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African Lip Plugs - Lip Plates



These images depict African lip plugs, or labrets, which in some areas of Afrcia remain in fashion to this day. (above) A lip plate, also known as a lip plug or lip disc, requires body modification. The term labret (pronounced LAY-bret) denotes all kinds of pierced lip ornaments, including plates and plugs.





The  original purpose of lip plugs may  have been to deform, affording women a sort of protection against Arab slavers. However, David Livingstone asked a chief the reason for them and in surprise the chief answered; for beauty! They are the only beautiful things women have. Men have beards, women have none. What kind of person would she be without Pelele? She would not be a woman at all.





In Africa, a lower lip plate is usually combined with the excision of the two lower front teeth, sometimes four. Among the Sara people, (Lobi) a plate is also inserted into the upper lip (above).





Makonde Woman - Circa 1910



Other tribes such as the Makonde (above) wore a plate in the upper lip only. In many older sources it is reported that the plate's size is a sign of social or economical importance. However, because of natural mechanical attributes of human skin, it seems that the plate's size depends solely on the stage of stretching of the lip.






Sometime after birth, mothers would pierce a child’s lip with a thorn. The holes were enlarged with stalks of grass until they were about two centimeters in diameter and large enough to insert a plug. Increasingly larger discs were inserted into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip, or both, thereby stretching it. Lip tissue would elongate and conform to the shape of the implanted objects.




Makonde Woman - Circa 1910


A variety of materials were used in the manufacture of lip plugs, which included wood, ivory, clay, bone, shiny metal, shell and sometimes crystal. They could be found in round or trapezoid shapes of various sizes. There were carved rings, as well as simple balls fitted with a flat base which were inserted to the lower lip.






Depending on the tribe, both men and women wore lip plugs in East, Central and West Africa. Large sized plugs afforded greater status to the wearer. In southern Chad, lip plugs might exceed 6 inches.




Photograph by Casimir Zagourski - Between 1924 - 1941


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Omo girl - Ethiopia - by Eric Lafforgue



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Carol Kaufmann

The Natural History of Man - Africa - Woods - 1868




Click this thumb to visit our African Scarification page. (African Tattoo)





Visit our Scarification - Piercing - Stretching - Filing - Mutilation and Cranial Deformation pages.














Galerie Ezakwantu

Southern African Tribal Art - African Art 


Central and Southern African Tribal Art


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