Lip Plates and Labrets

Page history last edited by boselw@u.washington.edu 14 years, 4 months ago

Labrets: Lip Plates, Disks, and Pegs

Whitney Bosel





       •••••http://lissanonline.com/blog/?p=340•••••http://www.lars.dj/ethiopia/04%20surma%20mizan%20-%20kibish/F1010001.JPG •••••http://www.jefallbright.net/images/20050804a.gif•••••




Labret (pronounced LAY-bret) is the general term for lip plugs, plates, or disks.  An incision is made in the top or bottom (or both) lips, and something is used to keep the hole in place for a few weeks. Once this has healed the lip is stretched with successively larger accessories, be they clay plates, wooden pegs, or other instruments, until the desired shape and size is acheived.  People may work their entire lives gradually increasing the size of their labrets, or may stop after reaching a relatively modest diameter.


Labrets were a fairly common practice across Africa through the mid 20th century.  Today in Africa only the Mursi people in Ethiopia, the Nuba in Sudan, and the Lobi in West Africa continue to wear their lip disks, pegs or plates, as this form of body modification is a diminishing practice around the world.  It has been debated in the literature for what reason this practice started.  In the Mursi, by far the most famous or infamous group known to wear labrets today, it has been variously suggested that it is meant as an indication of a woman's status or wealth, the amount of cattle that she will be worth at marriage, and as a deterrance to those in the slave trade, with the first two reasons being predicated on the size of the plate.  However, according to David Turton who lived and worked among the Mursi for 30 years, none of these is the case, as marraiges are often arranged before the lip has ever been cut, and due to the simple fact that this is not the only group to practice this form of body modification. He argues that the reasons behind it therefore much be much more nuanced and rooted.




For more info, try these websites:

http://www.ezakwantu.com/Gallery%20Lip%20Plugs%20Lip%20Plate.htm  ••••• general info, but some neat older photographs you can look at.

http://www.mursi.org/life-cycle/lip-plates ••••• essentially a shorter version of the David Turton article referenced, a good overview of the Mursi tribe's labret practice

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Mz1vaTeUSY ••••• a bit of a BBC documentary, not necessarily accurate (see above), but interesting, as it allows you to see people speak about it themselves.


Comments (5)

Melissa GRan said

at 10:25 am on May 22, 2009

This is so fascinating Whitney! I wonder how daily life is affected by wearing such large labrets? Is eating a challenge? And how many women today still have them? I would assume it would be a difficult task to assimilate into a Western society if you had such a labret, so I would imagine few people would leave their tribe or the region. I wonder if their reasons for the labret are similar to the Haida women who wore labrets? Why is that just women have this body modification? So many questions!

kuersr@... said

at 11:54 am on Jun 3, 2009

Wow! Your assigned reading was so interesting! This might be a little embarassing to admit, but prior to your reading I had no idea that lip plates were achieved with an incision that was modified or gauged to become bigger over time. For some reason I thought that the lip was still "whole" and then slowly stretched over time. After doing your reading I googled Mursi Lip Plates and found some very riveting videos. I was able to watch Mursi women take out and then put back in their clay lip plates. They are such a large huge piercing when viewed with Western standards! I also found a video of an older woman drinking water with upper and lower lip plates. During the process her lower lip plate fell out...before continuing to drink she made sure to secure it back in place. So to attempt to answer Melissa's question about eating/drinking: I guess it applies to the idea of it is all what you are used to. It must become "normal" and after awhile w/o the plate is "un-normal" and hard to eat/drink! Fascinating! Thank you for teaching me this Whitney!

Mark Anthony said

at 5:31 pm on Jun 3, 2009

So, if it's a progressive stretch for their lips--I'm assuming they still have the nerves still intact that allow them to still 'feel' to the touch. It may be a 'stretch' to observe, but I'd like to know if there are generations of people of that specific culture who would rather opt out of getting such a procedure done on their lips, even at the cost of alienating themselves from it... or, is it easily carried out at a young age where they are somewhat ignorant of not knowing how to decide if they do not wish to share that part of the culture to keep their lips as they are.

Lauren Fejarang said

at 9:28 pm on Jun 4, 2009

OMG! I can't even imagine wearing that piece in my mouth and trying to go about my daily life. I know I would for sure get it stuck on something and then my lip would probably break! Ouch! I know you were a little rushed for you presentation but I thought it was very interesting that it is only practiced by women! Dang us girls can stand some pain for beauty! Just kidding, but I really thought it was great to see how they actually start the process. Great job!

tealeavz@u.washington.edu said

at 8:31 pm on Jun 5, 2009

I am simply amazed at how large some of these lip plates can be, and then I am amazed at how far the human lip can stretch! I cringe to think of what happens when it rips. I was very interested if it continues to hurt through out life, or if it is just the stretching process that is painful. I can't imagine having to live with one at all. This finally pounded into my head that notions of what makes one beautiful are very diverse, I'm definitely including the Mursi in my final paper.

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