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Before nasty women in pantsuits — but after rocker chicks with shoulder pads — came “dirrty” girls with belly-button rings. (Just ask Christina Aguilera.) The zeitgeist of the late 1990s and early 2000s made navel piercings a ubiquitous symbol of sex appeal, but they seem to have disappeared from the navels of both pop stars and girls next door. Whatever happened to the trend that took young, free-spirited women by storm?
If you ask Sara Czernikowski, who manages a Rochester, New York, piercing shop called Dorje Adornments, nothing ever happened. Although Czernikowski says 1985 to 2005 undoubtedly served as the peak for navel piercings, the number “has not dropped dramatically since.” In fact, her shop pierces three to five navels each day, and sells another five navel bars to customers daily. While there are no national statistics readily available regarding the perceived rise and fall of navel piercings, Czernikowski says that anecdotal experience among other piercing professionals seem to confirm the longevity of navel piercings’ popularity.
According to Czernikowski, navel piercings first rose to fame thanks to the 1970s gay leather movement. “I could go on [forever] about how we attribute all modern body modification to the gay leather scene in New York City from the early 1970s to now,” Czernikowski says. She points to the Gauntlet, a body piercing studio originally run out of founder Jim Ward's West Hollywood home, as a huge influence on the culture. Eventually the Gauntlet opened shops in San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle, helping to set the standards and practices for body piercing nationwide.
“Without the leather scene,” Czernikowski says, “there would have been no Gauntlet. Without the Gauntlet, there would have been no inspiration for ‘Cryin’’ [the 1993 Aerosmith video that popularized the trend with women] and therefore no surge in popularity for navel piercings.”
In Aerosmith’s infamous video, Alicia Silverstone is seen getting a navel piercing, although “she admitted to having a stand-in for the actual piercing [because] she found it ‘disgusting,’” according to Czernikowski. Once the video for “Cryin’” dropped, Silverstone rose to fame, and so did navel piercings — and, thus, the association of belly-button rings with young women was born. Even the phrase “belly-button ring” is rather infantile, but that’s exactly how navel piercings came to be known.
Missy Wilkerson spent the 1990s as a piercing apprentice who was so passionate about body modification that she had a plethora of piercings herself — including one on her labia, which she pierced at home. Wilkerson agrees that the stigma associated with belly-button rings is both the reason it rose to mainstream fame and a frustrating display of misogyny. “I think navel piercings are unfairly maligned because of their association with young women and adolescent girls,” Wilkerson says. “It’s pretty gross and sexist.”
How does piercing a cavern of your body that collects lint and bacteria strike people as sexual?
The late ’90s and early 2000s were the eras when Britney, Janet, Christina, and Shakira were just a few of the pop divas who bared their midriffs and gyrated on stage while showing off fancy navel jewelry. For many, Britney’s 2001 “I’m a Slave 4 U” performance at the VMAs forever serves as the epitome of bold sexuality. She rocked a revealing green get-up, a dazzling navel chain, and yes, the infamous snake.
It’s this association that made navel piercings so taboo — and all the more desirable — for teenage girls during the piercing’s heyday. Danielle Hayden, who is now 28, experienced resistance when she asked her parents for permission to pierce her navel in high school for this very reason. She explained that her dad “thought it was a sexual thing and kept saying stuff about me wanting to look sexy.”
However, Hayden’s parents were not the only ones to make assumptions about the very aesthetic she loved so much. “There was a guy I was attracted to in college who assumed I was more sexual than I was because I had a navel piercing,” Hayden explains. Despite her chaste nature at the time, her piercing was associated with a sexuality she had not yet fully developed.
The inability to allow navel piercings to just be exactly what they are — a piercing — is a microcosm of our larger inability to separate “sexy” from “sex.” Sure, a navel piercing can be sexy, even if that wasn’t the wearer’s intended purpose. But by sexualizing a piece of jewelry, we restrict a trend’s ability to be universally embraced.
This is perhaps most apparent when bringing gender into the picture. Even before the gay leather movement of the 1970s, Czernikowski explains, the very first wearers of navel piercings were men, and the adornment may date back to ancient Egyptian civilization. But because of the pop culture takeover of the late ’90s and early ’00s, which branded navel rings as youthful and feminine, a piercing that was previously non-gendered became incredibly gender-exclusive.
In Czernikowski’s shop, “men often get navel piercings,” she says. Because of the shop’s large selection, the navel jewelry offered at Dorje Adornments is as diverse as the clientele. In the spirit of a navel-piercing-for-all movement, Czernikowski says, “The men who work for us have navel piercings as examples to clients that there is no gender attached to body modification.”
The average navel-piercing client at Dorje Adornments is a 30-year-old woman. Women ages 15 to 19 and women over 40 are tied for the second biggest female client groups, which might strike some as a surprise. No, navel piercings aren’t just for hormonal teenage girls, and no, they are not obsolete. There are those who think the navel piercing is not only outdated but also childish, but clearly that is not the case.
Although its mainstream popularity has been stymied by both the oversaturation of navel piercings and growing acceptance of body modification in general, it may be time for a comeback. Crop tops, chokers, and velvet are all recently resurrected trends, so perhaps navel piercings will have their moment in the sun again.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll get to see a stud like Liam Hemsworth, Joe Jonas, or Chris Pratt rocking some navel jewelry right alongside babes like Beyoncé (who wore a navel ring on the cover of Shape), Demi Lovato, and Vanessa Hudgens. In the meantime, patrons across the country will still flock to their nearest piercing shops, keeping the aesthetic of the late 1990s alive.
Missy Wilkerson, the fiery spirit who once spent her days apprenticing in a piercing shop, rocks a single septum piercing these days. When she thinks back to her navel piercing — which she had to remove a couple years ago because of rigorous karate training — she has fond memories of the aesthetic she can no longer enjoy. “I loved the way the navel piercing looked,” she said. “And I loved my jewelry — a curved barbell with a winking red stone that resembled a garnet, my birthstone.”
Navel piercings may not be plastered everywhere these days; they have taken a break from the limelight in favor of a more quiet popularity. But sheathed underneath button-downs and pantsuits and shift dresses and jumpsuits, the navel piercing lives on in men and women of all ages.
Perhaps navel piercings are a sign of liberation. Perhaps they are a sign of youthful rebellion. Or perhaps they are just a sign that yes, navel piercings look damn cool.