Bare Necessities in Torrington had wall-to-wall clients the day I hesitantly ventured through its doors. The proprietor, Bill Foley, was nothing like what I had pictured during the drive to our meeting, which was scheduled on the fly just a short time earlier. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but he was a pleasant surprise.
In between decorating clients' body parts, the gentle, well-spoken and attractive 42-year-old engineer, who had become a tattoo artist and body piercer, patiently answered questions about the practice of women piercing their navels from a journalist too squeamish to even wear contact lenses-someone who clearly remembers a mother's strict warning to her toddler to "never, ever poke anything in your belly button!"
But belly buttons are front-and-center in this century, and people are putting all kinds of things in them. Turn the pages of that venerable book of style, Vogue magazine, and if a model is wearing a midriff baring outfit, it's a safe bet that her navel will be set off with some type of decoration.
But forget Vogue. Just walk down West Street in Litchfield or Bank Street in New Milford, and it's apparent that sporting jewelry in one's navel is definitely de rigueur.
Rose Ann, a 41-year-old nurse from New Fairfield, was at Bare Necessities looking at jewelry for her recently-pierced belly button. "These days it's like getting your ears pierced," she said of the procedure, which she swore took less than two minutes and did not hurt. Her 11-year-old daughter had her navel "done," too.
According to Rose Ann and Mr. Foley, fueling the current passion for piercing such a sensitive area of the body is indeed fashion. "It's the low cut pants," said Rose Ann matter-of-factly.
And as he pulled some belly rings from a jewelry case, Mr. Foley said that the colored ones are all the rage with women who coordinate them with their clothing.
Clinton Sanders, a University of Connecticut sociologist who studies trends in popular culture and wrote the book, "Customizing the Body: the Art and Culture of Tattooing," agrees that piercing one's navel is linked to fashion.
When people refer to body piercings and tattoos, "they almost always [use] some kind of esthetic or decorative way of talking about it," he said. "If you talk to piercers and tattooers, both have moved [from] mostly men [being clients] … to the majority of clients being women."
What this means, the sociologist explained, is that women from all walks of life are getting tattooed and pierced.
Indeed, the clientele at Bare Necessities was a mixed group. Mr. Foley said that the ages of women who get their belly buttons pierced varies greatly. "It's everybody," he said. "We've had 50 and 60-year-olds. One woman was 67."
But Mr. Foley stressed that anyone younger than 18 must be accompanied by a parent.
According to Mr. Sanders, fashion runs in a "herd instinct," and piercing the navel is becoming mainstream because "one's friends are doing it." It has an aspect of celebrity (Britney Spears and Beyoncé have pierced navels).
The sociologist and author said that women who become tattooed or pierced typically cite a friend or co-worker as the inspiration behind their decision.
In addition, Mr. Sanders views the focus on fitness as contributing to the craze. He said that navel piercings are "very, very symbolic of being in shape … which in Western Society is not entirely new." In the late 19th century, he explained, there was a health movement for men and women during which small waists and hard bodies were very much in vogue.
What was most surprising at Bare Necessities-besides the fact that Mr. Foley warmly welcomed a journalist into his shop on a moment's notice-was that women who were sporting pierced navels actually had some belly to speak of. In real life, it is a misperception that only women with rock-hard tummies get their bellies pierced. Some stomachs protruded just a little, but others stuck out a whole lot.
The only client that Mr. Foley could recall who had a very flat, fashion model-like stomach, was "an absolutely beautiful woman" who arrived at his studio with her own belly jewelry, "a huge rhinestone." Her motivation for the piercing? She was unhappy with her navel's appearance and wanted to camouflage it.
Historically in Western culture, men's and women's flat stomachs have been rare and unusual. What has been most beautiful, appealing and sexy are bellies that appeared to be well-fed. Mr. Sanders, the UConn professor, said that largesse connoted fecundity in women and wealth and power in men.
Adorning the body in ways that are viewed as unconventional begins as "conspicuous outrage," he explained. "It really annoys adults." However, as certain practices lose their outrageous character and become more mainstream, escalation results. The sociologist encountered one woman who had her ears reconstructed like cones, and he knows of a man who had surgical horns implanted in his forehead.
"Piercing is a nice body practice," said Mr. Sanders, who has several piercings and tattoos on his own body. "It can be removed … you can pass for normal."
For women who want to bejewel their belly button-but don't want to poke a permanent hole in it, Diva Crystals sells rhinestones that easily fit in to the navel and are anchored there with water soluble glue.
"It's also very discreet," said Joan Tarzza, owner of the New York-based company, who referred to the online ordering option. "There are a lot of women who want [belly jewelry], but they aren't comfortable [walking in to a store and purchasing it]."
Ms. Tarzza said that most of the time, "older women are the ones wearing the Belly Gems." At the other end of the spectrum, she said, are young girls whose parents will not allow them to have their navels pierced.
Belly Gems crystals come in a rainbow of colors. The faux-diamond look is the most popular, said Ms. Tarzza, followed by aqua, then pink.
What does Mr. Sanders think will be the next big fashion trend?
"Fashion is like a shark," he said. "It needs to be constantly moving to stay alive." The sociologist observed that the interesting thing about fashion innovation is that it works "from the bottom up." Ideas are first discovered in minority groups and on-the-street, he explained, and then the fashion industry cleans them up and markets them.
If we want to see what the next big fashion trend will be, Mr. Sanders recommends observing African American and Latino teens.
Bare Necessities is located at 284 Main St. in Torrington. The number is 860-496-8147. To learn more about Belly Gems, visit the Web site, Divacrystals.com. Mr. Sanders' book is available through Amazon.com.
Melanie McMillan is Style Editor of The Litchfield County Times.