Body modification, sometimes still referred to by the older term body art, has become an increasingly visible phenomenon in the modern Western world. Yet there is no denying that its origins are much, much older than that, perhaps dating to the emergence of the very first human cultures. It is easy to think of examples of body modification practices in cultures all across the globe, but for all that, there is no one unifying motive behind the actions people take to change their bodies deliberately. Indeed, sometimes even the most superficially similar forms of body modification, when investigated in greater detail, prove to have deep and complex motives that vary from person to person and from culture to culture. This is true of even some of the more extreme pursuits people undertake as part of body modification traditions in their cultures. Whereas the average person might think that any two cultures practicing the same very unusual and eye-catching form of body modification must share a great deal else in common, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Among both the Kayapo people of Brazil and the Mursi people of Ethiopia, cultural tradition leads people to wear lip plates of a size that many outside the culture might find shocking, given the ways in which cultural relativism informs perception. However, it is only in this one superficial respect that the two cultures resemble one another, and even in terms of the practice of inserting lip plates, their motives and cultural context are more different than similar.
Because it may not be immediately obvious to all readers what is meant by the term lip plate, a brief description is necessary. When a lower-lip piercing of the kind known as a labret in the developed world is stretched over a period of years, the hole can reach wider than a hand-span across and thus it is no longer appropriate to wear a ring or other more common shapes of jewelry (Turton, 2004). At this size, the most viable jewelry is basically a cylinder that is very short in comparison with its diameter, perhaps flared on the top and bottom to help keep it in place in the piercing. The term lip plate can be presumed to have arisen because early anthropological researchers meeting with cultures wearing such jewelry thought the flat wood or clay cylinders resembled plates. In order to be able to wear these plates, members of a tribe using this practice are usually pierced with a small horizontal incision through the lower lip with a knife that is then subsequently plugged up with more rod-like jewelry (Turton, 2004). It is interesting that the initial piercing is a cut rather than a poked hole because one might think that putting the round plug in would distort the healing tissue too much, but apparently, this is not the case. Often, the first piercing takes place a couple of years before the predicted onset of pubescence so that by the time the tribal member is an adult, that person will have graduated to a proper lip plate (Turton, 2004). This is not entirely surprising, for even in Western culture, piercings can often be a rite of passage to adulthood, such as when teenage girls get their earlobes pierced. Given that both Kayapo and Mursi cultures share the same basic method of forming the piercing, however, there is also much that differs between the two cultural approaches.
The most immediately obvious facet of the differences between the Kayapo and the Mursi approaches to body modification in the form of lip plates is gender. Among the Mursi, lip plates are worn by women (Turton, 1993), whereas among the Kayapo, lip plates are worn by men (Posey, 2002). Even taken alone, this fact should suggest that both cultures have rather strict gender divisions, and indeed this is the case. However, the interactions of gender and culture with the traditions surrounding the lip plates elucidate much about the nature of the perceived differences between women and men in other cultures. Among the Kayapo, men are encouraged to be more vocal and verbal than women, and correspondingly, the lip plate is connected to the ideas of oration and formal authority (Posey, 2002). This seems to make a certain kind of sense—to equate large lips with powerful speaking abilities only seems natural, until one examines the Mursi attitudes toward the same topic. The Mursi do have similar gender-division ideals to those of the Kayapo, preferring women to speak little in mixed company, but amazingly, their attitudes toward the lip plate take the Kayapo people’s ideas and turn them on their heads. For the Mursi, a lip plate is a symbol of silence for women, constantly reminding her that while the plate is a symbol of beauty and femininity, that very womanliness comes at a price (Turton, 1993). Both cultures feel the metaphorical weight of the act of speaking through the physical weight of the lip plates, but depending on gender and culture, this significance can lead to two very different idealized behaviors for those with lip plates.
