Landon Rochat-Boeser has decided it's time to grow up.
In about a week, the 24-year-old is going to have plastic surgery to repair the earlobes that he has spent 10 years stretching through the insertion of ever-larger discs.
"It's not that I regret it [stretching the lobes], but this is a different time in my life," he said. "If I want to be taken seriously as a professional, I have to start looking like a professional. Whether you like it or not, or whether it's fair or not, people judge you based on your appearance."
He's going to have his lobes repaired by Dr. Ralph Bashioum, a Wayzata plastic surgeon who is hearing from a growing number of people like Rochat-Boeser. They are mostly men in their mid to late 20s who are looking for ways to reverse or erase vestiges of a fashion fad that no longer fits their lifestyle.
The technical term for the practice of inserting increasingly larger studs in earlobes is "gauged" earlobes. On his blog, Bashioum has posted a warning that they are "not like a bad haircut that you can just can grow out" when styles change.
"Work situations change; social situations change," Bashioum said. "Sometimes the choices we make when we're younger don't apply to our current goals in life."
Rochat-Boeser's parents advised him against stretching his lobes, "but you're at that point in your life when everything your parents tell you is wrong," he said. "Then one day you realize that everything your parents have been telling you is right." Rochat-Boeser, who works for Lifetime Fitness, said his employer has not asked him to change how he looks.
Even within the business, attitudes change. At St. Sabrina's in south Minneapolis, James Clark, who has been piercing ears for 15 years, reported that "a lot of friends within the piercing industry are going smaller. A couple of years ago, maybe they were at 2 1/2 inches [holes in their lobes], and when you see them now they're at a half-inch."
Clark, 33, is likely to be one of them soon. He is considering surgery for his stretched lobes.
"I started [the stretching] about 1996 or '97," he said. The holes have "gone down a little, from about 2 1/2 inches to 1¾ inches, but I'm probably going to have to have my ears sewn up in the spring."
That decision doesn't keep him from stretching his clients' lobes. It's a style choice that must be made individually, he said. Those who do it also tend to like body piercings and tattoos, although there's a wide range of interest in all those things.
"It's not for everybody," said Clark, who has led seminars on stretching for the Association of Professional Piercers. "My wife talked about it [stretching her lobes], but it's just not her style."
And although it was his style a few years ago, it's not now.
"It just doesn't fit anymore," he said. "For one thing, we have a newborn who keeps pulling them. It's become more hassle than it's worth."
DIY explosion concerns pros
At Saint Sabrinas, clients under 16 need parental permission to stretch their lobes, and clients under 18 are limited to 8-millimeter holes. While the salon's stretching requests have remained steady over the past few years, there are no industry estimates of how many people have stretched lobes because of an explosion of do-it-yourselfers.
"I can't give you any exact numbers because there are so many people buying [stretching] jewelry on the Internet," Clark said, adding a warning that it can cause serious problems in the hands of someone who doesn't know what they're doing, including a condition called "blowing out" in which the earlobe becomes disfigured.
"The big problem is doing it too fast, which can cause the lobe to crack or build up scar tissue," he said. "It's not a race. You need to start small and gradually work your way up. I always advise people to at least start [the process] with a professional."
When a person quits wearing the stretching jewelry, the holes in their lobes will start to close. Surgeons typically have their patients go several months sans jewelry to let the lobes heal as much as they can on their own.
Some of the holes will close entirely, but the chances of that become less likely the bigger the hole.
"Every body is different, so I can't advise a client that once they get to an exact size [hole], they'll need surgery to repair it," Clark said. "But I do warn them that there is a risk involved that once you get to a certain size, it's not going to come all the way back down."
A pricey proposition
The cost of surgical repair depends on the size of the hole and how much of the lobe is left for the surgeon to work with. Typically, prices run from about $500 for one lobe to around $1,250 for two.
Keep in mind that "most insurance doesn't cover it," Bashioum said.
Then again, the large-lobe jewelry isn't cheap. Oversized implants made of surgical-quality materials can cost up to $500. "It starts to add up," Clark said of the cost of maintaining the stretched lobes.
The plastic surgeons report that most of the lobe reconstructions they're doing are on men, although they don't know if that's because more men than women are stretching their lobes or if men are just more likely to grow uncomfortable about the holes.
Ryan Wilson, a student at the University of Minnesota, wasn't wearing his 1¾-inch discs as he sipped coffee in a Dinkytown coffee shop recently, but that was because of a different kind of discomfort.
"When it's cold, sometimes they hurt," he said, noting that it was 5 degrees when he left for school. "I've heard stories that when it gets really, really cold, they can split the earlobe open -- although I suspect that's just an urban myth."
He has no plan to give up his discs. Nor have his parents pressured him to do so.
"It's just one of the ways I express myself," he said. "It doesn't change who I am. They know that."
The reversal operation is done in the doctor's office under a local anesthetic, said Dr. James Wire, a plastic surgeon in Chaska.
"It's the same thing we do when a lobe is torn" accidentally because an earring catches on something, he said. The surgeon cuts out the altered or damaged tissue and matches up the normal tissue on either side of it. "If there isn't much left of the earlobe, we have to reconstruct that, as well," he said.
While repairing stretched earlobes is becoming common on the West Coast, plastic surgeons in Minnesota report that it's just starting to surface here. But they expect to begin seeing more. The Skin Speaks Spa MD, which has five locations in the Twin Cities, even set up a separate page on its website explaining the process.
"It's going to happen," said Queenie Dahlin, who oversees the clinics' marketing and created the page at the bequest of owner Dr. Patrick Carney. "There's no alternative. Once you put tapers in, there's no other way around it except to wear them for the rest of your life."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392