Like the tattoo, stretched ears are an unfading mark of youth: once the hole is 13mm in diameter, the ear will never return to its original size / Alamy


In the 1970s, mohawks, tattoos and combat boots were worn by punks as a visible finger to the man. Since then the British public has become harder to shock, and few subcultural trends escape swift adoption by the catwalk, then hipsters, then high-street stores. Those trying to demonstrate their opposition to authority during last summer's student marches, for example, were met by Topshop T-shirts mocking the vigour of the protests. What's a young thing to do?

Stretched ears – the making of a hole in the lobe with "plugs" or "tunnels" far bigger than your average ear bauble – might be the first symbol of defiance in a while that skates around all that.

Like the tattoo, it is an unfading mark of youth, and it's easy enough to make: buy the necessary sized plugs, then start small, go slow, and decide whether you want to go past the point of no return: once the hole is 13mm in diameter, the ear will never return to its original size.

It is not an entirely new phenomenon: this so-called "lobe gauging" puts jaded 21st-century twentysomethings in the company of Buddha, Tutankhamen and Otzi the iceman: all three stretched their ears – as do thousands of people around the world who have never broken with the ancient practices that formed them. Which, you could say, puts stretched ears in the same category as women who wear 1940s head-ties and medieval battle re-enactment enthusiasts.

But not so: for while the medievalists transform themselves for an afternoon, more and more people are now creating permanent holes that look large enough to hold a small soy latte – some even advancing beyond the ear to expand lower lip piercings so their teeth can be seen even when their mouths are closed.

It's a sign of the times that London cosmetic-surgery clinic Aurora has a help page for those who discover that an opposing look has resulted in the opposite of employment. But for those who stick with it, gouging out bits of their body for others to look through is the ultimate in confrontation – a symbol that screams: just try looking through me!