Show your metal

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
A rite of passage, an act of rebellion or just a pretty adornment.Whatever the reason, body piercing is making a statement, and a comeback - in the staffroom as well as among pupils. Claire Laurent punctures a few myths about studs and chains

Twenty-five-year-old Barry Randall, recently promoted to head of department in a new school, describes himself as "very career orientated". He also has piercings in his tongue, nose, ear and eyebrow. A problem? Not at all, he says. "If it doesn't affect the way I do my job then I don't think it's an issue." He wore his tongue jewellery when he went for his interview, but no one on the panel said anything. "I'm quite tall, and because it's in my mouth, it's not necessarily easy to see." He had his tongue pierced a year ago - a spur of the moment decision - and has no regrets. "I like it, and my girlfriend likes it. Piercings are quite a private thing." His other piercings were done when he was a student, but he tends to wear only tongue jewellery these days.

Claire Roberts teaches Years 5 and 6. She has her nose pierced and wears jewellery every day. The staff are relaxed about it - the acting head also has a pierced nose. "I don't believe it affects my abilities as a teacher or implies I'm any less professional," she says. "The only response I get from the kids are compliments about how pretty the various studs look - if they notice at all."

Nikki Davis, a 25-year-old PE teacher at Parkside community college in Cambridge, has three piercings in one ear and five in the other. She also has her nose pierced. "I wear all my piercings at the weekend," she says, "but as I'm a PE teacher I don't wear them to school. I don't consider it appropriate when a major part of my role requires me to nag pupils to remove theirs for sport. Occasionally, the school has days when the curriculum is suspended and, as I'm not usually teaching PE then, I wear all my jewellery. But another member of staff wears her nose stud every day."

Nikki says that at her previous school she would only have worn her piercings to the school disco. "It wasn't stuffy, but the rules on jewellery for the pupils were strict." She says it's important to set an example, and hers is that she only wears her piercings at times she considers to be appropriate.

Ear piercing, once a sign of rebellion, now seems tame as teenagers queue to have their navels or tongues pierced. This means schools need to be aware of the health and safety issues, as well as policies on the wearing of jewellery. Paul Billing, head of Stour Valley Community school in Warwickshire, says the school writes to parents to inform them their child won't be able to do PE until new piercings have healed and jewellery can be removed. "It's been dealt with in a very low-key way and, as a result, I think we've got a better finish on it," he says. "We very much take the view that we are here to educate children, but obviously health and safety is a major concern."

Warwickshire county council is thought to be the first local authority to issue guidelines to schools about body piercing. Drawn up after discussions with headteachers, the local health authority and health and safety experts, the guidelines include information on health risks, safety issues and the religious and cultural significance of piercing among some groups. Keith Thompson, health and safety officer for Warwickshire's education department, says schools need to have a clear policy and make a clear statement to parents. "We have suggested they take the line that body jewellery is not particularly necesary in school. If children want to have their bodies pierced and parents are happy with it, we don't object, but we would ask that it's done at the start of a holiday so that the piercing has healed by the start of term ."

While good aftercare is essential, who does the piercing, where it is done - and how - are also important. Anyone can set up as a piercer as there is no compulsory training. There is also no law to prevent anyone under 18 getting pierced, although intimate piercing (genitals and women's nipples) is not allowed for anyone under 16.

Mark Eames, who runs the Akasha therapy centre in Cosham, Portsmouth, is a former architect who became interested in body piercing five years ago when his then 13-year-old daughter wanted her navel pierced. He was concerned at the lack of information available and started to research the industry. He now works as a body piercer and chairs a committee that is putting together a national qualification in body piercing. Author of Body Piercing, Does it Hurt? (due to be published this September), Mr Eames says the introduction of an NVQ for body piercing would help regulate the industry and bring in age-specific rules.

Norman Noah, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says that, at the very least, body piercers need a good knowledge of anatomy and hygiene - and should be ethical about who they pierce. The biggest risk from piercing, he says, are three common viruses that are spread via the blood: HIV, and hepatitis B and C.

"All needles must be sterile and all things that go through the skin must be sterile. There is also elementary hygiene to avoid local infection," he says. Ear piercing guns are safe but should not be used for other parts of the body. "Aftercare is a big issue as that's where a lot of them go wrong - fiddling with piercings with dirty hands, for example. And the younger you are, the less likely you are to be careful."

So what is the attraction of body piercing? It's been around for thousands of years but, as social psychologist Martin Skinner says, it's no longer the preserve of sailors and criminals. "People think that when they have it done they are controlling what they look like. It changes the way the pierced person is construed. Many people, for instance, quite like being much more gentle than their obvious superficial jewellery implies."

The interest for teenagers, he believes, is that it's almost another rite of passage that includes staying out late, first drink and first sex. "There's a daringness in having it done, of joining those who've already had it done."

Mr Skinner says that managing piercings in school is about managing the desire to express individuality, to rebel against uniformity. "There is an argument about keeping those sorts of fashion things out of the life of school, to make everyone more equal and to make the school's activities the focus. But the more you try to stamp it out, the more people will try to get around it. You have to work with it and understand it."

Barry Randall and Claire Roberts are pseudonyms


* Keep wounds from new piercings as dry as possible

* Avoid tight clothing pressing on the piercing

* If there's a discharge, clean the piercing with hydrogen peroxide solution (3 per cent diluted with an equal amount of water)

* Go to your doctor if an infection persists

* Don't fiddle with the jewellery or pierced area

* Always wash your hands before touching it

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