The Mursi people is one of the last groups in Africa among which it is still customary, among women only, to wear labial plates that can greatly enlarge the diameter of the lower and upper lip. The shape of the deformed lip has become the main distinguishing feature of the Mursi, making it one of the most interesting anthropological singularities of Ethiopia.
To obtain this aesthetic change, a girl’s lower lip is cut by her mother or another woman in the village when she is about 15 or 16 years old. The wound is kept open with a wooden cap until complete healing, which takes up to 3 months. Is then the girl that chooses the size of the “final” plaque, passing through progressive steps that slowly widen the circumference of the hole.
Although it is not known precisely how this custom was born, one of the theories is that the labial plate as an intentional disfigurement designed to make girls less attractive to slave traders. To date, many anthropologists have described how the size of the plate is also an indication of the social importance of the person wearing it, and consequently of her wealth within the tribe.
Other observers have certified that a larger plate corresponds to a greater dowry on the wedding day, confirming the hypotheses on wealth related to the dimension of aesthetic mutilation. The dowry theory, however, is disavowed by other researchers, who state that this is decided long before marriage and mutilation, and therefore is in no way to be associated with the size of the bride’s lip.
What seems everybody agrees is that the practice is a sign of social maturity and of the reached reproductive age, thus indicating the suitability of a girl in becoming a wife.
Besides the Mursi people, who apply the labial disk only to women, there are different peoples who use this aesthetic change of their face. There are the Sara, in Chad, and the Makonde between the states of Tanzania and Mozambique and then the Mobals, in the Congo, where the Belgian domination forced the local populations to whatever expediency to seek survival.