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The Mursi tribe and lip-plates

By October 30, 2019Diversity Speaks

By Viktoria Strejc

What is beauty? Have you ever thought about how extremely specific beauty perceptions are to cultures?

Today I’m going to take you on a “different” kind of beauty journey.

Have you ever heard about the Mursi tribe? They live in Omo Valley, an isolated region in Ethiopia. They are one of the last tribes that still wear traditional clothing and accessories.

Mursi women are famous for their wooden lip plates – a symbol of beauty and identity.

A girl’s lower lip is cut (sometimes by her mother) when she reaches 15 or 16, and held open by a sodden plug until it heals. It’s up to the girls how far they want the lip to be stretched. The very painful process often takes over several months.

Lip plates are more frequently worn by unmarried girls and newlywed women than by older married women with children. They are generally worn on occasions such as serving men food, milking cows, and important rituals like weddings.

Unmarried girls, especially those with large labrets, might wear them whenever they are in public. It’s expected that a boyfriend or husband will not sleep with his girlfriend or his bride until her lip has fully healed. However, modern men are increasingly sleeping with their love interests even before they have pierced their lips.

The lip plate carries a number of meanings. Firstly, it’s a symbol of great beauty. Secondly, it marks a commitment to the husband because it is worn with great pride when serving him food. If the husband dies, the lip plate is removed since a woman’s external beauty is said to fade after his death. Lastly, the plate is a powerful visual marker of Mursi identity. Without it, they run the risk of being mistaken for a member of another tribe.

Have I sparked your interest? Would you like to learn more about this? Let me know your thoughts on this topic!

David Turton: Lip-plates and the people who take photographs
Uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists in southern Ethiopia ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY VOL 20 NO 3, JUNE 2004