Several theories as to why lip plates are worn have been passed around. Some suggest that plate size refers to the bride price paid for each woman, while others believe that the practice of body mutilation was performed to deter slave traders. The strongest argument, and that which receives most agreement from the Mursi themselves, is the plates’ signification of fertility and womanhood; regardless of dimensions, wearing a lip plate in your teenage years defines a young woman as fertile and ready for marriage. Once the bearer is married, the plates remind her both of her ties to her culture and to her husband; if a husband dies, the plate must be thrown away. It’s also suggested that the Mursi relate the holes in their lips to almost every aspect of their lives: the health of their cattle, the availability of water, the fate of their children, and so on.
The Mursi’s fame as one of the few tribes in Africa, and perhaps the world, that still wear large lip plates as a common practice is known across the world. Tourists flood here to photograph the women, who have gained a fearsome reputation for their often aggressive manner. Women make clay plates to sell, and demand money for their photos to be taken, using the cash to buy grain, salt, goat skins for skirts, and arake – an alcoholic drink.