Extreme Body Modifications in Ethiopia

I have always been fascinated with body art and how it can permanently affect someone’s appearance. I have heard about facial scarification in a village in Burkina Faso, about the Kayan Lahwi in Burma and their women with elongated necks, or foot binding in China, but today was the first time I have ever read about the traditions of the Mursi people on the lower Omo River in Ethiopia. More specifically, I have discovered that women from this group wear lip plates made of clay or wood as a symbol of their strength and self-esteem, according to Shauna LaTosky, a social anthropologist from the Max Planck Institute.

A Mursi woman with a lip plate

A Mursi woman with a lip plate

The gradual, painful enlargement process starts about one year before a girl is married, but nowadays young girls around the age of 15 to 18 can choose whether they will wear a lip plate or not. Women who do chose to wear them, they do it with pride and they joyfully decorate the plates with some personalized ornamentation. There is enough room to be creative because the final diameter of the lip plate can range from 8 cm to more than 20 cm.

This Ethiopian group isn’t the only one that takes pride in this traditional practice, but also isolated Amazonian tribes in South America and indigenous groups that live on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America have invented lip plates for various purposes, such as symbolizing leadership and the eligibility to become a wife respectively.

Unfortunately, tourists associate these customs with primitiveness and they objectify the Mursi people and others like them, which in turn makes the tribes very aggressive with those whose sole purpose is to photograph them like animals in the Zoo, but gladly welcome those who are willing to learn about their vanishing culture.

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