Image: Nipple ring removal
Nick Ut  /  AP
Mandi Hamlin says a Transportation Security Administration agent forced her to remove a nipple ring with pliers in order to board an airplane earlier this year in Lubbock, Texas. She demonstrated what she was asked to do at a press conference in March.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/15/2008 8:19:56 AM ET 2008-05-15T12:19:56

We see them in ears, eyebrows, noses and tongues. They peek out provocatively from belly-baring shirts and cause us to wince when we encounter a bristling faceful at the local coffee shop. They’re body piercings, some visible, some not so much, and for the past few years they’ve been raising both eyebrows — and the occasional alarm.

Celebutante Nicole Richie’s nipple ring once set off a metal detector at an airport in Reno, Nev., resulting in an impromptu breast inspection by airport security. In March, a 37-year-old woman flying from Lubbock to Dallas, Texas, triggered a hand-held wand with her nipple jewelry and was forced to remove the piercing with pliers before the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would allow her to board the plane.

For Alicia Cardenas, 31, the story has an all-too-familiar ring.

She was returning home from a trip to Oklahoma when she got “wanded,” says Cardenas, who owns a body piercing shop in Denver, Colo., and is president of the Association of Professional Piercers. “They get to my breasts and the thing goes off and there’s a whole bunch of hollering and a bunch of people come over.”

Cardenas told the guards about her piercings and asked if she could go to a private screening area and show them to a security agent — a la Nicole Richie — but was told she had to remove the jewelry before she could proceed any further. She did as she was told (her particular jewelry design simply required her to unscrew a bead from a barbell) and was able to make her plane in time, but the incident still rankles.

“Had I been a less confident person, I would have been a lot more shook up,” she says. “As it was, it was an absolute embarrassment to have my private life displayed.”      

Private piercings gone public
As more and more metal detectors are set up in malls, museums, courthouses, colleges, art galleries, airports and transportation hubs of every kind, people with private piercings — and especially those contemplating the procedure — are beginning to wonder if their personal beauty aesthetic means they’ll be subjected to pat-downs, pliers or the piercing gaze of a roomful of strangers.

“I participate in quite a few online communities and forums and the question about piercings and metal detectors appears on a near weekly basis,” says Tiffany Cox, a 27-year-old professional body piercer from Rocky Mount, Va. “The vast majority of people say it’s not going to be a problem, but a couple of people have had something like that happen. I’ve set off a wand before at a club but it wasn’t a big deal, they just waved me in.”

Others haven’t been as fortunate.

Stories on one tattoo/body piercing site range from a teenager whose belly piercing was detected by airport authorities in front of her parents during a vacation to Mexico (she was grounded for the duration of the trip) to a 45-year-old mom whose brand new nipple rings set off a detector during a visit to a water park with her daughter. Piercings have tripped alarms at airports, art galleries, Wal-Marts and in the case of one unfortunate college student, during a legal studies trip to a state prison (the woman had to start removing items of clothing in front of her entire class until prison security could get to the bottom of the beeping).

According to Cox, the thought of a private piercing going public can be especially alarming for her more conservative clients.

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“A lot of my clients are people you wouldn’t expect to have body piercings — doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers,” she says. “And there’s a big concern about being outed, especially for those who fly a little more or who work up in Washington, D.C., where there are a lot of public buildings with metal detectors.”

Piercings more common
One nationwide survey found that 14 percent of men and women ages 18 to 50 have body piercings (and 24 percent have tattoos), according to a September 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Tattooing was equally common in both men and women, but body piercing was found to be more common in women.

Not surprisingly, the lower the age, the greater the likelihood of a piercing.

“I feel very comfortable saying that between 35 to 50 percent of all 18- to 25-year-olds are pierced,” says Dr. Myrna Armstrong, a professor at the School of Nursing at Texas Tech University Health Science Center in Lubbock who’s studied the phenomenon since 1995. “And that doesn’t include pierced ears.”

Armstrong says common piercings range from eyebrow to tongue to navel to an increasing number of nipple and genital piercings. (Ironically, the uproar four years ago over Janet Jackson's nipple shield — a decorative piercing that basically functions like a brooch — revealed during a Super Bowl halftime show may be semi-responsible for the spike in nipple jewelry.)

