The navel-piercing battle — and how research helped me win it

Several of you have asked me when I’m going to make good on a promise to post a personal account of how research influenced my life. Several intrepid souls have already posted their experiences using research in their family life or work (see the “Your Stories” page – and please add your own!). I agree that it’s my turn.

And  I believe I have a compelling story to tell. It involves family conflict, body parts usually covered up by clothing, even blood. And yet, thanks to access to scientific evidence, it had a happy ending. (And even a moral for research translation, but more about that at the end.)

 When my daughter, Sarah, was 15 (now at 23, she has agreed to let me tell this story), she became determined to have her belly button pierced. When I say “determined,” I mean determined. All of you who have children have probably learned to distinguish between a request that you can divert or deflect (“Let’s talk to Mom about it,” “Let’s wait a month and see”) and one that your offspring will fight for tooth and nail. The look in his or her eyes says:

 –I really want to do this.

–I really want to do this, and if you don’t let me, my life will be irrevocably, irreparably ruined for ever.

–You really can’t stop me, because I can figure out a way to do this no matter what you say.

–Okay, maybe you can stop me, but do you really want to experience all the unpleasantness you are in for over the coming months if you do?

 Such was the case with this issue. Scholarly opinion is still out regarding how getting a belly-button ring was the most important thing in my daughter’s life. It may have been the result of seeing a celebrity or  athlete, or the influence of a peer – as I say, we do not (and may never) know. But there it was.

 Now, I could have had the series of knock-down, drag-out fights these things often entail, but I searched for a different path. And there were two things on my side. First, Sarah was (and is) a fundamentally reasonable person, who could objectively look at the facts and make a decision.

 Second, and more important, she had (and has) an aversion to medical procedures, and especially those that involve getting stuck with needles. My task was to develop an argument that took advantage of both traits.

 So I did what any translational researcher would do: I went to the library. Through the magic of scientific search engines, I found exactly what I needed about belly button piercing. I created a handout of the key findings and copied the articles on which they were based.

 And the findings were clear. Without going into all the details, I was able to highlight the following facts: (1) piercing creates a hole near the navel that can be a pathway into the abdominal cavity for infection. (2) infections of this kind are really gross.  (3) It takes up to six months to completely heal. (4) Severe pain can result if the navel piercing doesn’t heal properly. (5) Navel piercings are irritated by tight clothing. (6) Athletes (like Sarah, a soccer player) can get injured and bleed profusely if something (like a soccer ball) hits the piercing site. (A good, more recent article summarizes piercing complications in general, if you’re interested.)

 We sat down at the kitchen table, and I made my presentation. I could see her resolve wavering as the evidence mounted (and it fortuitously turned out that she knew someone who got hit in the stomach with a soccer ball and whose piercing bled all over the place). We came to the best compromise I could hope for – a decision to wait. (And wait we did, until about a year later, when I accompanied Sarah for the less risky nostril piercing, by mutual agreement and based on the evidence).

 The moral of the story: Yes, there is a moral. When we communicate scientific information to audiences, why don’t we tell our own stories about how research changed our lives? One way to interest people in using scientific research findings is to say how our own lives are “evidence-based.” As we try to convince others of the power of the evidence, it can’t hurt to reflect on how we ourselves have modified our own actions because a potent research finding popped up at the right time. And hey, if it helps you win an argument with one of your kids, isn’t it worth it?


  1. Jennifer Trimber says:

    Hi Karl,

    I really enjoyed your story and will try the technique. As a mom of daughters, ages17, 18 and 20 years respectively, I do infact know about that absolute resolve that they posess. I have very much appreciated the workshop that you presented last spring to the senior group in Montour Falls. As the only staff member of the EMC in Chemung County I am digging for facts daily. I am new to Mann Library and am hoping to continue to sharpen my research skills.

    Right now I am waiting for an e-mail back from Cornell’s IT department which I am hoping will help me utilize “checkbox” software. I am hoping to put a simple questionaire on our website to get some feedback on the environmental issues in our county.

    What a cool idea to use research based findings on the homefront. Although we have one tatoo (a giant neuron of all things), and a nose piercing, I plan on using it to deflect some purple hair..those dyes can’t be very healthy. :>

    • Karl says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      Well, it took me a little while, but after your comment I just had to take a look at the evidence on hair dye. There’s a summary of debate over the evidence here.

      There seems to be a very small cancer risk, but the overall finding of a systematic review seems to be:

      An analysis of 79 hair-dye studies that was published last year in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that hair dye use has “no effect” on the risk of breast and bladder cancers. It did find a “borderline effect” of hair dye on the risk of lymphoma and concluded that, although dye has not been shown to cause these cancers, the link merits further investigation. The authors called for further studies on hair stylists, who have more intense and frequent exposure to hair dye than consumers.

      Take a look, and if it helps you win the argument, more power too you!

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