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What is a Lip Plate?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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A lip plate is a piece of jewelry involved in a form of body modification which can be seen in both Africa and South America. Some people outside of cultures where they are traditionally worn may also practice this form of body modification, for aesthetic, religious, or cultural reasons. The modern primitive movement in the West is especially associated with the wearing of this jewelry among people in the developed world.

To wear a lip plate, someone must pierce his or her lip, and slowly stretch the hole. Classically, the piercing has been accomplished by cutting into the lip and inserting a small peg, and allowing the piercing to fully heal before installing a slightly larger peg. Stretching a lip to accommodate a plate can take time, as the goal is to take advantage of natural tissue elasticity to create a very large hole in the lip which can be filled with a plate made from clay, wood, or metal. Some plates take the form of hollow rings, depending on the culture.

The size of a lip plate can vary considerably. Some are relatively small, while others can approach the size of a dinner plate. Although a number of theories about the different sizes worn have been posited, the most likely explanation has to do with the individual elasticity of the wearer. Some people are capable of stretching their lips much more than others, and all people are forced to stop stretching at a certain point.

Lip plates can be worn in the upper, lower, or both lips. Both men and women have historically worn these plates, with many people crafting their own. African women in the Mursi tribe, a tribe famous for its lip plates, decorate their plates, turning them into complex works of art which are meant to reflect the personality of the owner. The Mursi are in fact so famous for their lip stretching that some people in the West refer to a lip plate as a Mursi.

Among tribal peoples, the lip plate is designed as a personal ornamentation, and sometimes it also has religious or social connotations. For example, Suri women historically started stretching for a lip plate at the time of marriage. In the Northern Hemisphere, people usually wear these plates because they find them aesthetically appealing, or because they want to identify with tribal peoples. Some people find this practice distasteful, either because of personal aesthetics or because they dislike cultural appropriation.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon999707 — On Feb 27, 2018

I guess kissing is out of the question.

By geekish — On Sep 18, 2011

@Speechie - From my own research, I have found little information about why else the lip plate came about besides beautification/aesthetic purposes.

Most men in the tribes where this is common in women primarily say that women didn’t have any distinguishable marks of beauty until the lip plate came about.

Also, the bigger plates idea may have come about to signify a higher economical/social status, although the bigger that one’s skin can stretch obviously has nothing to do with their economical /social status.

I have read one story about how they originally started out in Africa as a way to deform women. This deformation of women was actually done to protect them from slavers.

The one part of this tradition I am against is that in some cultures they seem to force children into doing this. They start with a thorn to pierce a child’s lip and then stretch it out with grass until a tube can be used. I think this is like forcing a child into sports or anything else. It is not right.

Children and adults should have the right to choose. If they are too little to understand the concept of choosing, they shouldn’t be given difficult choices like whether or not they want to have their skin pierced.

By Speechie — On Sep 17, 2011

Are there any other reasons that the lip plate idea came about besides beautification/aesthetic purposes?

By snickerish — On Sep 17, 2011

What amazes me more than the fact of how big people can stretch the skin around their lips is that the body/skin can actually handle all the stretching!

Beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder. In my opinion the more natural a person is, the more beautiful.

It is obvious that in other cultures the more natural a person is, the less attractive they are.

The bigger the lip plate is for these cultures, the more beautiful the person is. In our culture we have similar measures of beauty.

For example, most super models must be over a certain height, meaning that the taller one is the more beautiful and the shorter one is the less attractive.

One researcher points out that what may seem painful to a culture who does not understand and does not see this type of ornamentation much, whereas the people in that culture are seem to be excited and happy to take part in these traditions.

I was going to say that I am against it because it seems painful and is a form a self-mutilation. But as long as these people want to do it, and the pleasure obviously outweighs the pain. I say they should do what makes them happy and what makes them feel beautiful, within reason of course.

By cloudel — On Sep 16, 2011

I watched a documentary on tribes with lip plates. Men actually find women with lip plates more appealing than those without.

A certain chief told the reporter that beauty was the reason for having a lip plate. He said that without one, a female would not be a true woman. He also compared them to the beards of men, which I guess are considered appealing in their culture.

This just goes to show how beauty is definitely a matter of personal perspective. This tribe sees lip plates as a sign of beauty, while most other cultures gasp at how hideous they make the wearer appear.

By shell4life — On Sep 16, 2011

I wonder if tribal people who wear lip plates clean them often. I can see how a lip plate could serve as an invitation to bacteria. It’s basically like putting a plate outside and licking it the next day.

These cultures may not even be prone to frequent infections, now that I think about it. Their immune systems must be tougher than ours, because they live in harsher environments with less sanitary conditions than we do, and they have had time to expose their bodies to potentially dangerous microorganisms.

Still, it seems wrong to open and extend the area that naturally remains shut most of the time to protect you from germs. It just increases the chances of getting sick.

By SarahSon — On Sep 16, 2011

The first time I saw pictures of people wearing lip plates was when a missionary from Africa came to our church.

During his slide show presentation he showed several pictures of people with African lip plates. Although this is something that is hard for me to understand, I am sure we have several traditions that seem very strange to them as well.

It is easy for me to say I am glad I don't have to do something like that, but if that is all you have ever known, you probably wouldn't think much about it.

By bagley79 — On Sep 15, 2011

While I have never personally seen a woman with a lip plate, I have seen pictures of lip plates of Suri women. I was surprised at how large a lot of them were and can't imagine what this must feel like.

For these women, this is something that is normal for them because this has been their custom and tradition for many years.

I find it interesting that they have taken this custom and found a way to personalize it and make it unique to their personality.

By candyquilt — On Sep 15, 2011

I have read some comments across the net about how wearing lip plates is an uncivilized, or a barbaric practice.

I don't agree with this stand at all because this is a cultural tradition and many of these groups live far away from urban centers and only interact with their own group members.

I agree that this is a different type of practice and it will seem odd to us as we've never encountered it before. But I respect this tradition because it has a long history and it's part of these tribes' identity. There is nothing more natural than them wanting to continue it and protect it.

By burcinc — On Sep 14, 2011

@alisha-- Each culture and group which has a tradition of wearing lip plates are different. I think in some South American tribes, men wear them as well as women. In Africa though, it's more common for women to wear them.

I know about the Mursi tribe in Africa and there, only women wear them and they start doing it when they are nearing the marriage age. It's said to be pretty painful in the beginning since the lip has to be cut first. I'm sure there is also pain when it is then slowly stretched over a long period of time.

I don't know if anyone would be forced to wear a lip plate, but I think all young women in the Mursi tribe choose to because the lip plate is also a ticket to a nice dowry and marriage. The larger the unmarried girl's lip plate, the more dowry she will receive in marriage.

And no, they don't have to wear it all the time. They can remove it and go without it whenever they want. But it's nice for them to have it on if they are going out in public or if they are with their husbands because after a while, the lips do not look good without the plate. It is very loose and dangles and doesn't look very attractive.

By discographer — On Sep 14, 2011

I've seen images of lip plates and some of them are unbelievable because of the size of the plates which are so large.

Aside from aesthetics, I'm curious how individuals who choose to wear these plates function with them. In the images, it looks like it would be difficult to eat and even talk with them. I think it's probably painful too.

Do African and South American tribes and groups have the choice of wearing them, or are all individuals required to wear one after a certain age?

And can they take them off at certain times or does it stay on all the time and for the rest of their lives?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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