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?
More Tribal Body Art Hubs
- Have Mursi on the Lip Plate
A lip plate is to the outsider more a form of body mutilation than body art but to a Mursi or Suri woman a lip plate is an expression of female maturity and a sign that she has has reached child-bearing age....
- Maori Tattoo Designs - Think Before You Ink
The urge to decorate and adorn our bodies is human nature but for some cultures their body art is more than just a decoration and for the Maoris their Mokos (as the Maori Tattoo Designs are known)...
Mike on July 16, 2015:
I just wonder where they get the brass rods from? The longer ones must be expensive, not to mention heavy on their shoulders.
Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on April 14, 2012:
Thanks for this useful information. I am sure my readers will benefit from your contribution.
Anon on April 14, 2012:
Reading this as I am about to go interview a woman of the Long Neck Hill Tribe. What's not mentioned in this blog is that the Thai government makes it almost impossible for these women to leave the country because they bring so much tourism. Many women are rejecting their coils for the sole purpose of being able to leave the country for a better life. The Thai government has a council that handles all Padaung tourism; despite the amount they charge tourists, the Padaung villages see very little. Furthermore, even though it was the Thai government who persuaded the Padaung to flee Burma and take refuge in Thailand, they now deny them citizenship and rights to continuing education.
Anonymous on April 11, 2012:
they should do what they believe is beautiful. i don't believe any of us have the right to judge on what you see here because we didn't grow up there. if this is what they believe is beautiful, by all means they should feel comfortable doing it and people like you all shouldn't tell them otherwise. shame on all of us that say otherwise. honestly.
Claire on January 27, 2012:
im against all this, we need to tell them its bad for them and that they are damaging their necks by doing this and it can cause of death for old age, if these neck gets any longer they will eventually snap, i reckon we should stop this and and change all this and give them another hobby to do =D really am worried about their necks to be honest.
Designerfashion from Bangkok on June 19, 2011:
Never visited them although living in Thailand...
Great hub, thanks for publishing it.
Gaby:) on May 27, 2011:
First of all "THANK YOU ELLAROSE"
It is obvious that there's some ignorance from people.
I admire every culture and religion. All tho we know that many of them may be painful.
We should also know they are very attractive because we google it read about it criticize it but we are interested. There's a show in Net GEO call "TABOO" it is amazing what kids go thru to fallow there believes and how proud they are when the pain is go.
Child birth is an awesome example from ELLA and there's others out there that us and many people all over the world enjoy (scuba diving, bund-gy jumping, ect..)
With that said it is impossible for them the people of this culture to ask the people that visit this web to stop criticizing there believes, so please stop respect others the same way you would want respect. And you got nothing nice to say silence is always the best choice.
By the way it was enough for me to read the comments I didn't read the Hub. Yet
Ellarose92 on January 30, 2011:
Honestly this hub was amazing but for people who are saying they look uglym its their culture they can do what they want to do!! its like saying why do we give child birth, some women can die giving child birth but no one is judging, its like someone saying your ugly because your too pale or dark so anyone who wants to be mean to them and say their ugly they should look in the mirror!! Theres millions of people who get cosmetic surgery but let them be if they hurt themselves its not our fault but no one has the right to give people low self esteem for their looks. I say this because my friend was a very pretty girl but these girls would say she was ugly because she always were those string necklaces and loved crafts and always were the jewelry she made and they made fun of her so bad that she ended up committing suicide and more and more that seems to happen these days, I think this was an amzing hub but as for the people who say tell them their ugly to make them take it off or saying its dumb maybe they should look in the mirror and let them have someone judge them... But anyway great hub!!
@candi on November 02, 2010:
@candi dear there is difference between religion,and custom and tradition. I don't think it is their religion.
abacus on November 02, 2010:
didn't you hear that they are ready to move out to country to wear that thing. You can only persuade them and make them literate about those things by being with them and passing some time with them but no one has time to do that. I think the best someone can do is just try to make them literate and not to tell them that their neck looks beautiful when they go there as a tourist. instead tell them they look ugly as hell because of that thing and then see the change :) Bye.
candi on April 12, 2010:
I think it is pretty neat because it is there religion
Duchess OBlunt on February 25, 2010:
ouch! ooo la la! Oh my!
Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on November 29, 2009:
Thank you BB
BEAUTYBABE from QUEENSLAND AUSTRALIA. on November 29, 2009:
I don't believe it.
Guess what, you just gave me a jolt back to grade 7. I did a project in grade 7 on the Padaung Woman of Thailand and the neck stretchers that they wore. I was so absolutely amazed with the technique of the genteel way in which these adornments are placed around the necks of small children and added each year to their necks. I read that it is quite painful, however they wear it regardless of the pain that they obviously have to bear. What brave little girls they would have to be. I can't believe I still remembered way back then in grade 7. Great Hub Laura and good pictures also, God bless BB
Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 25, 2009:
"Different strokes for different folks"
Thanks for taking the time to read my hub!
Wendy Iturrizaga from France on October 25, 2009:
I enjoyed reading this hub. I had always been fascinated by the "giraffe ladies" and it has been a real treat to read about them. I agree with you, they should be left alone to continue with their traditions. After all it is not any worse than many other forms of body modifications like piercings or silicone implants.
Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 25, 2009:
Thank you TheSablirab
I find people fascinating and it is easier to respect other cultures if you understand the reasoning behind their customs.
Thanks for reading the hub I'm glad you enjoyed it.
TheSablirab on October 25, 2009:
It's so interesting to see other cultures and try to learn WHY they have the customs that they do. Thanks for sharing.
Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 22, 2009:
I think in some cases they may be coerced but the majority of those that choose to carry on with the tradition probably would feel pretty naked without their neck rings. I would think that if you had been wearing neck rings permanently for 40 odd years it would be quite a traumatic experience to then remove them. That is once again just my humble opinion.
Paradise7 from Upstate New York on October 22, 2009:
It looks very uncomfortable but they say not. It should be up to them, if no one is coercing them. It seems they are not coerced by their society anymore, so it should be up to the individual. Thanks for an interesting hub.
Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 22, 2009:
I am sure that they can't understand why people would want to do corset piercing or tattooing.
febriedethan from Indonesia on October 22, 2009:
Wonderful and well-researched hub, I still can't figured out why they did this. Many tribes in my country also did the similar thing with many reasons, as a modern person, I still can't believe it.
Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 21, 2009:
I am also against disfigurement but even more against people who generally accept the disfigurement if people in there country are practicing it but treat other people as if they were freaks when they practice a different kind of disfigurement.
Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on October 21, 2009:
Don't laugh Laura, I suffer from claustrophobia a couple of years back I had a cast on my arm from wrist to above elbow...I nearly died because I couldn't breathe...Just seeing these ladies with those rings around their neck pretty near took my breath away again.
I'm totally against body disfigurement even if its an age old thing to do.
great hub again