Niche Beauty Practices From Around The World
Written by Petrina Danardatu
“How do you define beauty?”
The answer to this question would vary, depending on who you ask and where they come from. Whether we’re actively aware of it or not, whatever elements and qualities that constitute our ideas of beauty are influenced by the culture from which it arises. The following are examples of several niche beauty ideals you may or may not have heard of, and hopefully broaden and deepen your perception of the way beauty standards and ideals are contrived.
The Karen people are an ethnic group that inhabit parts of Thailand and Myanmar. The women who practice “neck-lengthening” are only one sub-group, called Padaung, of the Karen people. This practice involves wearing a collection of heavy brass rings around one’s neck to create the visual illusion of an elongated neck. In fact, the term neck-lengthening itself is misleading, as the practice doesn’t actually involve neck-stretching, but weighing the collar bone down which consequently compresses the space between the upper ribs. There are several hypotheses regarding the origins and motivations behind this practice. The Karen mythology suggests that it’s done to protect women from tiger bites. Another account suggests that it’s done so that women are made more unattractive to slave-traders. And the most common explanation is that a long neck is considered a symbol of wealth and great beauty, and therefore will attract a good husband.
The Mursi tribe of Ethiopia is widely known for the use of lip plates. The tribe is one of the last ethnic groups in Africa to still follow this practice. At the age of approximately 15-16 years old, a girl’s lip is cut by her mother or another woman of her village. A wooden plug holds the cut open for several months as the wound heals. Apparently it’s up to the girl how far her lip is stretched by progressively inserting longer plugs over a period of several months. One hypothesis suggests that lip stretching was originally put into practice to prevent slave-traders from taking their women, because they wouldn’t want women who appeared mutilated. Although this is the practice that they are best known for, the Mursi have a plethora of unique beauty ideals without a troubled history, such as decorating their heads with horns and flower crowns and their faces with intricate painting.
The Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia is home to the people of the Dassanech tribe, who fashion unique jewelry such as headdresses, necklaces, and earrings out of items such as discarded digital watches, old bottle tops, and sim cards. Along with traditional bead necklaces, the Dassanech also pair their upcycled jewelry with animal furs, specifically those from cheetahs and monkeys. They have begun to sell some of their pieces to tourists. A French photographer named Eric Lafforgue who took some images of the Dassanech’s jewelry for The Daily Mail, described this practice as, “...a way for [the Dassanech] to keep up with progress in modern technology they don’t have access to — by turning it into fashion.”
Many ethnic groups practice teeth sharpening. For the Afar tribe of Ethiopia, teeth chiseled into a sharp appearance are seen as a sign of beauty. Teeth sharpening is also practiced by the Makonde tribe of southeastern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Among the Makonde people, more and more women get their teeth sharpened in order to follow cultural beauty standards. In the Mesoamerican Mayan culture, teeth sharpening and even designs chiseled into teeth were once considered symbols of wealth and the upper class.
These beauty standards all hold special meaning to the cultures from which they originate. Beauty is such an abstract and multifaceted concept, though the idea still pervades almost all cultures and manifests in so many different ways. Beauty is often thought of a somewhat feminine pursuit, and we can see some beauty practices such as neck-lengthening and lip-stretching as exclusively feminine endeavors. However, I felt it was also nice to also recognize the beauty practices, like teeth-sharpening and upcycling, that involve both feminine-presenting and masculine-presenting people in those communities. True beauty transcends any construct of age, gender, ethnicity, or any other factor that ever appears to be a hindrance or barrier to it.
The most interesting concept I’ve come across in my research of these beauty practices is the link to colonization and slave-trading, such as the neck-lengthening of the Padaung women of Thailand and Myanmar, and the lip-stretching practices of the Mursi people in Ethiopia. These practices started as methods to overcome oppressors, and over time evolved to become known as beautiful. These practices became beautiful because they gave people the power to resist against those who were trying to quash them, to control them, to render them powerless. Though these beauty practices may seem unconventional, and some may struggle to see the beauty in their physical manifestation, perhaps then the fact that they are a bold and proud reminder of people’s ability to resist and triumph against oppressive powers can still be recognized and appreciated as beautiful by all.