Indeed, weight becomes very relevant when it comes to a discussion of the actual materials used in the lip plates themselves and the cultural significance of the jewelry. The Kayapo use wood from local trees in the rainforest where they make their living, which has religious significance to them, relating to their connection with their natural surroundings (Posey, 2002). As wood is a relatively lightweight material, it can be inferred that it both enables the piercing to sit pointing at the upward angle seen in many photographs of the Kayapo people and permits long-term daily use of the plug. This means that Kayapo men with lip plates are likely simply much more comfortable on a day-to-day basis than Mursi women, who commonly wear clay plates, though wood is also used occasionally (Turton, 1993). Given this disparity in comfort level, it is noteworthy to reflect on the ways in which Western culture may not be alone in requiring women to undergo higher levels of regular discomfort for the sake of their appearances than men do. The Mursi lip plates also carry another interesting tie to femininity in that prior to firing, a new clay plate is often smoothed with a woman’s own breast milk if possible (Turton, 1993). Symbolically, this ties the jewelry less to natural surroundings than to the notion of childbirth and child-raising. In addition, whereas Kayapo men often pursue jewelry-making as a solitary endeavor (Posey, 2002), Mursi women make their clay plates in groups of women only (Turton, 1993). This, too, has parallels to Western notions of masculinity as being associated with individualism and femininity being related to the concept of community. Though of course care must be used to take cultural relativism into account, it is nevertheless interesting when modern Western culture, a subsistence-farming culture from Brazil, and a nomadic herding culture from Ethiopia all seem to share some common ideas of gender. Indeed, there is still more to this topic, for the display of one’s own body can often become a surprisingly gendered thing.
The differences between the way the Kayapo treat their lip-plate traditions and the way the Mursi treat theirs continue in the cultural ideas around the display of a lip piercing without any jewelry in it. Among the Kayapo, it seems the lip plates are rarely taken out except for cleaning, but that should a man choose to walk around with an empty hole, this would not be remarked upon (Posey, 2002). The fact that the jewelry is so lightweight probably contributes to the fact that the men never have much need to leave their lip plates out. By contrast, until contact with Western culture began early in the last century for the Mursi, they upheld a taboo against women being in the presence of men—other than a woman’s own husband—without their lip plates in (Turton, 1993). This is probably why jewelry-making became a communal activity with only women and children present, as it can easily be imagined that clay plates must break often, leaving a woman with nothing to wear until the new jewelry is completed. Given the heaviness of the plates, the taboo must cause women considerable discomfort, particularly during long ceremonies where there is no possibility of stepping aside for a moment of relief. Again, it is interesting to note the connections to Western culture, where women wear uncomfortable bras and there are taboos against strange men seeing women without anything covering their breasts. Perhaps some sort of environmental advantage could be posited in the Mursi practice of lip plate taboos, for in hotter climes, requiring women to be covered carries real consequences, so perhaps the pseudo-nudity of having an empty lip plate hole serves as a stand-in for the Mursi. However, this is a rather indefensible claim, all things considered. Of more interest are the ways in which the Mursi tie the lip plate to dependence for women.
As if things were not already difficult enough for Mursi women, there is one further indignity they often suffer that Kayapo men do now when getting the lip plate. The Mursi sometimes remove the lower two or four front teeth from girls either in preparation for the lip piercing or as part of the same procedure, and as with the incision, this is often carried out by a woman elder in the community (Turton, 1993). This is considered necessary to accommodate the large size of the plates, and it may well be so. However, the entire reason Mursi women push their bodies to such extreme limits, on average going far beyond Kayapo men, is due to the association with femininity and beauty (Turton, 1993). Apparently, the old idea that upon marrying, a Mursi woman’s bride price, given in terms of the number of cattle, will be determined upon the size of her lip plate is possibly a myth born of bad anthropology. Yet it is certainly the case that the lip plate is a symbol of beauty among the Mursi, and there have even been stories of fathers and older brothers pressuring a young Mursi woman—even in recent years—to stretch further so as to be more attractive (Turton, 2004). Were this cultural impetus not there, the need to remove Mursi women’s teeth would be greatly diminished. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible this necessity is viewed not as a detriment, but as a positive aspect of the lip plates to the Mursi.
