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Body Modification in the Mursi Culture

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Body modification is a practice employed in cultures across the globe as an identifying characteristic of the culture to which an individual belongs. As the world is becoming more interconnected through globalization, the reasons for practicing body modification are impacted. This essay will seek to analyze how the Mursi practice of wearing lip-plates has been influenced through increased globalization and the resulting growth of tourism. Through this analysis of Mursi culture, the implications of globalization on body modification will be explored. 

Final Project: Body Modification in the Mursi Culture

Body modification is a widely practiced belief in cultures around the world. The Mursi are a cultural group located in Ethiopia consisting of around 10,000 members whose women continue to wear lip-plates as an identifying characteristic of the culture to which they belong. (Turton, 2004:3). Even as globalization has introduced newer standards of beauty from around the world, which has caused many cultures to forego traditional practices, the Mursi women still choose to celebrate their cultural heritage through wearing a lip-plate. This choice to continue tradition represents that even in the face of globalization, cultures are resisting change and holding onto their cultural practices.

At the same time, the Mursi exemplify that cultures are ever-changing and fluid. What began as a celebration of one’s traditions and heritage, has become a way to also grow the economy and make money. The Mursi have realized that their practice of wearing lip-plates as a way to signify womanhood also bring tourism, and with tourism comes money. The Mursi have shown how a cultural practice has evolved as the world has globalized. From analyzing body modification in the Mursi culture, one can ask themselves: what significance does the lip-plate hold in the Mursi culture and how is this practice being affected through increased globalization and the resulting growth of tourism around the world?

David Turton, (2004) in his article “Lip-Plates and ‘The people Who Take Photographs:’ Uneasy Encounters Between Mursi and Tourists in Southern Ethiopia,” offered an introduction to the customary practice of wearing lip-plates in Mursi culture which begins at age 15 or 16 when a girl’s lip is cut for the first time. From this first incision, different sized wooden plugs are inserted to extend the lip and to make way for the “distinguishing characteristic” of the Mursi; when a woman wears her lip-plate, it is clear that she is associated with the Mursi culture (Turton, 2004: 3). Along with an introduction to the reason why this practice is still held in high regard by the Mursi, the author also introduced some of the pressures the Mursi face that could lead to an abandonment of the practice in the future: the government’s disapproval of the lip-plate along with the introduction of different beauty ideals. As tourists continue to flood to Ethiopia to take pictures of women wearing lip-plates, the Mursi women may be influenced by the tourists’ beliefs that such a practice is “backward” as they are held to different beauty standards and practice different forms of body modification (Turton, 2004:5). Perhaps in the future, further research could analyze the effects Western concepts of beauty have on the Mursi culture and decide whether Western beauty ideals threaten the ideals of Mursi women or if the women’s success in making money urges the women to continue their traditions.

Although the Mursi women encounter various pressures by their own government and by different cultures who may look upon such a practice with ethnocentric views, David Turton (2004) described that a practice originally signifying the desire to uphold cultural heritage and traditional beliefs, when confronted with globalization, has become a way to boost the economy. Mursi women have realized that they can charge tourists for pictures the tourists want to take of them wearing their lip-plates and have come to see this practice in a new light, as an “economic asset” (Turton, 2004:5). What used to be a way to proudly display that a person is Mursi, is now being used as a way to grow their economy as the women exchange pictures for cash. This phenomenon highlights that the significance of the lip-plate in Mursi culture has been affected by increased globalization and the resulting growth of tourism.

Tamás Régi (2013) in his article, “The Art of the Weak: Tourist Encounters in East Africa,” built upon the idea that the practice of inserting lip-plates communicates a sense of cultural identity and identified that these lip-plates are an “emblem” of the Mursi. Régi (2013) then explored more in depth the economic reason for this practice and describes three different ways in which the Mursi approach the tourists and use their lip-plates for an economic benefit. In the first approach, Mursi surround cars when they first arrive to offer the tourists the opportunity to follow them and take pictures of their lip-plates. In the second approach, the Mursi allow the tourists to exit the cars and wait patiently for themselves to be selected for photographs. In the third approach, the Mursi gain the attention of tourists by making noise so that these tourists choose to take pictures of them (Régi, 2013). Through these approaches, it is seen that the Mursi have recognized that this cultural practice reaps economic benefits and so, the significance of the lip-plate has changed significantly with the introduction of tourism. Tamás Régi highlighted in his article that the practice of wearing lip-plates has evolved from purely communicating cultural pride to a way of attracting tourism and making money; in this way, it is seen how body modification in the Mursi culture has been affected through increased globalization and the resulting growth of tourism around the world.

Throughout my analysis of the Mursi culture, I have seen how a practice that originally celebrated tradition and communicated cultural pride has been damaged and negatively affected by globalization and tourism to spur the Mursi to keep their culture alive for the economic benefits. What is the reason for this detrimental change? While this is a complicated issue that needs further research, we can help to fix this damage by changing how we approach and understand cultures different from our own. Barbara Miller (2017), in Cultural Anthropology in a Globalizing World, defines an inherent belief that we all possess: ethnocentrism. This belief causes us to “judge other cultures by the standard of one’s own rather than by the standards of other cultures” which makes us blind to the beauty of other traditional practices and causes damage to how other cultures view themselves, which is seen in the case of the Mursi who have redefined their tradition of wearing lip-plates (Miller, 2017:19). Before tourists travel, they need to change their mindset and learn how to view the cultures they will be in contact with in a culturally relativistic way in which the culture should be examined through its own values and not by the values we have learned in our own. In this way, tourists will communicate an understanding and spur positive intercultural communication.

As globalization and the resulting tourism from around the world have increased, the importance of body modification in the Mursi culture has been affected. The Mursi women originally wore the customary lip-plate as a proud identifier of their cultural heritage, but now this practice has new implications. This example of body modification is now being valued for its ability to bring economic benefits to the Mursi as they have discovered that they can use their lip-plates to attract tourists who will pay for pictures. Further research is needed to understand how globalization has affected cultures around the world, and if these cultures have been affected negatively, what can be done to reverse the damage.

References

  1. Miller, B. D. (2017). Cultural anthropology in a globalizing world. Boston: Pearson.
  2. Régi, T. (2013). The art of the weak: Tourist encounters in East Africa. Tourist Studies, 13(1), 99-118. doi:10.1177/1468797613476408
  3. Turton, D. (2004). Lip-Plates and ‘The people who take photographs:’ Uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists in Southern Ethiopia. Anthropology Today, 20(3), 3-8. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3695118  
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