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"Hurts Less then Heartbreak" - The Post Break-up Piercing

As a Piercer, I see a huge variety of clients come through the doors of my studio. Young folks who are excited to get their first ear piercings. Seasoned regulars working on a multi-year project across their ears. Awkward teenagers, sweet grandmothers, and everyone in between. Their reasons for being pierced are as diverse as the piercings they get and the jewelry they select. But one reason seems to be very consistent, across many of the clients I work with.

“Yeah, I’m actually going through a breakup right now. I’ve wanted this piercing for a while and just decided…screw it, I might as well.“

That post-breakup piercing. I would say a few times a week I have someone in my chair expressing the same thing. They recently ended things with their significant other and decided to get a piercing. Sometimes it’s a piercing they've wanted for a very long time. Sometimes it’s an impulse, they just wanted to get something pierced and settled on whatever it is we are doing today. It might be a piercing their partner didn’t want them to get, or it might be one they wore themselves. Whatever the case, there is something about the heartbreak of leaving a relationship that makes people want to get piercings, get tattoos, and mark their bodies in some permanent fashion.

And I can relate all too well to this desire and drive. I have definitely found myself in a piercer or tattoo artist’s chair shortly after a breakup at more than one point in my life. There is something appealing about the physical pain of getting this work done that breaks up the emotional pain you are going through. Allows you to experience a different sensation, a different hurt, for a little bit. And the result, the moment where you look in the mirror at a new piercing or new tattoo and admire how good it looks, the confidence it gives you. That is a much-needed boost during a time when you feel beyond low.

And as it turns out, we aren’t the only folks who do this. Piercings and tattoos have a long history of being used as a part of mourning, grief, and emotional processing. The Maori of New Zealand would mourn through the tattooing process, getting tattoos during tangihanga (funerals). “It was a common expression of grief, and adding this pigment to the wounds served as a reminder of the death of a loved one.” (1) In the 1800’s nipple piercings were a brief fad among French and English aristocracy. There were cases of “revenge nipple piercing” gotten after a breakup and shown off with the garments of the time to enrage or inspire a scorned lover. (2) And c’mon, who doesn’t like the idea of getting a piercing just to make sure your ex is properly jealous?

As humans, there is this innate desire to use our bodies to help us process emotional pain. For some this looks like working out hard in the gym after a difficult day, eating your favorite meal when you get bad news, and of course cutting our bangs in a stressful moment. We color and cut our hair, we push our bodies to physical limits with weight lifting and running, we eat, we cry, we scream. We allow our bodies to take some of the burden of the emotional weight we are carrying inside us. And sometimes, we bleed for it.

I think the desire and connection that brings clients into my studio to get a piercing today after a breakup is one and the same as the desire that has encouraged people to get tattoos and piercings during times of loss and grief for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is a whole, human, deeply engrained motivation within the very fiber of what makes us people. To not only experience physical pain to distract from the emotional, but to have a physical reminder of what we have gone through. To carry our grief or our heartache in the ink and metal now in our skin. To be able to look down and see something that reminds us “You are alive. You are here. This is your body, to do with as you please.”

Beyond that, there is a power that comes with getting piercings during these times. Because piercings must heal- you’ll be spending the next 6-9 months caring for this piercing you just got done. Cleaning it, checking on it, and making sure it’s healing well. This can be a reflection of the emotional healing that you go through after a breakup. Feeling your feelings, untangling them, sorting through them, and processing the complex web of hurt, anger, sadness, fear, loss, and grief that come along with a breakup. To heal a piercing at the same time is to have a very real, very physical reflection of the internal healing process you are going through. If you allow it to, the process of healing and caring for your piercing can also very much help you heal and care for yourself through this difficult time. It can be a reminder every day to be present in your body, to be kind to your body, and to nurture your body. When it can be hard to want to get out of bed- needing to clean your piercing can be a motivator. When you may be avoiding showering, or eating, or sleeping, wanting your piercing to heal well can be the thing that gets you to do it. And when you are lost in unkind thoughts about yourself, that piecing can be a reminder of your beauty, your courage, and your strength.

If you choose to, you can approach the healing of your piercing with a care and intentionality that reflects your own process of healing and growing. And to me, this has always been one of the most amazing elements of body piercing and body modification. I’ve often honored large life experiences with a piercing or tattoo, positive and negative. And I’ve allowed myself to show up and be present for healing, using the time I clean my piercing as a moment to check in with my body as well. Take some deep, soothing breaths. Scan my body for where I’m holding tension and stress and how I feel that day. And also thank my body for the work it’s doing in healing my piercings.

There is something so special about this connected string of fate that weaves through humanity and inspires us, now and in the past, to process these emotions this way. I am forever grateful to be a piercer and get to help clients have these experiences and find this healing every day. And because invariably, people always ask “How much will this piercing hurt?” I can say with certainty-

“Less than heartbreak.”

  1. new Zealand encyclopedia

  2. Anatomy and Destiny: a Cultural history of the human body

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Altering your body because you're unhappy is NOT a good habit. I understand body mods can be a form of "self care" for a lot of people but I wouldn't promote this practice. Sounds like a good way to develop dysmorphia and the inability to love yourself exactly as you are, breakup or not.

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