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“I always knew I would take it out before college,” Buffy says. “First of all, it closes right away. But also, it’s like, ‘You’re over your teen phase, get over it.’ ”

Growing out of a piercing isn’t something that happens only to teenagers. Cynthia Raymond is the kind of hairdresser who shifts easily from role to role, one minute therapist, the next a mother, entertainer, confidante. With the same warmth and thought that she shows her clients, Cynthia approaches the subject of her piercings.

“We don’t really have ritual in our lives anymore,” she said, leaning forward to make herself heard over the whir of midday traffic. “I think this is the creation of a new kind of ritual.” Dropping her voice a notch, Cynthia explains that she had her nipples pierced soon after a long-term boyfriend broke up with her.

“You would think that a piercing would hurt a lot, but I was in so much pain that it didn’t. I drove myself home,” she said, incredulous at her own numbness. “There are so many reasons that we inflict pain on ourselves. Is it to make us feel like we’re alive? To make us feel like we’re human? Is it because we dislike ourselves?”

At 38, the words of another boyfriend made Cynthia realize that her tongue bar — and her other piercings — no longer made sense. Sean, who would later become her husband, told her that the metal jewelry in her nipples, tongue, and ears were “sharp edges” that he couldn’t quite accept in the context of her feminine body.

“I took out all my jewelry because of that conversation with Sean,” Cynthia says, unfolding her hands on the table. “When I took my clothes off, I had armor here, here…” (touching her chest and face). “He said it didn’t mesh for him, that it was a dichotomy. The conversation was one of those things that — it just brought me to tears, because I just hadn’t even thought about that.”

Lawrence Friedman, a professor of pediatrics at UCSD and chief of the division of pediatric and adolescent medicine, sees children and teenagers in his office once a week. A Georgetown University graduate originally from Connecticut, Dr. Friedman has his own views on why people are drawn to tongue piercing.

“Every generation needs to feel an identity with itself, so that there are trends in music and fashion that come and go. I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s and had long hair, wore bell-bottoms, listened to the Stones, et cetera. The children of people who are currently tattooed and pierced are going to look for a different way to make themselves stand out from the generation that preceded them [their parents],” Dr. Friedman wrote in an e-mail interview.

Though perhaps a broad-brush generalization, there is a healthy dose of validity in his analysis. A study of tattooing and body piercing among college students found that nearly two-thirds of those with piercings agreed with the statement “To be myself, I don’t have to please or impress anyone else.” For many survey respondents, no doubt the “anyone else” refers to members of the older generation.

Buffy Kao vehemently denies that getting her tongue pierced had anything to do with defying her Chinese parents, who had told her that they would take away her car if she went through with it. Despite this, Buffy is eager to convince me of her complete freedom. In a low-pitched voice that seems intentionally unaffected, Buffy states one of her philosophies as matter-of-factly as she can. “If you want to be friends with me,” she says, cocking her pretty head to one side, “you either put up with my crap or you leave, because I am not about to go and adjust myself for every human being.”

Watching her proudly light a cigarette, I get the feeling that this hearty “fuck you” to the world is directed not just at her parents but at the teenage mainstream. She doesn’t like to admit it, but Buffy says that the glamour side of having a metal bar through her tongue — its associations with counterculture youth and rebellion — is something she has come to enjoy.

Cynthia echoes this sentiment. “Part of the reason I wanted it was that it was kind of a secret club. You know, I didn’t know very many adults, very many 34-year-olds, that were doing that.”

Lisa and Dave Carlson, a married couple living in Pacific Beach who had their tongues pierced together four years ago, also said that being “different or alternative” was a piece of the attraction. They wanted me to know that they wouldn’t have removed their piercings just because they were having children, that they wouldn’t have cared what other parents thought.

And while only 21 percent of those involved in the study of college students’ and body art said they got their piercing “to be different,” half cited self-expression as their motivation. The line between them is thin.

In her sunny back yard in Pacific Beach, Lisa tips back her white plastic chair and hesitates uncomfortably. “You know what it was?” she begins, trying to explain why she and Dave had their tongues pierced. “It seemed sexual to me. That’s what the appeal was.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” says Dave. He seems relieved to be through with our stilted conversation about the other, clearly lesser reasons they got their tongues pierced, relieved to have broached the subject that Dr. Jefe refers to as “that sex thing.”

Lisa and Dave are the kind of gentle neo-hippies who drink soy milk and hang tie-dyed clothes in front of their windows. After expressing their concern for an injured wasp that had appeared on the table, Lisa and Dave speak candidly about their disappointing sexual adventures with tongue bars.

“You hear people whisper about it… ‘Oh, tongue rings, they’re good for fellatio’ or…you know, oral sex or whatever. So in the back of your mind you’re, like, wow, hey, how do you find out if it’s true? So that was part of what drew me in,” Dave says.

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