Today we travel outside the US to explore the lip plate, a form of body modification that’s still practiced in Africa among a few indigenous tribes, particularly in the central and southern part of the continent, as well as among some tribes in the Amazon rain forest. Women from the Mursi tribe in southwestern Ethiopia are particularly notable for this practice because their village has turned into a tourist attraction for Westerners to come and get their gawk on.
The lip plate is made out of wood or clay and is also known as a lip disc or a lip plug. The term “labret” is associated with any kind of lip piercing ornament, including lip plates. Archeologists have discovered evidence of women adorned with labrets in Sudan and Ethiopia (≈8700 bc) and in various countries in South America (≈1500 bc), including coastal Ecuador (≈500 bc).
It is uncertain how this bizarre custom came into being. One theory is that lip plating originated as a deliberate disfigurement designed to make women and young girls less attractive to slave traders. Some researchers claim that the size of the lip plate (the bigger the better) was a sign of social importance or wealth within the tribe. Another analysis indicated that the bigger the size of the lip plate, the bigger the dowry a bride would receive on her wedding day. For example, the larger the lip plate, the greater number of cows the bride’s father can demand in his daughter’s dowry. But some researchers dispute this theory, arguing that marriage of most tribal girls, as well as the size of their dowries, is prearranged long before their lips are cut. Others suggest that lip plating is simply an ornamentation meant to symbolize a woman’s strength and self-esteem. The practice is also described as being a sign of social maturity and reaching reproductive age, thus indicating a girl’s eligibility to become a wife.
The objectification of African tribal women wearing lip plates marks an unfortunate practice in the history of the US. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, African woman wearing large lip plates were brought to Europe and North America for exhibit in circuses as sideshow freaks. In the 1930s, for example, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus promoted the viewing of female members of a tribe originating from near the Ubangi River in central Africa, popularizing the derogative term “Ubangi lipped.”
In actually, most tribes consider an enormous lip plate a traditional sign of beauty. It’s a different story for tribal men. For example, in some Amazonian tribes, young males traditionally have their lips pierced as a rite of passage and to indicate status and prestige. In the Kayapo tribe, an indigenous Brazilian group from the plain islands of the Mato Grosso and Pará in Brazil, senior tribal men wear saucer-like discs up to 8 inches wide; the largest lip plate is worn by the tribe’s great orator and leader, Chief Raoni.
The lip-plating ritual varies from tribe to tribe. The Mursi of Ethiopia adorn their lower lips; some tribes insert lip plates in their upper lips, while other tribes insert lip plates in both the upper and lower lips.
Here’s how it works for women. In some tribes, an initial lip plate is inserted at puberty. In other tribes, the first lip plate is inserted 6 to 12 months prior to the girl’s marriage. Other tribes perform the inaugural insertion when a tribal girl reaches the age of 15 or 16. The ritual is performed by the girl’s mother, a kinswoman, or another woman in her settlement. The process is quite simple but it’s really not so much fun for the girl. A small hole is cut into the girl’s lip. Typically, 2 lower teeth are removed as well; some tribes extract 4 lower teeth. A small circular wooden or clay disc is inserted into the hole in order to stretch it. After the cut heals, the initial disc is replaced with increasingly larger discs, making the hole in the lip bigger and bigger until a desired size is reached and the final plate is put in place. For tribal woman, it’s usually a little over 4 inches wide. The lip-stretching process could last a year, depending on how wide the final plate is; this technique is similar to earlobe stretching (also known as gauging). The girls often craft their own plates and include personal ornamentation. The tribe typically celebrates the installation of the first plate with a feast.
It’s rumored that in contemporary culture, Mursi girls 13 to 18 years of age may make their own decision as to whether or not to wear a lip plate. Recently, some tribal women have been refusing to have their lips pierced because the process of removing their lower teeth can be traumatizing.
Check out this amazing video of an African tribal woman with huge lip plates drinking water from a bowl:
- Gallery Ezakwantu. Ezakwantu website. http://www.ezakwantu.com/Gallery%20Lip%20Plugs%20Lip%20Plate.htm.
- Lip-plates. Mursi website. http://www.mursi.org/introducing-the-mursi/lip-plates.
- Lip plates in Africa: women stretching their lower lips. Africaw website. June 2008. http://www.africaw.com/forum/f17/lip-plates-in-africa-women-stretching-their-lower-t372/.
- Mursi tribe girls with lip plates. Nairaland website. http://www.nairaland.com/304172/mursi-tribe-girls-lip-plates.
- Pleasance C. Incredible images capture the Ethiopian Suri tribe whose girls have lip plates implanted at puberty as a sign of beauty. Daily Mail website. April 20, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2608843/Incredible-images-capture-Ethiopian-Suri-tribe-girls-lip-plates-implanted-puberty-sign-beauty.html.