Fantastic silent footage from a 1924 documentary of Sara Kaba women with large lip plates, village of Kyabe, Chad, Africa.
Prior to the French government banning of lip plates (circa 1930), the women of the Sara Kaba tribe started early in life with their beauty regimen. Both upper and lower lips of young girls (ages 6 - 8 years old) were pierced with a sharp thorn by their future husbands (usually a young man of 13 - 17 years old). Upon piercing, the lips were outfitted with narrow stalks of straw. After healing (in about a month), small wooden plugs were inserted into the holes. Over many months and years, the plugs were gradually increased in size until they took on the dimensions of moderate-sized discs.
Around this time (age 12 - 13), the discs were temporarily removed and tooth modification commenced. The front four upper teeth were filed down to sharp triangular points and the front four lower teeth were permanently knocked out, usually with a chisel and hammer made from stone (no doubt, a painful ordeal). This was done in the name of form and function. Not only did a Sara girl's mouth look beautiful (sharpened and removed teeth, plus lip discs), but the upper sharpened teeth helped to hold the upper lip disc firmly projected out at a ninety degree angle to the face and the removal of the lower teeth helped to hold the lower lip disc in place, also projecting straight out (not hanging down).
Girls continued to increase the size of their lip discs, which eventually became large plates. Typical dimensions were 6 - 10 cm for upper lip plates and 12 - 24 cm for lower lip plates. In extreme cases lip plates could measure as large as 30 cm (upper) and 50 cm (lower). Plates were usually provided by a woman's husband, who was interested in the continuing enhancement of his wives' beauty (yes, most husbands married more than one wife). For younger girls, plates were also exchanged at "plate trading parties," where older girls would pass down their plates to sisters and friends trying to make themselves more beautiful.
In addition to lip plates and tooth modification, Sara women further enhanced their beauty with facial and sometimes bodily scarification. Rows of scars were cut into a woman's forehead and the sides of her face. Many also pierced their ear lobes and the rims of their ears with multiple metal earrings (typically 10 or so per ear). A smartly dressed Sara debutant (sporting lip plates, scars, earrings, necklaces and bracelets), wore little to no clothing, except for the occasional modesty apron, covering only her genitalia, which was made from a small piece of leather or leaves.
Much to the contrary of theories put forth by "armchair anthropologists," news-reel narrators and some western explorers, there is little actual data to support that lip plates were adopted to ward off slave traders. Archeological evidence shows that lip plates, discs and plugs have been around for thousands of years. According to interviews with Sara tribal leaders, lip plates were a mark of beauty and a right-of-passage into womanhood ("...men have beards, women have none. What kind of person would she be without a pelele [lip plate]?"). Lip plates were also considered part of a rich tribal belief system, which may have explained what the Sara thought to be the origin of lip plates (given by the gods, etc.). In early documentation, Sara men and women described intimate details, where a Sara wife would rest her lip plates on the back of her husband as they slept, in a sign of affection and devotion.
Eating, drinking and talking were not as difficult for Sara women as one might believe. A Sara women would eat by placing small pieces of food in her mouth. As far as drinking, this video is worth 1,000 words. Even though many explorers described a Sara woman's speech as impossible to understand, the fact is, they spoke clearly. Certain sounds may have been difficult (Ps, Ms, etc.), but Sara women communicated verbally with skill and poise. Women were said to use their lip plates as sounding boards, helping to amplify speech as well as use them to add emphasis by clacking their plates together between selected words. The only reason early explorers may have thought that Sara women mumbled is that those explorers were prejudiced and could not speak local dialects.
Lip plates were worn at all times and were never removed in the presence of men (except their husbands in private). They were occasionally removed for cleaning or replacing with larger plates. As can be seen in this video, a Sara women removes both her plates for the camera (a rare sight indeed). As a mature woman, her filed upper teeth have long since been worn away by her plates, showing a wide and toothless smile. Beauty has many forms. For Sara men (and many others) lip plates are beautiful!
Dedicated to my friend Pierre. Clack clack. : -oO