Growing up in Western countries, we are often brought to believe in a somewhat narrow definition of beauty, and the media doesn’t really help much in broadening our minds.
In the Omo Valley of Southern Ethiopia, home to the Mursi people, local women are famous for the colourful clay plates they wear in their lower lips. Driving South from the capital, it took me a couple of days to reach their villages. I went together with Solomon Gezu Haileameriam, the local guide who’s behind ‘Go Ethiopia Tours’.
Visitors do not always get the chance to interact with locals, especially women, as they have become quite accustomed to travellers and their ways. Many would ask for money in exchange of a photo for example. But, luckily, as Solomon and the village chief were good friends, they welcomed us warmly. Also, I quickly came to realise that I was wearing the right outfit for the occasion, as women found my beaded t-shirt not only very pretty, but also valuable for barter! They came to me with jewellery, cloths and clay plates to start the negotiation process.
That created an instant connection between us. Indeed, beads are key elements in traditional Mursi culture as they are used for ceremonial purposes but also in everyday life as symbols of seduction. After the hype, we started talking about beauty. A woman told me that without her clay plate, she looked horrible and nobody would pay attention to her. “But you will see”, she added, “let me wear it now and I will be the most beautiful woman on earth!”. I asked her what she thought of me. Her answer was to offer me to pierce my lip to enhance my seduction skills as well as physical beauty!
At 10 years old, Mursi women pierce their ear lobes, and at 15, their lower lips. They can get very creative in their use of face and body paint, horns, beads, and scarification. The more “ornaments”, the prettier they feel and the more local men find them attractive. This is what makes them stand out in the region. Local women have the reputation of being true masters in the art of seduction! Unmarried women also use as many beauty symbols as they can to attract a potential husband. When they get married, the bride’s family receives many gifts, including 38 cows and a AK47 gun.
Meeting the Mursi women was a powerful experience. One that reminded me a simple yet very humane fact we tend to forget; beauty criteria are relative, so let’s all enjoy being beautiful!