BEAUTY, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Among the Mursi tribe of Ethiopia, the axiom aptly captures a cultural practice in which the beauty of a woman is defined more by the extent of the size or length of her lips. To that extent, much is done to ensure that her lips are dextended by artificial means just so that her beauty wins publuc and cultural approvals.
As part of the routine, a mother is culturally obligated to help her daughter deepen her outward beauty by cutting open her lower lip when she reaches 15 or 16 years. It is then held open with the use of a sodden plug until the wound heeals. However, the girl is at liberty to decide how beauty she can be by extending her lips by stretching them beyond her mother’s initial definition.
Though the process is painful, Mursi women are always ready to pay the price even as it lasts for several months
Though the practice is now restricted to Mursis living around Omo Valley, a largely isolated Ethiopian region, wearing of wooden plates, which goes along with the wearing of traditional clothing and accessories, is mostly done when serving men food, milking cows and during important rituals like weddings.
Generally, wooden plates are worn by unmarried girls and or newly weds. Older women with children also do so freely during important occasions.
Mainly however, unmarried women, particularly those with large designs, often wear them in public. Significantly, no husband or boyfriend is expected to sleep with his bride or girl friend until her lips are completely healed. However, this tradition is increasingly being violated as newly weds and even unmarried couples are known to be sleeping with their love ones, being unable to resist the allure of their beautify women. This is the case sometimes even before the women have pierced their lips.
Lip plates come with a number of significances for Mursi women. In the main, it is a great symbol of beauty. More so, it marks a commitment to the husband as women wear long lips with great pride when serving him food. Its connection to matrimony is such that when the husband passes, the women removes the lip plate following the belief that her external beauty passed on with his death.
The other reason Mursi women wear plates is that it is a remarkable visual marker of the tribe’s identity. They are of the belief that without it, they run the risk of being mistaken for a member of another tribe.