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When Tony Kunce turned 41, he put an extra hole in his head.

Getting his left ear pierced this summer "wasn't one of those mid-life crazy things," says the Maplewood, Mo., man, reassuring himself. "It's just, as you start to get older, you're losing your hair, you've got the family and the kids. If you don't keep a rebellious distinction, when people see you on the street, they might mistake you for a . . . a Republican."Granted, it would have been easier to get a bumper sticker emblazoned with a donkey, but Kunce, like many other men his age, is opting for the '90s version of letting his hair down.

Jewelry stores report that the number of middle-aged men getting their ears pierced is doubling and quadrupling.

Men usually choose demure studs and stones, or small wires, says Shannon Taylor, former manager of Piercing Pagoda in St. Louis: "On some of them, it looks really sexy. On some of them, it just looks goofy."

Most are brave about the pain, but once in a while they act like babies. "One anesthesiologist nearly passed out in my chair when he heard the click of the gun," Taylor says.

Getting an ear pierced is a way to say "I'm not old," says Fred Rabinowitz, co-author of "Man Alive: A Primer of Men's Issues."

"As men approach middle age, they realize they're not going to get all their dreams fulfilled, they're not going to live forever, they've used up half their lives. Getting an earring, or hair plugs, or a fast car is a way to question themselves and challenge others," says Rabinowitz, who got his ear pierced recently.

Some call it a midlife crisis. Others, like Douglas Gertner, co-author of "Teaching Men's Lives," prefers the term "midlife illumination."

"Getting an ear pierced is a counter-culture statement - like a ponytail was in the '60s and '70s," he says. "It's letting your freak flag fly."

For Kunce, a criminal investigator for the Missouri public defender system, getting an earring was "a way to get out a little frustration," says his wife, Mary. "He's had a really normal-guy kind of way about him. Someone we knew from high school told him he looked pedestrian, and that really hurt his feelings."

At first, when he got the earring, she thought it looked "trashy. Now, I think it's sexy."

Dennis Crone, a 43-year-old St. Louis County executive, debated getting his ear pierced for a year, before he finally went under the gun at 42. For him, it wasn't about being in his 40s and wanting to look cool. It was about being in his 40s and finally feeling secure enough not to care what others thought.

"The people around me would have preferred that I didn't do this," he says. "But it felt right."

Many men maintain their corporate image by wearing the earring only at home, says Rabinowitz. But the taboo against men wearing earrings has faded in recent years, he believes.

Gertner is glad to see men breaking out of traditional male roles. "There's a lot of constriction that comes with being a man," he says. While he doesn't expect guys to start wearing comfortable skirts to work, he's happy they're getting in touch with their feminine side.

So what's next? Kunce himself has no future piercing plans, but friends wonder what he'll tell his 1-year-old son if he wants to get his ear pierced in a few years.

"That's easy," says Kunce. "As soon as he turns 40, I'll tell him it's fine."