"I wouldn't wish this experience upon anyone," Mandi Hamlin said at a news conference. "My experience with TSA was a nightmare I had to endure. No one deserves to be treated this way."
Hamlin, 37, said she was trying to board a flight from Lubbock to Dallas on Feb. 24 when she was scanned by a Transportation Security Administration agent after passing through a larger metal detector without problems.
The female TSA agent used a handheld detector that beeped when it passed in front of Hamlin's chest, the Dallas-area resident said.
Hamlin said she told the woman she was wearing nipple piercings. The agent then called over her male colleagues, one of whom said she would have to remove the jewelry, Hamlin said.
Hamlin said she could not remove them and asked whether she could instead display her pierced breasts in private to the female agent. But several other male officers told her she could not board her flight until the jewelry was out, she said.
She was taken behind a curtain and managed to remove one bar-shaped piercing but had trouble with the second, a ring.
"Still crying, she informed the TSA officer that she could not remove it without the help of pliers, and the officer gave a pair to her," said Hamlin's attorney, Gloria Allred, reading from a letter she sent Thursday to the director of the TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Liberties. Allred is a well-known Los Angeles lawyer who often represents high-profile claims.
Applying pliers to the torso of a mannequin that had a peach-colored bra with the rings on it, Hamlin showed reporters at the news conference how she took off the second ring.
She said she heard male TSA agents snickering as she took out the ring. She was scanned again and was allowed to board even though she still was wearing a belly button ring.
"After nipple rings are inserted, the skin can often heal around the piercing, and the rings can be extremely difficult and painful to remove," Allred said in the letter.
TSA officials said they are investigating to see whether its policies were followed.
"Our security officers are well-trained to screen individuals with body piercings in sensitive areas with dignity and respect while ensuring a high level of security," the agency said in a statement.
On its Web site, the TSA warns that passengers "may be additionally screened because of hidden items such as body piercings, which alarmed the metal detector."
"If you are selected for additional screening, you may ask to remove your body piercing in private as an alternative to a pat-down search," the site says.
Hamlin would have accepted a "pat-down" had it been offered, Allred said.
If an alarm does sound, "until that is resolved, we're not going to let them go through the checkpoint, no matter what they're wearing or where they're wearing it," said TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird in Salt Lake City.
People routinely pass through security wearing wedding rings without problems, and it might take a larger bit of metal to trigger an alarm, Baird said.
Hamlin filed a complaint, but the TSA's customer service manager at the Lubbock airport concluded the screening was handled properly, Allred said.
Hamlin wants an apology from the TSA and an investigation by the agency's civil rights office.
Allred said she might consider legal action if the TSA does not apologize.
Hamlin was publicly humiliated and has "undergone an enormous amount of physical pain to have the nipple rings reinserted" because of scar tissue, Allred said.
Hamlin said her piercings have never set off an airport metal detector.
"The conduct of TSA was cruel and unnecessary," Allred wrote. "The last time that I checked a nipple was not a dangerous weapon."