Piercings have become so commonplace, in fact, medical professionals have created safe, sterile procedures for their removal prior to surgery and imaging studies. The procedures specify the proper type of tools that should be used (the wrong tools can scratch the jewelry, leaving the patient open to serious infection), and advocate the use of nonmetallic spacers or retainers (substitute “stoppers” that keep the pathway open), since the temporary removal of even a healed piercing can, as the Association of Professional Piercers Web site puts it, cause the hole to “shrink or close in minutes.”

“The medical community is making nonjudgmental steps to work appropriately with piercings and their removal and reinsertions when indicated,” says Dr. Dan Aires, director of the division of dermatology at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “You’ve got to minimize the risks of either infection or closure of the holes, and I think the medical experiences offer a good model for TSA or any other agency that has to deal with sensitive piercing issues.”

At present, the Transportation Security Administration recommends the removal of body jewelry before flying.

“Piercings are not prohibited,” their Web site states, “but may alarm the metal detectors. Ideally, remove body piercings before security screening.”

Passengers shouldn’t be forced to remove their piercings with pliers in the future, though. After the Lubbock, Texas incident involving Mandi Hamlin, the TSA reviewed their procedure and announced that that in the future the agency “will inform passengers that they have the option to resolve the alarm through a visual inspection of the article in lieu of removing the item in question.”

Just give 'em a peek
But TSA spokesman Christopher White says this new procedure is still in the process of being implemented.

“We’re currently working on formalizing that procedure,” he says. “We do anticipate offering a visual inspection option. But at this point in time, passengers would have to remove the piercing. And if they can’t remove it, we could work with our law enforcement partners to make sure the item is not a threat.”

Unfortunately, removing a body piercing is often easier said than done.

“If I’d been that woman in Texas, I wouldn’t have gotten on that airplane,” says Rae Schwarz, a 40-year-old writer from Seattle who’s lived with body piercings — and the beeps they occasionally produce — for 20 years but only been asked to “prove” her piercings to airport security once. “My nipple rings are of a diameter that I would need special pliers and the help of a professional.”

Luckily, most people in the piercing community say that while setting off a detector can sometimes be embarrassing (especially if you’re with a co-worker or relative who doesn’t know about your penchant for body jewelry), it’s usually the exception, not the rule.

“People worry about it more than it actually happens,” says Karen L. Hudson, a 35-year-old body art expert from Indianapolis.  “Even though it’s metal, it’s a non-magnetic metal, and most wands or metal detectors usually don’t pick it up, unless their settings are ultra-sensitive.”

Other factors such as quality (cheaper jewelry contains more nickel, which is more likely to be detected) and quantity can also play a role in the “rushing roulette” of an airport security checkpoint.

“The risk increases with the more piercings you have or the larger gauge jewelry you wear in them,” says Hudson. “If you really don’t want to have to explain your piercings, your best option would probably be to remove the jewelry before you get there.”

Cheaper means more beeps
Another option, says Charlotte Heller, a 40-year-old body piercer from Seattle, is to replace metal jewelry with something like glass or medical grade plastic, which won’t trigger any telltale beeps.

“One of my clients works as a pilot and has what’s called a Prince Albert piercing [on his genitals],” she says. “He didn’t want his piercing to hinder him professionally so he ended up using acrylic jewelry, which works really well for him.”

But with all the creative options piercers are using to avoid detection and (more importantly) delay, Victoria Pitts-Taylor, associate professor of sociology at Queens College at the City University of New York, says it’s equally important to make sure we don’t let airport security turn into the “body police.”

“We might be wise to think about the larger social context of tattoos and piercings,” she says. “It doesn’t seem a rational or reasonable response to security issues to have a woman use pliers to remove a nipple piercing. It seems that something else is going on, an excessive reaction that suggests a certain stigma that’s applied to this body practice.”

“There are pants that have metal in them, but I hardly expect security officials will make us take our pants off,” she says. “The safety of the community is not threatened by this. What’s at stake is the integrity of the individual.”

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