Photograph by Akama Paul - published with permission.
As they say, everything old is new again. This phenomenon is the foundation of fashion and is especially true of waist beads, an accessory that women in Africa have been wearing for thousands of years, which have steadily gained popularity worldwide. Waist beads, sometimes known as belly beads, are strings of beads worn around a woman’s waist. While that seems simple, the reality is that waist beads are infinitely variable, and as complex and unique as the women who wear them. African women have worn waist beads for many different reasons for generations, and now women around the globe are learning about them too.
Shop the Yala collection of waist beads. Handmade in Kenya by Maasai women.
The most obvious appeal of waist beads is their stunning aesthetic. The beads themselves are beautiful, the colours are vibrant, and the way they hang accentuates a woman’s feminine contours. They are also wonderfully diverse. They can come in any colour imaginable, different textures, shapes and sizes. Beads can be strung using just one colour or in combinations; extra embellishments like gems or crystals can be added. A single strand can hang delicately, or groups of strands can be worn in luxurious bunches. Because of natural variations in individual beads, and all the possibilities of how to combine them, no two waist bead sets will ever be the same. Each style will give a different look to the beads and to the waist they adorn, and each woman can choose the beads and styles that make her look and feel most beautiful.
A woman’s choice of waist beads will be based on more than just looks. Waist beads have a deep and intricate significance that the wearer carries with them. Waist beads form a part of many cultures across the African continent, so there are many different interpretations for different beads. Colors, shapes and even the number of strands worn can have a variety meanings from region to region, and each set of waist beads will have personal significance to the individual wearer. These meanings and more are conveyed every time a woman sees or feels her beads around her waist. The wearer will also be reminded of her reasons for wearing the beads; how and why she chose the particular beads, and the moment she first put them on. These layers of significance are why, for many women, waist beads are the most important piece of their wardrobe.
The way waist beads make a woman feel is another facet of their appeal. The prevailing standard of beauty portrayed in the media is very Eurocentric and would have us believe that the only way to be attractive is to have a narrow waist and flat stomach (among many other very subjective criteria). This is simply not the reality for the majority of women, but because these narrow beauty “ideals” are everywhere, many of us feel dissatisfied with the way we look, around our midsections in particular. But for a woman who wears waist beads, no matter what her size or shape she will see beauty when she looks in the mirror. This is not just because the beads themselves are so pretty, but because they accentuate the natural shapes and lines of a woman, the parts that make her body feminine and beautiful – flat stomach or not. The beads can help us see that bodies which don’t conform to the current standards of beauty are still beautiful, deserving of love, and worth feeling good about.
Connection to Culture and History
Waist beads can connect the woman who wears them to something larger than herself. Although more people are learning about waist beads and they are growing in popularity in many parts of the world, to call them a trend would be to ignore thousands of years of history. Paintings in the pyramids of Egypt show women wearing waist beads, and while this is some of the earliest documentation of their existence, it’s possible that women started wearing them even earlier than that. Through millennia of changes in civilization, society and fashion, women have continued to wear and love their waist beads. For those women with African ancestry, whether they still live in Africa or are part of the Diaspora, wearing waist beads can be a way to maintain a strong connection to their culture and heritage. For women who are not of African descent, wearing the beads allows them to participate in a valuable tradition which is practiced by cultures they admire and appreciate. And for all women who wear them, the beads are a connection to history. Whether they’re ordered through the mail, passed from a mother to a daughter, or presented to an intimate partner, the tradition of wearing the beads is passed from one person to another. The mothers, grandmothers, aunties, artisans, lovers and friends who pass them on learned about waist beads from the women who came before them and so on and so on, in an unbroken string of women wearing waist beads back to our fore mothers; those who were painted on the walls of the pyramids and countless others who lived all over the African continent.
Waist beads don’t just belong to history, but to a wide variety of living, changing cultures. As a result, there is some controversy about the right way to wear them. In some cultures, waist beads should only be seen by the woman wearing them and her sexual partner; the jewellery equivalent of underwear or other intimate apparel. The women who wear their beads in this way find it immodest that some women choose to wear their beads openly (at the beach for example) or with clothes that deliberately reveal them. However we should be conscious that not all cultures wear waist beads the same way. Ultimately, each woman decides for herself if she prefers to keep her beads private, let them peek out occasionally as she moves, or flaunt them proudly.
This diversity is what makes waist beads such a special and personal piece of a woman’s wardrobe. Much of their beauty comes from the fact that they are personal, expressive, emotional, and empowering. With all that waist beads are, it’s easy to see why there is so much renewed appreciation for this ages-old style of adornment.