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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mursi Lip Stretching

Image via Gusjer, Flickr

It's technically a labret. But like, the queen of labrets.

The practice was once much more widespread in Africa, with some reports from the 1800s saying men and women of different tribes wore great lip plates in their lower (and sometimes upper) lips. Today, the Mursi are most famous for keeping up this tradition (Along with the Chai and Tirma tribes). Located in Ethiopia, near the Mago National Park, the Mursi have a reputation for being aggressive and tough with tourists, but those who've stayed with them for extended periods say they are very nice and likeable.

In interviews, the Mursi describe tourists the way celebrities talk about the paparazzi, so that may explain their reputation.

The process of stretching begins when a girl is between the ages of 15 and 18. The reasons for the lip stretching are complex, and deal with tradition, social pressure, and a lot of other factors. The total stretching time can last almost as long as a girl wants it to, with some saying 3-6 months, and others as long as 3 years. The size of the stretch is said to reflect toughness. The weight of the plate dangling also slows down how quickly a woman can walk. The swaying is said to produce a desirable grace.

The initial cut is made by the girl's mother or other senior woman of the tribe. They use a sharp, spade-like piece of metal, like a scalpel. The cut is a thing. If you've been pierced, the experience probably lasted the span of a single breath. When the Mursi girl is cut, it can take a minute, where the blade is pushed in, moved around, taken out, put back in. The work continues until the hole is right for the insertion of the first plug, usually made of wood. From the videos and photographs I've seen, that first plug looks about ¼ inch in diameter.

Image via Rod Waddington, Wikimedia Commons

After that, the plugs can be changed nightly to increase the size of the stretch. One example I found said that the plugs were cut from a branch so that as you got closer to the tree they would get slightly larger. David Turton, in his article Lip-plates and the People Who Take Photographs(Anthropology Today, 2004), described one girl as going from a one centimeter stretch in December to a five centimeter stretch in February.

At some point during or after the process, the four (Some sources say two) lower incisors are removed to make room for the plates.

The plates can be made of wood, but commonly as they get larger they are shaped from clay (Some Mursi girls said that the large wooden plates were old-fashioned). Women make their own plates, shaping them by hand, and carve drawings into the wet clay. They can also use their own breast milk to create a smoother finish on the plates when they are dried in the fire.

What the plates probably aren't: A disfigurement to scare away slave traders. This is an old-timey anthropological theory that had no real evidence to back it up. The plates also don't determine "bride price" for the girl's arranged marriages. The marriages tend to be arranged early, so by the time a girl is sixteen, when the stretching is being done, it's already a settled thing. But, as Turton notes, there is a connection. If a girl has a particularly large stretched lip, and also large stretched lobes (Which are also prized) the family may be able to negotiate for a better bride price, or another man may even compete for the marriage, driving the price up.

Today, many Mursi girls have trouble deciding whether to wear the lip plates or not. On the one hand, it's said that Mursi men find them very attractive, and on the other hand, the Mursi know that the people coming to photograph them aren't doing it because they admire them. This is not, as one Mursi woman noted, a practice the tourists would want their daughters to take up.

But societal pressure is high within the girl's family and tribe. A girl who doesn't stretch may be seen as lazy, and it may cost her family money.

And the lip plates are tightly bound with social behavior in Mursi society. Women are expected to wear them whenever they are around men, though some say this is slackening now.

Shauna LaTosky, in her Reflections on the lip-plates of Mursi women, quoted one eldest brother in 2004:

Image via Rod Waddington, Flickr

"If Nga Tui [his sister] was not to wear her lip-plate before [she was married], I would whip her as would our mother. If I were to call her: “Nga Tui, come here! Put in your lip-plate and bring me some water. If she didn’t put it in I would hit her and mother would hit her. Later, when she is given to her husband, if she does not put in her lip-plate, her husband will hit her. We teach her how to behave for when she goes to her husband."

At the core of this is the idea that the lip-plate represents strength, grace, power and pride. A Mursi woman with a large stretched lip is seen as being tougher. Women who don't stretch as seen as weak, lazy and clumsy.

LaTosky recorded one elderly woman, in 2004, as saying that her son married a girl without a stretched lip and "She always walks quickly because she is ashamed." A woman without a stretched lip will have unhealthy cows and produce less milk. She will always be hiding from guests, put food down too quickly and not greet people.

But among the young women of the tribe, a different conversation is going on. One girl LaTosky interviewed said that even if she travelled the world, she would always wear her lip-plate, so that wherever she went, people would say, "There’s a Mursi, there’s a Mursi , there’s a Mursi!" Another girl argues that she wants to be seen as a "child of the state", not a member of a particular tribe but a citizen of Ethiopia. Both girls wear lip-plates, but one girl would like to have her lip sewn back so she can go to school and be treated more normally.

In the end, both LaTosky and Turton concluded that more information was needed before any significant conclusions could be made. Even as the world modernizes we still know so little about the practice and the people themselves.