To an average white Westerner, generically ignorant about the history and traditions of indigenous peoples all over the world (I speak only, of course, for myself), the lip plates worn by some African people—and a few indigenous peoples in other parts of the world—are the epitomizing symbol of a primitive, alien culture. This particular body modification, in which the lower lip is sometimes stretched to 20 cm in diameter, seems impractical, extreme, perhaps even horrifying.
But if we set aside our cultural biases and examine the practice objectively, we must ask: is it any more bizarre than, say, plastic surgery—subjecting oneself to an invasive medical procedure and risking the complications associated with anesthesia and infection for the sake of better conformity to ideals of beauty? Or tattoos—using dozens of tiny needles to painfully inject ink deep into the dermis? Practices that, yes, we might be judgmental about, but we don’t look upon as particularly extreme, and certainly not as primitive? Indeed, Shauna LaTosky, an anthropologist who lived among the Mursi people for several months, compares their tradition of lip-stretching to her own choice to wear painful three-inch stiletto heels to dance competitions (LaTosky 384).
LaTosky interviewed Mursi women—the only gender in that culture which wears lip plates—about their own feelings about the practice and found a range of attitudes that, in hindsight, should be unsurprising. Many of the women considered their lip plates to be a source of pride, and when wearing them, believed that they walked with a more upright bearing and felt more confident in public and around the men in their lives (388). But other women, particularly some younger women, worried that foreigners would stare at or mock them (391-2). For similar reasons, some young men also expressed a preference for women who had chosen not to stretch their lips (396). And the local government, which had been backed by the USSR for a couple of decades, had repeatedly threatened to ban the practice and considered it “uncivilised” and backward (396-7).
The film Black Panther prominently features a man—credited as “River Tribe elder” and presumed by some audiences to be Nakia’s father—wearing a moderately-sized plate in his lower lip, as well as a pair of plates in his stretched earlobes. The plates are always fashionably color-coordinated with his clothing, both during T’Challa’s coronation, when he wears traditional attire, and during a meeting of the elders, at which he wears a bright green Western-cut suit. Among the scenes of street life in the Wakandan capitol, we also see a young man wearing a lip plate, showing off some futuristic Wakandan tech to his friends, who are not wearing lip plates.
In Wakanda the lip plates are clearly unremarkable—no more attention-grabbing than a nice pair of stilettos.
Wakanda is meant to represent Africa in its purest form, unbothered by colonization, the slave trade, or Western influence of any kind. One might imagine that a culture free to evolve without the pressure of Western judgments about what is fashionable and attractive—that is uninfluenced by and, frankly, uninterested in Western ideals of beauty—would not feel the need to abandon its time-honored dress in the way that even a highly traditional tribe like the Mursi feel now.
By presenting these lip plates as ordinary accessories, worn by a respected and fashionable person in a highly modern world, without comment, Black Panther throws our Western assumptions about beauty and fashion back in our faces. It points out, blatantly, that beauty is cultural, that the West does not have a monopoly on determining what is attractive or fashionable, that there is nothing inherently primitive or uncultured about traditional African accoutrements like lip plates.
Quite the contrary. The entire film is a celebration of both past and future Africa—a love letter to the religions, fashions, and even languages of pre-colonialist Africa and a statement about their intrinsic value. It makes the bold claim that Africa has a great deal to offer the world besides its natural resources: mythologies that the West can learn from, brain power that can help move the entire planet into the 21st century, and, yes, fashions that can add color and flavor to the monochromacy of Western trends.
LaTosky, Shauna. “Reflections on the lip-plates of Mursi women as a source of stigma and self-esteem.” The Perils of Face: Essays on Cultural Contact, Respect and Self-Esteem in Southern Ethiopia, edited by Ivo Strecker and Jean Lydall, LIT Verlag, 2006, pp. 382-97. Mursi Online, Oxford Department of International Development, 2013, http://www.mursi.org/introducing-the-mursi/pdf/latosky.pdf/view/.