone-shaped tapers, or by inserting larger plugs every few weeks, or wrapping Teflon tape around the plug to steadily increase the diameter. Guinness World Records says a Hawaiian body modification artist, Kala Kaiwi, has lobe holes more than four inches in diameter.
Stretching has risks, warns the Association of Professional Piercers. These include infections, tears, and "blowouts," in which overstretched tissue at the back of the fistula curls inside out.
But the real problem is that lobes widened more than half an inch may not shrink back to normal. Take the jewelry out and the tissue dangles like a deflated balloon.
Reconstruction, done under local anesthetic, is not very invasive or complex, surgeons say. Still, it takes skill to remove excess tissue and scarred skin, then sew the flaps to reapproximate the original earlobe.
Stitches are removed after about a week; healing takes a month or more.
Franziska Ringpfeil, a dermatologist in Haverford who does a few earlobeplasties a month, said, "We're not talking about face-lifts. But you can't fill the hole. You have to remove part of the stretched portion, then recontour the ear."
Bala Cynwyd plastic surgeon Emily Pollard, whose earlobeplasty patients have included a police academy applicant and a bride, said: "It can look like putting a pinwheel back together. You want to restore the curve."
Storck was initially deterred because insurance doesn't cover the operation. Then he saw before-and-after photos of Ringpfeil's earlobe work online.
She did his makeover, one ear at a time, in March and April.
Now he is frank with young lobe-stretchers, even though he knows he may sound like a fogy.
"I advise them to stop, reverse, turn back," he said. "You need to be unique and individual, but you have to fit into the mainstream until you know your direction."