Our Video of the Week, Nigerian Men Tattoo Their Lips Pink! got us thinking about perceptions of physical beauty. In it, we’re taken to a parlor in Lagos, Nigeria and see a man getting his lower lip colored in light pink. He barely flinches as the tattoo gun buzzes on his lips. According to the parlor owner, “We help out those with black lips, to clean their lips and make them pink”. The procedure can cost anywhere from $30 – $50, and is reportedly a growing trend among Nigerian men.
Our research into this apparent new tattoo trend led us to another video from west Africa. Senegalese women tattooing their gums black. During the 9-minute video we meet Marième who says: “I want black gums to obtain a more beautiful smile. It’s become an obsession”. Though Marième reveals she is somewhat fearful of the procedure, she believes she’ll be “ok”.
“It’s an old custom we took from our ancestors”, says an older woman in the video. The ancient tradition costs just over $1. Using a mixture of oil and shea butter that turns into a black paste, a woman uses her bare hands to coat Marième’s gums before seemingly pricking her inner mouth with a sharp object. At the point where it becomes hard to watch, Marième lets out a squeal, telling the woman: “Easy, you’re hurting me.” Within seconds, she’s crying. Her gums are bleeding. Her face is covered in black paste. In the next shot, she’s back home. She’s smiling, brightly, declaring “I don’t regret it now because I have beautiful gums.”
Altering (or modifying) your appearance is certainly not a new phenomenon, nor is it an African one. Last month Africa.com reported on the the increasing use of skin lighteners in “Not Happy Being Black?“. This has long since been practiced in other parts of the world, like India for example, where skin-whitening is a multi-million dollar industry.
There’s a string of less “mainstream” practices that have been practiced for generations, steeped more in tradition than being trendy. Like neck stretching, popular among the Maasai from Kenya, and also a common practice among the Paduang tribe of Burma. The belief is that the longer the neck, the more beautiful you are. More of an ear person? No problem. It’s called ear gauging. Commonly practiced by Mursi people in Ethiopia, and the Huaorami of the Amazon Basin. It’s part cultural, part vanity. Don’t we all just want to look beautiful?