African Lip Plates: Culture, History and Symbolism — In Pictures

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The lip plate, also known as a lip plug or lip disc, is a form of body modification common in some parts of Africa. The procedure, which involves knocking out the bottom two teeth (sometimes all four), is done at the age of 15-18 and it signifies womanhood.

African tribal lip plates: History and Symbolism — In Pictures

Among the Surma and Mursi people of the lower Omo River valley in Ethiopia, when a Mursi girl has reached puberty, she will have her lip pierced by her mother or one of her kinswomen and a simple wooden plate is inserted. After the wound has healed, which usually takes between two and three weeks, the plate is replaced with a slightly bigger one.

African tribal lip plates: History and Symbolism — In Pictures

Her lip is stretched over a one year period by inserting bigger and bigger wooden plates, the stretching continues until her lip is elastic enough to wrap around a larger lip-plates made of either clay or wood. Then and only then would she be is defined as being sexually mature.

Every woman crafts her own plate and takes pride in including some ornamentation. The final diameter ranges from about 8 cm to over 20 cm.

African tribal lip plates: History and Symbolism — In Pictures
The size and type of lip-plates are not only to do with the personal tastes and priorities of specific individuals, but with the size of the lip itself. Some girls’ lips will simply not withstand the long period of stretching, and, for fear of it tearing, a pubescent girl may either choose not to cut her lip at all, or to stretch it to fit a small clay lip-plate. There is some variation in the shape, style and design of lip-plates. ©Pinterest
African tribal lip plates
Surma woman © jean christophe

Lip plates are more frequently worn by unmarried women and newly wed women than by married women with children. They are generally worn on four main occasions: when serving men food; during important ritual events, at donga duelling competitions and at dances.

African tribal lip plates
Ethiopia’s Ataye Eligidagne, dons the largest lip plate in the world. At a whopping 59.5 cm in circumference and 19.5 cm in diameter, it’s more than twice the size of the average disc. The previous record disc in the Guinness Book of World Records was 15cm in diameter. ©The guardian

Lip plates how do they eat

The women who don plates usually only put them in when serving meals to their men, and also for ceremonies and other special occasions. When it’s time to eat, smoke or converse with people they remove the plate from their lip.

Symbolism of the African tribal lip plates

What does the lip plate symbolize

The lip plate is a symbol of great beauty in the African tribes where it is prevalent. According to people who have studied the culture and traditions of the Surma and mursi people, young women wear lip plates to attract a husband, as well as a decent dowry for their family, who are given a contingent of cattle respective to the size of the disc.

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what does the African tribal lip plate Symbolise
A young Mursi woman ©Flickr

The plate is an important sign of beauty and prestige, which is why most girls choose to wear a lip plate even though they are not forced to do so.

Mursi women tribal lip plates
Mother and baby with lip plate, Kibish, Omo Valley, Ethiopia ©Eric lafforgue

Unlike the maidens, when married woman wear her lip plate it is to look more appealing to their husbands. They do this mostly when serving him food. They also don it as part of their beauty regime or during special ceremonies.

History and Symbolism of the Lip Plate
Flickr ©Massimiliano Orpelli

A girl who does not wear her lip-plate when she is expected to, is considered lazy. Though it rarely happens, this could cause her family to lose some of the agreed upon cattle if she were not to act according to the expectations of her husband-to-be.

Mursi woman wearing her tribal lip plate
A Mursi woman ©Flickr/georges courreges

In the mursi tribe, the lip-plate also serves to remind people of a woman’s commitment to her culture, and above all to her husband that’s why when the husband dies, the plate hanging from the lip of the widow(s) he left behind is removed since a woman’s external beauty is said to fade after his death.

Old mursi woman
Old Surma woman without ber lip Plate ©Eric Lafforgue

Although very unique and part of their tradition, the women only wear the plates for a short time because they are heavy and uncomfortable.

History of the Lip plate

Although there are various theories, nobody knows for sure when, where or even why this tradition started. Archaeological evidence indicates that these lip plates have been independently invented no fewer than six times, in Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia (8700 BC).

History of the African tribal lip plates

There is also clear evidence of women wearing the discs in Ethiopia in 1896.

African tribal lip plates: History and Symbolism — In Pictures

Back then (In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), African women wearing lip plates were forcefully brought to Europe and North America for exhibit in circuses and sideshows.

African tribal lip plates: History and Symbolism — In Pictures

In recent times, the Ethiopian in government have taken measures to ban the discs, and the frequency amongst the younger generations is reportedly dwindling.

African tribal lip plates body modification

African tribal lip plates: History and Symbolism — In Pictures

Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora

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