Phobias are weird. For example, I have a friend who has a phobia about, as he puts it, “things that adhere too closely to the skin.” I found out about this because we met online dating, and on our first date I was being all girly and trying to get him to complement me and thus asked him what he thought of my tights. He refused to look at them and informed me about his phobia, explaining that he was disgusted by things like tights, spandex, and Band-Aids. I thought about being sensitive to his situation and removing my tights… until I remembered that I was wearing them in order to cover up some Band-Aids on my heels. Thankfully, it quickly became obvious that we were not going to be the romance of the century, and now I just break out the sweatpants when we hang out.

Anyways, the closest thing that I myself have to a phobia is Gumby. Ugh, I can barely bring myself to type the name of that misshapen, mold-colored, twisty hell-spawn. I find his ability to stretch himself out particularly gross – especially that second or so when the stretched bit becomes limp and then spasms a bit before snapping back into shape.

And yet, despite my phobia (or maybe even related to it?) I am kind of a stretched-out person. I have long legs, a long torso, even long fingers. This can sometimes be annoying – it’s hard to find shirts that will stay tucked in, and almost everyone gets weirdly aggressive when I tell them how tall I am (“No way you’re 5’8”, liar!” I especially get this reaction from guys who have just told me that they’re 5’9”. Maybe they can read the expression on my face that says “Oh, really, then why am I looking down on you, person who is claiming to be taller than me?”)

But generally, being an elongated person is a plus, looks-wise. Long legs have the widest-ranging appeal. One of my exes said that he wasn’t interested in me until I propped up my legs on a coffee table in front of him, which was totally a deliberate move on my part, but other long body parts are also celebrated. Chinese poetry often compares women’s fingers to scallions – delicate, white, and long and spicy, rawr – and long backs also have so much currency that 18th and 19th century painters routinely put in a couple extra vertebrae to help a lady out.

And then there’s the classic long neck. Somehow always fairly hideous on a man (think Ichabod Crane, or, I don’t know, a brontosaurus), a long neck on a woman makes people get all hot and bothered and thinking about swans. I possess some photos given to me by a suitor who was so impressed with my neck that, unbeknownst to me, he followed me around a party, took close-up pics, and then developed them himself in order to make a super-creepy stalker gift. But they’re good pictures, so I kept them.

Sometimes the fascination with a long neck can go to extremes. Check out Parmagianinio’s famous 16th century painting, “The Madonna of the Long Neck.”

Homegirl is starting to look like a giraffe. But she seems like a squat-necked Russian weightlifting champion next to some of the women from the Kayan Lawhi tribe of Thailand.

It’s a long process to get to the full long neck look. First, you have to be born with it (kinda), since only girls born on certain fortunate days of the week are allowed to start wearing the rings. These girls are fitted with a small neck coil of about four inches high starting at age five, sort of like a training bra that makes you grow boobs to fit it. As she grows up, the girl gets different, bigger neck coils (it’s just one strip of brass, wound in spirals – not separate rings). The process is deemed to be complete when there are around 20 or 25 turns around the neck, which happens around the time that a girl is ready for marriage. The final product weighs around 20 pounds and can be up to a foot tall. Oh, and some women also gets coils around their arms and legs as well as heavy earrings.

Just in case you’re the mother of a small child who wants to be on a reality show but thinks that the fake teeth and spray-tanning of Toddlers and Tiaras is just a little too tame, here’s the downlow on how you can produce your very own long necked girl. Spoiler alert – the technique don’t actually make your neck get longer. I guess your body doesn’t really let your vertebra separate that much. Stupid spinal cord. Instead, the neck coil is so heavy that it compresses what’s underneath it – the collarbone and ribcage, which deform into an upside-down V shape. The down-sloping shoulders create the illusion of a long neck – kind of like going out with your ugly friends so that you can look prettier.

Showing that the human body can overcome a whole lot of ridiculousness (think about every episode of “Intervention,” ever), women can remove the neck coils without suffering some sort of horrible Gumby-like neck collapse. The deformation of the collarbones and ribs in permanent, and the neck is weak for a couple of days afterwards, but then everything’s fine and dandy. Oh, except that the neck remains bruised and discolored for years, which seems to be the reason why some women keep wearing the rings even if they don’t want to anymore, since who wants a neck that’s both long and discolored?

The long neck tradition stretches (pun!) back probably to the 11th century – in any case, since far before any written evidence of Kayan culture, and so we don’t really know why the practice originated. There are lots of theories. One is that they were meant to protect the women from tigers, who tend to kill their prey by biting their neck. This seems like way too much trouble for the off-chance of a tiger attack, but I am inspired to explain my high heels, the next time my boyfriend rolls his eyes because I want to take a cab rather than walking five blocks, as protection against… um, rat attacks? Shallow
puddles? I’ll think of something. Also, since the neck coils restrict movement (not fully, but a bit), Kayan men traditionally take a more active role in child-care and housekeeping work, which sounds like maybe a fair exchange for a little collarbone compression. I’m going to start wearing my high heels full-time so I can force my boyfriend to clean the bathroom. Well, more realistically, so I wouldn’t have to step on whatever would accumulate on the bathroom floor if I left it up to my boyfriend to clean it.

Another theory is that the long necks were a way for distinguishing Kayan women from the women of neighbouring tribes so that they could be ransomed when captured in tribal warfare. This also seems like an over-the-top solution to a potential problem since aren’t there easier ways to identify your womenfolk? Give them a secret password or tell them to memorize their home addresses or something.

Or maybe the explanation is simply that a long neck is hot. The Karyan people explain their neck coils as a way of making women more attractive. This makes sense if you think about how exaggerating sexual dimorphism (the difference in appearance between the male and female of a species) is a fairly common way of tarting it up. Think about how Barbie’s slim waist plays on the difference between men’s and women’s waist to hip ratio. Women usually have more slender necks than men, so maybe the neck coils are there to exaggerate that difference. They function like breast implants – taking
something feminine and making it more so. A lot more so.

An ever-decreasing number of women choose to wear neck rings, and the ones who do sometimes to so less for reasons of beauty or cultural identity than because of the money to be made for visiting tourists. Seems that, soon, I won’t have any enhanced competition for my naturally long neck. Maybe I’ll go buy lots of necklaces, just in case.