I am a total body modification wuss. No tattoos, no piercings – I don’t even have pierced ears. Which does not stop some boyfriends from buying me earrings. I’m sure that a healthy percentage of my readers are more ballsy about these things. But just like I look at pierced ears and think “ouch, no thanks.” I’m sure that even the most inked and pierced of you have the same type of reaction to more extreme body modifications. You know, like this:
You’re looking at a lip plate worn by a woman of the Mursi tribe of southwest Ethiopia. Lip plates remain de rigeur for women of the tribe, which numbers about 10,000 people. They are basically enormous lip piercings, with the largest measuring almost 5 inches across. Not every woman chooses to stretch her lip that far, but almost every female has her four lower middle teeth removed in childhood to accommodate the plate later on.
Face tattoo? Ear gages? Suck it, adventurous people. I want to see you walking around Williamsburg like this before I’m taking you seriously.
In case you take me at my word and actually want to sport the lip plate look, the process is fairly DIY. Mursi girls start the process at age 15 or 16, when their mother or another woman cuts their lower lip a centimeter or so. Girls whittle their own wooden pegs to hold the cut open, increasing the size gradually with a new peg every day or so over a few months and then graduating to larger lip plates of clay or wood. The whole process takes about a year, and it’s up to the girl to decide how much she wants to stretch the hole.
Once the process is complete, the girl is thought to be sexually mature and eligible for marriage. Unmarried girls wear their lip plates whenever in public, and they are supposed to walk with heads held high and chins swaying back and forth in what is considered a very sensual manner.
Several anthropologists who study the Mursi compare lip plates to high heels – both are worn as a sign of adulthood, both take gradual practice to reach the biggest sizes, and both have a “you have to suffer for beauty” component. There’s even similarities in the way little Western girls play dress-up in their mother’s heels, since little Mursi girls will play house while holding a stick in their mouths with a leaf stuck on the end to be a
pretend lip plate.
Also similar to high heels, the older a woman, the less likely that she will wear her lip plate. Just like the longer the relationship, the less likely that I’ll squeeze into my stilettos. Love me, love my sweatpants.
So, basically, unmarried girls wear them whenever they go out in public, newlyweds also wear them a lot at first, but then usually dial it down to putting in their lip plates when they’re serving their husbands and guests food or attending harvest celebrations, and then, once a couple of kids come along, women hardly ever wear them. Just like high heels! If high heels left you with a huge flap of loose skin when you took them off…
wait! Sometimes they do! Gross blisters!
So why wear a lip plate instead of engaging in some other means of beautification? Apparently the fact that they are painful to get and then a pain in the ass to maintain is important, since women who do not wear their lip plates before they settle into childrearing are considered to be lazy. It makes sense, since the Mursi think that the most valued qualities of a woman are to be calm, quiet, hard working, and proud, all of which are pretty compatible with having a huge thing protruding from your stretched lower lip.
You definitely can’t get too excited with that thing in there. No bouncing.
Speaking of getting excited… I’ve come up with my own theory for the Mursi’s lip plates. One of the articles I read had a teeny footnote to the effect that “It is said that if a girl were to have sexual intercourse before her lip was fully healed, she would run the risk of the lip breaking.” So, basically, the Mursi take a girl at an age when she’s probably starting to feel a little frisky (ahhhh, remember being 16?) but isn’t quite old enough to get married and start having kids, and then do something to her that makes the prospect of getting all jiggly-bouncy absolutely terrifying. So I guess the lip plate/high heel analogy breaks down there, because wearing high heels makes having sex so much more attractive… if only because you get to take off your heels while doing so.