By Kirsten William, Xavier University of Louisiana
Imagine waking one morning to be told that today is the day of your life where you have to receive your first coil around your neck as many of your ancestors did before you. You sit through the procedure of get you neck massaged with this special oil and the Priest begins to wrap this large brass coil around your neck, how would you feel?
This is a process the women of the Padaung tribe of Myanmar have to go through starting as early as the age of 5! Women have to go through so much more than men to get respect in anyway, in any part of this world. Well why do the women have to endure these hardships to be considered beautiful? Why do women have to sustain this pain to be something important in their society? So far, the wearing of these metal rings has become a custom that is more than just a rare and strange expression of feminine beauty but also confesses status and respect on the wearer’s family. No one truly knows the answers to these questions but I will attempt to discover a logical reason throughout my paper.
The Padaung women are natives of Kayak State. Seldom seen in the lowlands and actually barely are seen at all but if, tend to congregate around the provincial town of Loikaw near the border of Thailand. The Padaung women are a part of a Mongolian tribe, with a population of only about 7,000 people total; they’ve recently gained a lot of visitation due to the demand of everyone wanting to see the “giraffe” women. People travel from all over the world in hopes of just getting a slight glimpse of these women. But what most of these visitors don’t know, is that the process is very painful and many of these women undergo this exquisite fitting just to get married or to gain respect throughout the village. Most of the decisions to get the rings are not by choice but by force and custom.
In the past, many Padaung girls were fitted with these metal rings as early as the ages 5 or 6 depending on the prescribed horoscope findings of the village shamans. Once it was stated that they were ready to receive their first set of rings, they are taken to the Priest to begin the ritual. The neck was carefully smeared with a salve and massaged for several hours, after which a priest would fit small cushions under the first ring usually made with bronze- to prevent soreness. The cushions would be removed later on. The process would continue with a new ring being added every two years. A Padaung woman of marriageable age will probably have had their neck extended by about 25 cm. These severe decorations express the Padaung women’s own concept of beauty and social ranking but there are other theories concerning the origin of these rings. It has been claimed that rings were first placed around the women’s necks in order to make them undesirable to slave traders. A Padaung legend explains that, “The rings were protection against tiger bites, a constant hazard in their homeland in the northern region of China.”
In contrast to normal accessories like earrings and removable necklaces, these rings are worn for life and can only be removed with the calamitous of results. Adultery among Padaung women has always been punished by the removal of the rings, a fate almost literally, far more excruciating than death. This is an uncommonly cruel punishment as the cervical vertebrae have become deformed after years of wearing the rings, and the neck muscles have been malnourished. Furthermore, unless she wishes to risk “suffocation”, the unlucky companion must pay for her infidelity by spending the remainder of her life, lying down or attempt to discover some other form of support for her neck, which can be painstaking. Even though this supposedly gives the women beauty and power, it seems more like the men have the trump over the women almost instantly. If the women cheat, they have to live the rest of their lives in misery. But nowhere along the lines of research have I found anything that closely mentions what happens to the men of the Padaung tribe when they get caught red-handed. I guess their infidelity isn’t important…
But why should the women have to endure such trials? Why couldn’t the men have endured such hardships? I know it is said that within beauty there lies so much pain, but at one point this custom was considered disgusting, so what’s the true excuse? Men have always had the upper hand on women in many aspects of our lives. So within this tribe they usually won’t marry a woman unless she has 25’’ metal coils adorning her neck so that they can have an even higher hand on them. Of course they won’t be capable to do the many things they should be able to do and they will have to rely on the men at many instances. Something simple as brushing your teeth can become a nuisance when you have 25” added to your neck. But hey! At least they’re considered beautiful right?
Wrong. Many of these women have been forced into believing that beauty lies underneath these “rings”. Beauty, respect, and wealth primarily, among other beliefs, are what trigger these women’s desire to want to follow their ancestors. They want to be something in their tribe and that alone makes them even go against their own hopes and dreams to pursue the dreams of others. Most Padaung Women believe that there is no life outside of their tribe. They accept as true that the world would never understand their beliefs so they go into hiding. In order to find them you actually have to go search. But why should such beautiful women have to hide their faces among the hidden?
Why hide? Most of the women tend to hide because of the history behind the “rings”. As in most tribes around the world, the men of the tribe would get their wives to acquire something they considered hideous, to disgrace and disgust the slave traders to keep their wives from being captured. Now I wonder how something so ugly, that it made evil people disgusted and keep them from wanting to make MONEY, could become a custom that is beautiful and welcomed among their tribe. I wonder what kept the slave traders from wanting to take the men of the tribe. It is obvious that the men cared enough to devise a plan to keep their wives from getting taken but they remained the same and of course had something to hold over their wives’ heads once all was said and done. They could easily tell the women how ugly they were and make them feel very insecure about how they looked to keep them down and submissive to “the only man that would keep them”.
The men of the Padaung tribe aren’t really mentioned as much because the women get all the attention within the tribe. They get the “oohs and aahs” of every visitor of Myanmar, like any other person would expect. They do all the work within the tribe like cooking and cleaning, but the men still have authority over them even though they don’t believe so. The women of the Padaung tribe believe that with each ring added every two years you gain not only another brass coil but respect and honor. When really, for every coil they receive the less they can do, which makes them less in ranking of power. How can you have more power than an untroubled man when you are being weighed down by a heavy burden on your withered shoulders?
I’m glad that these women finally decided to use something that hindered their performance and turn it into something positive. The more rings you have the higher up you’re in society. Some women are even higher than men on the totem pole in the world nowadays. It’s because we’ve used so many things that has kept us down for centuries, as an escape route to a better life. We use our burdens as blessings.