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Padaung Ring Neck Stretchers
A small group of women belonging to the Karen tribe are willing to stick their necks out and defend their tradition despite the fact that their bodily modification has caused heated debates and outcries of disapproval.
They are what the rest of the world refer to as the "giraffe ladies" or the "long necks". They practice the art of "neck stretching". I am not referring to part of a daily exercise routine where you stretch your neck muscles for a minute or to in order to relax. The Karen Padaung neck stretching involves permanent bodily modification which takes years to accomplish
Young Karen woman of the Paduang trip living in a village near Chiang Mai, Thailand
How Padaung Neck Stretching is Accomplished
Neck stretching begins when a Padaung girl reaches the age of six. Initially little girls will be made to wear a single coil of heavy brass around their neck. Over the following years extra coils are added at intervals that could be anything from weeks to months.
This will continue over a couple of years until a limit of 20 rings have been added although there are reports of some women who wear as much as 25 coils but this is more the exception. The weight of the coils will eventually place sufficient pressure on the collarbone to cause it to deform and create an impression of a longer neck.
Young Padaung Girl
Origin of the Tradition
There are many diverse explanations as to the origin of this tradition the most rational being for its aesthetic value. The beauty and grace of a long neck is exemplified by the addition of heavy golden jewelry depicting both wealth and beauty.
Other explanations include to protect the ladies from evil spirits and another rumor is to disfigure them so that other tribes will find them unattractive.
I think I'll stick to the first and most obvious explanation.
Despite the fact that the elongated
neck is illusionary it certainly is convincing and to outsiders gives the women an abnormal
appearance. It is for obvious reasons that they are
referred to as the "giraffe ladies"
Other Traditions of the Padaung Women
Much less publicized is the tradition among the Padaung women to wear carved elephant tusks in their ears to indicate that they are married. When a Padaung women gets married her ears are pierced and a piece of elephant tusk is inserted into her earlobes. The first pieces are reasonably small, ranging between one and four centimeters in length.
The earlobes are eventually weighed down by the pieces of elephant tusk
and as they stretch larger pieces of tusk are inserted into the lobes
until the women's earlobes become elongated and floppy. This tradition
is restricted to married woman and unmarried woman may not wear any ear
The Padaung women also wear metal coils on the calves of their legs and this practice is followed by both young and older women.
Why Padaung Women get Negative Reactions
There are several factors that have given rise to the negative
reactions and outrage that the art of neck stretching among the Padaung
women have received in recent years. The fact that the protesters are
not equipped to decipher truth from myth was probably partly to blame.
Their concern was triggered by the fact that a rumor was spread that should a Padaung woman be disloyal or offend her tribe her neck rings would be removed and that this could cause her to choke to death as a result of her crippled respiratory muscular structure.
These women however do not choke and die when they remove their neck rings. (Just as well as they remove them for their first wedding night). In reality they very rarely appear in public without their neck rings but they do remove and replace the coils with new sets if and when necessary. On occasion some of the women remove the coils to make adjustments to the jewelry adorning the coils.
It is not surprising that the Padaung women will never appear in public without their neck rings. The skin beneath the coils is bruised and the collarbone disfigured - definitely not something any woman would want to flaunt to the public.
Women who have worn neck rings for up to forty years report that they only suffer discomfort for a maximum of three days when they decide to remove the coils permanently.
What Does the Future Hold For Padaung Neck Stretching Traditions?
For obvious reasons these women have now become a major tourist
attraction and people travel miles to come and gawk at these "giraffe
ladies". As a result of this disrespect for their privacy some members
of the tribe removed their neck rings in 2006 in protest against their
exploitation and the fact that the tourists were making a mockery of
their culture and traditions. The increased contact with Westerners
influenced a number of the women to leave the tribe and further their
After these drastic changes took place many of the other women followed suit. Most of the remaining Padaung women no longer wear their neck rings nor do they initiate the process on their daughters.
The few remaining Padaung women who do still practice this ancient tradition constantly bear the brunt of their loyalty to their culture. They are criticized for their willingness to be exploited, their exploitation of themselves and the tourists, and the destruction of their bodies.
They do not seem too perturbed as they
move slowly around the villages and stop to pose for tourist photos.
There is almost a market atmosphere and the locals sell bracelets and
other trinkets to the many tourists that flock to see these "Freaks".
As an outsider the question I cannot help but ask is whether the Padaung women's neck stretching is any different to body piercing, tattooing and other body modifications that the Westerners accept with such ease.
To my mind the only significant difference is that the one
is a tradition and the other either a fad or a cult.
I think I'll stick my neck out for the neck stretching ladies and say they deserve to be left to follow their tradition if they so wish without the intrusion of "gawkers"
Excellent National Geographic Video
What Do You Think?
Should the Padaung Neck Stretchers be Left To Do Their Thing or Should the Authorities Intervene?
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