Body modification has many faces. They range from common alterations like the everyday belly button piercing to more extreme modifications such as corneal tattooing, tongue splitting, and subdermal implants. The majority of body modifications have roots in indigenous regions and tribes and many are still practiced today.
One such form of body modification is the practice of neck binding or neck rings. This form of body modification, while not seeming to be that extreme, has many fascinating aspects not only with the type of body modification, but also the importance it carries within certain cultures.
One tribe of indigenous people who still practice the art of neck binding hail from a small region in north Burma. The Kayan (Karen) people became refuges in 1969 when the military tried to wipe out all indigenous tribes. Sadly in modern times neck biding has little to do with traditional meaning, but it’s more a tourist attraction in order for them to have a stable income.
Not much is known as far as the true origin of the wearing of neck rings, but there are many theories and legends as to how this body modification came into practice. The reasons range from protecting women’s necks from Tiger bites to identifying the tribes’ women. I personally like the legend that they are worn as a status symbol of being descendants of the “Mother Dragon”.
Legend has is that a wise female dragon that lived long ago longed to see what humans looked like. One day she decided to find out. She set off and met a frog. She enlisted his help and after a time they came upon a cave. When the dragon entered the cave, she turned into a human. Someone had been living in the cave and she decided to clean it up and then wait for whoever it was to come back. A man came back, noticed the cave had been cleaned, but for some reason just decided to go to bed. This happened for a second time and he decided he’d better find out who had been doing this, so the next day he decided not to go so deep into the forest and catch the culprit. Well, he came back early and caught the dragon. In her human form she was the most beautiful thing the man had seen. He started asking her questions and fearing him finding out she was really a dragon, she lied. They fell in love, and had a baby. But, soon the man found out she was a dragon and left. After the man left and did not return, the dragon decided to retune to the sea, but before doing so left two eggs on the beach. A monk found the eggs and gave one to another monk. The first egg hatched a baby girl (the first woman of the Kayan people) and the second egg hatched a boy (The first man of the Pa-o people, which will be a story for another time). Because the men where monks they had to give the children away. The girl was sent to a small village and the boy was given to a king. When the boy was grown, a wife was sought for him, but he was dissatisfied with all the girls he had been brought. One day the kings solders came to the girl’s village, saw her, and told the king about her. The boy visited the village and upon seeing each other they fell in love. The girl followed in her mother’s path and emulated a dragon appearance with different hair styles and the boy followed the path of his father, the king. Now the legend does not say if the girl wore neck rings at that time, but with a little imagination one can see how the adornment of neck rings mimic the appearance of a long dragon like neck. This legend is why some believe that the Kayan women wear neck rings, to resemble their ancestor, the first Kayan woman, the dragon mother.
For the Kayan women of today wearing neck rings is very much a choice. At the age of 5, girls have a choice as to if they want to have neck rings placed. While some choose to proceed, others abstain. Many choose to have the rings placed later on in life and many choose to have them permanently removed later on in life. This is because at this age the bones are still soft and moldable. But, how much of a real choice do the girls’ have considering they rely on tourism for income? Should a girl choose to proceed, fabric is placed around the neck and a long brass or copper coil is carefully bound by hand around the girls’ neck. It is a long and tedious process that can take hours to complete. After the coils are placed, the girls will wear their new companion for the next few years as the coil must be replaced every few years as the girls grow.
You may be wondering as I did how they keep their necks clean. Well it is fairly simple. Because the coil is not a solid mass on their necks, they simply scrub between the coils with a brush type tool. Even though the care process is simple and padding is placed between the neck and the coils, bruising and skin discoloration still occur.
One very well-known misconception about neck binding is that they can never take the rings off on account that their necks will break from having the rings on for too long. While this does to an extent add to the charm of this body modification, it is very much a false representation. While the Kayan women’s necks are weaker due to loss of muscle mass on the neck and shoulders, their necks do not snap in half when the coils are removed. Some women must wear a scarf due to the discomfort of atrophy of muscles, but it is not to such an extreme extent of neck breaking.
Another misconception is that the rings actually stretch the neck out. In fact, the neck itself does not change length, but rather the rings (weighing roughly 22lbs) push the collar bone down and compress the rib cage to give the illusion of a stretched neck. There are no actual known health problems associated with neck rings, but one can’t help but wonder what kind of impact they could potentially have.
While neck rings at first glance seem to be somewhat of a nuisance when it comes to daily activities, they seem to not be much of a problem. The women seem to be able to bathe, work, eat, and sleep just like anyone without neck rings.
The Ndebele Tribe of South Africa also practice a similar form of neck binding as well. The origin of the Ndebele women wearing neck rings was mainly for marital purposes. After her husband built a home, women would wear copper and brass neck rings symbolizing her bond and faithfulness to her husband. The only time she would remove them was when her husband died. The husband would provide the rings and thus also was a social status symbol. The richer the husband, the more rings the wife would wear. In modern times it is no longer a common practice for women to wear neck rings permanently.
Although this form of body modification has over time lost much of its ritual and spiritual meaning, it remains a fascinating and beautiful form of art.