Ear gauging is a practice in which ear piercings are slowly stretched to accommodate larger jewelry. When done properly, the process is very gradual, and it can take years of patient work to reach a desired size, especially in the case of people who want to go large with their ear gauging. The practice appears to have originated in Asia, where evidence suggests that people have been stretching ear piercings for thousands of years, and it has also been widely practiced in African and South American tribes for centuries.
A typical ear piercing is pierced with an 18 or 20 gauge needle. This creates a piercing large enough for the insertion of most standard ear jewelry, but small enough that it doesn't stand out when no jewelry is present. This size also heals relatively quickly and easily, for people who decide to abandon their ear piercings at a later point in life.
When ear gauging is practiced, the hole is expanded so that it can accommodate jewelry of a larger size. The smaller the number, the larger the hole, so someone who goes from a 20 gauge piercing to a 10 gauge piercing will have a larger hole. Sizes go to 00 (3/8 inch or 10 millimeters), at which point they are measured in increments of an inch or in millimeters, depending on where one is.
The type of jewelry which can be inserted into gauged ears varies, depending on the size to which the holes have been stretched. Some people stretch to large sizes so that they can use plugs, cylinders of material which totally fill the gauged hole. Others use tunnels, hollow jewelry which lines the gauged piercing while leaving an open space in the middle of the piercing. It is also possible to use thick earrings, and in some cultures, people insert multiple loops of wire into their gauged ears, adding wire as the hole increases in size.
There are a number of ways to accomplish ear gauging, also called stretching. The important thing to remember is that working too quickly can damage the piercing, and potentially cause infection and other problems. Some people like to use tapers, lengths of metal, wood, or bone which are slowly inserted into the ear to stretch it and adjusted as the ear becomes accustomed to the larger size. Other people simply insert jewelry of a larger size, giving the ears a month or two to adjust before stepping up a size. It is also possible to gauge ears by cutting them to enlarge the hole, although this should be done under the supervision of a body modification professional.
Up until around size 00, it is potentially possible for ears to heal after gauging. The larger the gauge, the longer it will take for the hole to shrink back down, although massaging the lobes with vitamin E oil can help speed the healing process. After 00, though, ear gauging passes a point of no return, so people should think carefully about how large they want the holes to be in the end, and how they might feel about enlarged ear piercings in 20 years.