In a way that does not apply to Kayapo men, lip plates can be seen as metaphorical shackles for Mursi women, though at the same time some young Mursi women to this day continue to choose to get the plate. It is a complex issue, and yet, the Mursi’s own story of how the lip plates originated is rooted in the idea of the ownership of women; supposedly, other tribes would be less likely to steal away Mursi women if they perceived them as “ugly” (Turton, 1993). The fact that this “ugly” feature later came to be seen as beautiful is remarkable in and of itself. However, given that the lip plate can require women to sacrifice some of their teeth and therefore some of their chewing ability, and given that the plate itself is so heavy as to deter rapid movement for fear of breakage, and given that women in the past have not been allowed to be free of the plate when among men, a sinister picture arises. Mursi women may have avoided slavery from outside tribes through using the lip plates, but perhaps it has come at the cost of making them literally less able to flee their own tribal groups. This aspect even persists into modern times.
Both the Kayapo and the Mursi face interesting choices about whether to continue wearing lip plates going forward. Many tribal people all over the world have already begun to abandon traditional body modification practices in order to better assimilate into what is perceived as the global modern culture. Marti (2011) discusses this very phenomenon in terms of tattooing. By contrast, the Mursi and the Kayapo have so far by and large opted to continue their practices. Even still, some Mursi women report feeling embarrassed to go to the market and mingle with other tribes wearing their lip plates, and in larger urban areas, some plastic surgeons even specialize in lip-plate reversal for women who are sick of being stereotyped as country-bred bumpkins (Turton, 2004). This brings the survival of the cultural tradition into question. The Kayapo, though, are relatively more isolated from neighboring groups and from modern Western culture, and so they seem relatively content to continue their practice (Posey, 2002). Indeed, it is interesting to question whether those who study anthropology ought to desire for these practices to continue to keep alive part of a culture. On the other side of the issue is the troubling reality that in these cultures, minors too young to consent are receiving body modification that is difficult to reverse.
Cultural relativism serves as the voice of caution in judging those who have lip plate traditions too harshly. In particular, it is interesting to put the lip plates of the Kayapo people and the Mursi people into a larger context of body modification. An excellent exploration of the motivations behind body modification worldwide exists in Carmen, Guitar, and Dillon (2012), who posit that tattoos and body piercings, in particular, may be forms of sexual display and carry evolutionary advantages. This is the type of information that is not so easily gained through interviews and participant observation, the typical forms in which data has been gathered on both the Kayapo and the Mursi. Even the very idea of participant observation itself is challenged by cultures with extreme body modification rituals, for this is something in which most anthropologists would not be willing to participate in the most literal sense—and even if they were willing, receiving such procedures as an adult is likely quite different from getting them as a child. Keeping in mind all the obstacles to good research, however, it is still remarkable how much the stories behind the lip plates of the Kayapo and the Mursi have to teach people.
The lip plates of both the Kayapo and the Mursi are far more than pieces of wood or clay. They are symbols of cultural significance, bringing in elements of gender, ties to the land, community, ritual, taboo, and challenges to living in the modern world. When viewed through the nonjudgmental lens of cultural relativism, the traditions around lip plates have much to show Westerners aside from the mere shock value of the piercings themselves. No matter how minute an aspect of another culture seems, when blown out and discussed in comparison to other, similar practices in other cultures, the cultural facet inevitably proves much more complex than was initially thought. Ultimately, the cure for the rampant alienation and outright racism that persist in the world today is to be willing to investigate another person’s reality in as much detail as is necessary, however long that takes. It is a message anathema to the sound-bite culture of the twenty-first century, but nevertheless, it is true.
Carmen, R. A., Guitar, A. E., & Dillon, H. M. (2012). Ultimate answers to proximate questions: The evolutionary motivations behind tattoos and body piercings in popular culture. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 134-143.
Marti, J. (2011). Tattoo, cultural heritage and globalization. The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies, 2(3), 1-10.
Posey, D. A. (2002). Kayapó ethnoecology and culture. London, UK: Routledge.
Turton, D. (1993). ‘We must teach them to be peaceful’: Mursi views on being human and being Mursi. Nomadic Peoples, 31, 19-33.
Turton, D. (2004). Lip‐plates and ‘the people who take photographs’: Uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists in southern Ethiopia. Anthropology Today, 20(3), 3-8.