Africa's extreme body 'fixes'; from breast ironing, pink lips for Nigerian men, and fat boost in Mauritania

Force-feeding and gum tattoos anyone? And, two centuries back, some modifications were to make Africans unappealing to slave traders.

A FEW days go Britain’s most tattooed man, Mathew Whelan, pushed the limits when he had a 3D silicone skull implanted in his chest after a three-hour operation. The Brit paid almost $600 for the cosmetic surgery, and admitted that the procedure was painful. A silicone-filled ball, sporting a raised skull motif, was pushed into his chest - and in time, flesh is expected to tighten round the lump, giving the impression of a head pushing through his skin.

Whelan might be on another planet, but in societies all over the world women and men have practiced body modification for generations. And so it is in Africa too,  where culturally-sanctioned body modifications have been happening for centuries.

The recipients sometimes didn’t have a choice. The modifications were forced on them, but lately things have started going the Whelan way as Africans freely choose their modifications.

There are now more body modifications that are happening to adapt to shifting beauty perceptions, modern situations and, intriguingly, a  form of protection. 

Women and men’s lips

Tattooing is an ancient form of body modification whereby ink is inserted into skin to change the pigment colour. Whilst people in several parts of the the world use cosmetic tattooing as an alternative to applying make-up every day, in a few African countries cosmetic tattooing has gone a step further. In Nigeria, some men have taken to tattooing their lips pink. As seen in this video, this new Nigerian fashion trend involves young men having their lower lip “tattooed” with a pink paint so that their lips are no longer a shade of black, but instead - a shade of pink. The reason behind the unusual $30 procedure seems to be that they think  women find men with pinker lips more attractive.

In Senegal women are tattooing an even more unlikely body part – their gums. While it may sound extreme to most, women there have been doing it for decades and inherited the custom from their ancestors in the belief that it would help women attract men. 

This painful procedure, as the video shows, can be done in the comforts of a person’s home for as little as a dollar and consists of needles being jabbed into a person’s gums with a combination of black powder, made of burnt oil and shea butter.  A similar “beauty procedure” happens in Ethiopia. The gums of young children are routinely darkened at a very young age, using a technique of abrasion and then rubbing soot or herbs into the tissue.

The anti-beauty ‘trick’

For many women the darkening of the gums was an additional way to enhance their smile in order to attract a good suitor, but in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) women have started to modify their teeth in order to achieve that “winning” smile. It is reported that today young Goma girls have turned to dental aesthetics in the form of teeth filing to achieve create gap between their two front teeth. 

The popular trend may not improve their ability to chew, but many of these girls they are willing to go to traditional dentists with shoddy equipment to get that diastema smile!

Most of Africa’s body modifications are aimed at attracting attention as a beauty procedure, however there is one that stands out for being the most shocking anti-beauty technique.

In Cameroon one in four girls have suffered a practice known as “breast ironing”. Breast ironing is the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl’s breasts, using hard or carefully heated objects (such as grinding stones), to try to make them stop developing or disappear. It is mostly practiced in parts of Cameroon, where boys and men typically associate breath growth with sexual maturity. The process is carried out by a girls’ mother or relatives in a bid to protect the girl from sexual harassment and rape, to prevent early pregnancy or to allow the girl to pursue education rather than be forced into early marriage. It is mostly practiced in parts of Cameroon, where boys and men may think that girls whose breasts have begun to grow are ready for sex.  

Gunning for fat in Mauritania

In Mauritania the situation is quite different. Here mothers are eagerly force-feeding their daughters so that they put on weight as a sign of beauty and maturity. Obesity is so revered as a sign of health and wealth among Mauritania’s white Moor Arab population that many young girls achieve a weight that  the government has described as “life-threatening”.  

The practice of gavage, or “fattening up” traditionally includes drinking camel’s milk in a nomadic camp and eating large quantities of goat meat, bread and couscous. Some girls are expected to eat up to 15,000 calories a day – the normal consumption on average for a woman would be 2,000. For the modern-day working Mauritanian woman however the traditional form of gavage is too time-consuming, and they have taken to appetite-inducing pills as a way to pack on the pounds.

A generation ago, over a third of women Mauritania were force-fed as children – today the fattening up is still popular and Mauritania is one of the few African countries where, on average, girls receive more food than boys.

These drastic body modifications may be shocking, but they are nothing new on the continent. Cultural body modifications have taken the form of extensive physical alteration in the past. Lower lip plates that stretch a big hole in a person’s bottom lip so that it would fit over a clay disk – this was popular amongst some Ethiopian and Sudanese ethnic groups. 

In the case of the Mursi women of Ethiopia, it was believed that the plate would stop slave traders taking the women. Scarification was, and continues to be, highly popular across the continent. In South Sudan the men of the Dinka scar their faces with three parallel lines across the forehead in a rugged display of courage. 

Also popular across the continent, from Mali to Tanzania, was human tooth sharpening, a process of initiation for some whilst for others it was simply a beautification procedure.

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