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Pain, Choices and Lip Plates

During my first year of Uni, I went and got a nose piercing. One day my friend and I just up and went to the jewelers to get pierced. I told myself that this was a step to conquering one of my biggest crippling fears: needles.

There was also a hidden pro to this that I was looking forward to, but I wasn’t really telling anyone, that of looking interesting. When my more conservative friends asked me why I was doing it, I didn’t have the heart to say that I just wanted to look interesting. I tried to make it look like it was some profound move that I was making because I was such a liberal.

And the piercing did help with my fear of needles. In addition to the two piercings mom got for me when I was a baby, I now have two more on my earlobes that I got by choice. And I love them. Because now I only have a mild fear of needles.

I kept the nose piercing for two or three months though. My family wasn’t too happy with it. But that wasn’t what bothered me. I have an insanely strong nose cartilage, so it was very painful. The fact that my plan to look interesting worked didn’t really make me as happy as I’d hoped. Strangers stared at my nose a lot and the idea that they might assume I was something extraordinary just because I had an extra hole in my nose kind of made me feel like a fake. So, I took it out and let it heal.

I don’t really regret having done it. It was one thing I did with myself that allowed me to see certain things about life differently.  It was like Robert Ford’s idea in Westworld that some amount of suffering is always necessary to evolve. (use the term evolve loosely)

Yesterday, I was watching the most recent video from one of my favorite Youtube channels, Make Stuff, and it was about Black Panther and the importance of representation. The hype over Black Panther still hasn’t died, and I can’t get over all the layers that we are peeling and analyzing. My verdict is that we, my community of new age Ethiopian young adults, are super drawn to it not because we understand the African American struggle or because we have seen our tribal kings fighting for thrones but because we saw something of ours in the western cinema we enjoy a little too much. It’s because of the representation.

Well, at least that’s part of the case for me.

The representation of Mursi and Suri tribes was very memorable and perhaps a little misplaced in Black Panther, but it’s not unjustifiable. I remember seeing the man in green with the lip-plate in the trailer and that single idea had made my urgency to see the movie greater. Then earlier this month I saw on social media how one Ethiopian photographer had done a photo shoot of a model with the Suri tribe plates done with prosthetic and make up after Black Panther’s mainstream success in Ethiopia. It was nice art. It was probably not meant for harm. But I did not like it.

I remember being taught in grade school about harmful traditions. There was female genital mutilation, there was child marriage, abduction, making children swallow butter, and there was the southern tribal body marking and lip cutting. There’s also one I learned of most recently called Wuqera aka Neqesat aka tattooing. The person who brought the idea of Wuqera to my attention was doing a photography piece on the subject as a dying fashion trend. We’d talked about how women and sometimes even men did the Wuqera/Neqesat because they said it would make the women shorter, because they were under the impression that it would cure goiter (which has no medical support) or because it’s a beauty thing much like any modern tattoo today. It’s been deemed illegal in Ethiopia now because many were using shared needles thereby spreading disease. The women (and sometimes men) who have this neqesat are very ashamed of it when they mix with the urban crowd because there’s a stereotype around rural people being somehow “uncool” and the neqesat is basically like a permanent invitation for such stigma. I personally think it’s beautiful in some strange way but I wouldn’t do it for myself and I wouldn’t be happy if people I cared about wanted to do it because of the societal complications it brings.

Similarly, I’d wanted to talk about how the lip cutting was getting some weird appreciative attention by the avatars in my Facebook feed and I started to wonder if all these people knew that it was actually a harmful tradition and for the first time I kind of started to understand why cultural appropriation is a thing.

We people like macabre things because they appear interesting and edgy but I kinda felt like the lip cutting thing was a bit far, a bit too real.

Apparently there is a legend that the Suri women cut their lips to appear unappealing to slavers. No slaver wants a mutilated slave. I imagine they would want to do the mutilating themselves. I can not attest that this “legend” is in anyway true. I heard it from a colleague and then I found a BBC documentary that said the same thing. The Suri women are required to have a few of their lower front teeth removed and then the bottom lip would be cut and stretched out with a clay plate. A woman without her lips cut would not be considered beautiful so she won’t find a husband. The size of the plate in her lip will decide how much she is worth. The larger the plate, the greater the number of cows her father gets in exchange for her.

I brought this up to a couple of my colleagues yesterday and one of my colleagues pointed out to me the idea that the lip cutting holds a significant idea to the Suri people and that I don’t have any right to tell the Suri women that they can not cut their lips and put plates in them to find husbands.

The thing is, I will have a loud opinion if my friend changed her lipstick to attract a man let alone if an entire tribe of people was brainwashed into body mutilation to be socially accepted and be considered equal. This is an insanely gruesome, unfair beauty standard. For someone who complains about unfair beauty standards when she has to wear heels to a wedding or when the sauna becomes a little too hot, I can’t not be uncomfortable about this representation, when this particular harmful tradition is normalized.

Beauty is pain, they say. I think we, people, have always used pain to show and symbolize many things in our lives. Ethiopian monks whip themselves and inflict pain on themselves to show their love for Jesus Christ, I hear that the low hanging pants and giant gold chains for African Americans represent the break from slavery (although I am not sure about this one), we make music to remember pain, we make art and hang it on our walls, we tattoo it on out bodies to remember that without it we might not have made it today because so many of us believe that The Fault in Our Stars quote that without pain we can not know joy. We make a point of remembering pain as a big part of our lives.

I think this was what the aforementioned colleague meant. That the Suri tribe women keep the tradition to remember how they fought the slavers back then, but I don’t know if that is what they believe now or if it should still be relevant today. And while I don’t really get to tell people what they get to do to live their lives, I think I recognize that for a long time these women did not have the choice to not be mutilated.

We can mention a lot of pretend choices we have. Society has always been driven by the majority, or whoever’s feeding the majority ideas, setting the rules and anyone who wants to stray from those rules being considered the peculiar one.

I can’t really create a cause right here, right now to fight for how these people should shun their traditions and live like me. But I don’t think they should have to physically harm themselves to be considered equal in their community. They should get to have the choice I have on whether they get to cut their bodies or not.

If the alternative is being shunned from your society and dying a spinster, it’s not really a fair concept of choice.

P.S About the Feature Image:
“An Australian film crew was filming in southern Ethiopia when they stumbled upon Ataye Eligidagne, 20, who dons the largest lip disc in the world.” From a Publishing written by Nelson Groom for Daily Mail Australia in October 9, 2014