In many societies around the world, being beautiful involves engaging in practices that cause physical pain and in some cases severe health consequences. That is, the endurance of pain is intimately connected with cultural standards of beauty.
In some Ethiopian communities, women are whipped with sticks until their backs bleed in a testament to their commitment to the men of their village; the scars they develop from getting their backs slashed open are considered beautiful and desirable.
In Myanmar and Thailand, female members of the Padaung tribe (so-called “giraffe women”) wear brass rings around their necks to make them appear longer. The rings are so tight that over time the clavicle becomes deformed which is what causes the appearance of a lengthened neck. At one point the tribal members claimed that the rings offered women protection from tiger attacks, but now that tigers are no longer a threat the practice still continues in the name of cultural beauty.
I can’t help but also notice the silencing symbolism in placing the coils around the throat, thereby restricting vocal cords.
The governments in these countries have attempted to outlaw and curtail these cultural practices, but with limited success. Tribal members have resisted these efforts, claiming that perpetuating these practices is a way to preserve their culture.
In defense of these practices, tribal members will invoke the concept of freedom: if women want to participate in these beauty rituals (and ostensibly, they do), then why is the government interfering with our right to carry out our own traditions? Importantly, women’s consent is critical to the perpetuation of such practices. Ethiopian women participating in the whipping ceremonies literally beg the men to whip them more, as the deeper the scars the more beautiful they become. Similarly, women in Myanmar and Thailand are proud of their coils and enjoy wearing them.
Of course, the extent to which this “consent” is the result of a free and informed decision is highly suspect. When a culture defines beauty—and therefore, womanhood– by the endurance of painful rituals like whipping and the neck coils, women must comply to be accepted in their societies. The consequences of abstaining, of deviating from deeply ingrained cultural norms, are often far too high.
In Myanmar at least, I’ve heard reports of younger generations of girls refusing to wear the neck coils, which may indicate progress on the horizon. But we cannot place the burden of stopping these harmful behaviors on women alone—men also need to push back against the idea that a woman must suffer pain in order to be considered beautiful.