‘Lip plates’, or ‘lip disks’, have been worn for centuries in communities across Africa and South America, and by Inuit tribes in northern Canada. Although most commonly worn by women, in some societies it’s been customary for men to wear such plates, sometimes in both their top and bottom lips. For many, this practice had ceased by the 20th century and, today, the tribal groups of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, in the southwest of the country, are thought to be some of the few people on the planet to still practice this art.
Amongst the cattle herders and cultivators that call the Omo National Park home, the Mursi people are best known for their dinner plate-sized lip disks, worn by women from their teenage years. The Mursi live in the lower stretch of the Omo Valley, 1,840 kilometres from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. It’s estimated that there are less than 10,000 people in the Mursi tribe today.
To mark the change of identity from girl to woman, teenagers as young as 13 choose to begin the process of stretching their lower lips. They start by cutting a centimetre-long incision in their lower lip, which they plug with a wooden peg – a sensitive process which, unsurprisingly, can cause the girls significant pain. A few weeks later, when the initial wound has healed, the peg is replaced with a larger one, and the stretching process starts to take shape as the gap is plugged with increasingly bigger pegs.