In some cultures, a extraordinary long neck is seen as a symbol of beauty. In these cultures, the definition of a long neck is 10 to 15 inches. These mysterious women can be found in certain societies of Africa and Asia, practicing an ancient tradition that has been going on for thousands of years. How do these women’s necks achieve such startling lengths? The answer: neck rings.
A neck ring is a metal ring, typically brass, that is worn around an individual’s neck. Most of these tribes start with one ring on a young girl’s neck at the age of five and stack on more as they get older. The rings are actually an optical illusion. The actual vertebrae do not elongate, just the muscles. The rings are designed to push the collarbone and ribs down and then stretch the neck muscles several inches. This process takes several years to create the desired length.
The Padaung tribe of Burma has been practicing neck stretching for centuries. They are traditionally called Kayan women but many of the locals started calling them Padaung; a Shan term for “long-necked Karen hill tribe”. Not only was this done as a symbol of beauty but it also displayed how wealthy the family was. The more metal rings worn around the neck, the wealthier the family is. A woman could wear up to twenty pounds of rings on her neck once the desired length has been reached. Padaung women start wearing the rings when they are five years old and add more rings periodically until they are 20. At that point, she will be wearing approximately 23 rings that can weigh up to 15 pounds.
There are many theories as to how this tradition got started with the Padaung. One legend says that the tribe started putting coils around the girls’ necks so that they would be unattractive to slave traders. Another legend asserts that the tribe began this practice to keep their young safe from tiger bites. Many anthropologists believe that the coils are placed on the women to look more attractive sexually. The coils help the women’s necks appear drastically slimmer than her male counterparts. The Padaung women themselves say they do it to look beautiful.
Although this practiced is shunned by many in Burma, many women still practice this tradition of wearing the neck rings as a way to make money. The Padaung tribe has become a tourist attraction for people visiting Burma and Thailand. There is even an entrance fee before you can enter the village where the woman are making baskets and will pose for pictures. Local business men who oversee the tribes can charge 250B per person. Other tribes, such as the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front, have invited the Padaung tribe to live in their Kayah state in an effort to set up their own tourist villages. Many people, locals and tourists, find this exploitative and are calling for a stop to this practice.
The South African Ndebele tribe, part of the Nguni people, has also been wearing neck rings for centuries. In earlier times, the Ndebele women would start wearing the neck rings once she was married and her home was built. They called these rings iindzila and they were believed to have intense spiritual power. The husband’s liked their wives to wear many of these rings to show their tribe how wealthy they are. Traditionally, the rings were a sign of a woman’s bond with her husband and she would only remove them upon his death. Over time, many doctors started advising the women to remove the rings when they would go to the hospital for other issues. The difference between the Ndebele neck rings and the Padaung neck rings is that theirs are individual and does not put pressure on the collar bone. There are still Ndebele women who wear the neck rings, but it is no longer a common practice among the tribe.
Although there is no serious danger for the women who wear the neck rings, there are some risky complications that can occur. The woman wearing the neck rings for years may experience trauma or infection. Over time, the muscles begin to weaken due to the weight of the rings. If they are to be removed, it must be done carefully to give the neck muscles time to heal. A woman could actually choke on her own tongue or the weight of her head could collapse the neck due to the weakened neck muscles depending on how long she has been wearing them. The skin under the neck rings can also become infected if the rings are not properly washed. Doctors advise these women to go to a hospital to have them removed. After having the neck ring properly removed, it typically takes months for the neck to recover and the damage to the bone structure recovers only minimally. These traditions may seem bizarre to those outside of the world of the Padaung and Ndebele but, to those women, they are actually beautiful expressions of culture and tradition.