Chic African Culture Africa Factbook

What Do Waist Beads Symbolize

Waist Beads African Beauty 

Waist beads and bead making are surrounded by history and splendor in African art, music, and literature. Ileke or Jigida Yoruba African waist beads symbolize body sculpting, sexuality, and femininity.

Waist Beads African Beauty

Waist Bead tradition of Southwest Nigeria, Benin, Togo Yoruba Tribes

Beads are among the most exciting symbols in Yoruba African culture. The colors and sizes, and the significance of the materials chosen for the waist are subjective; the person making the waist beads symbolizes their perception, experience, feelings, beliefs, desires, and influence.

Traditionally unmarried women of the Yoruba tribe wear an ileke, also known as waist beads or waist chains. Waist beads are romantic and fashionable and attract attention to the waist by making the waist appear slimmer and bringing out the curves of the hips. 

Waist beads were and still are worn for seduction. For some, the beads possess intimate appeal and can provoke desire in men.

Weight Management and Waist Beads.

Some women use waist beads to watch their weight; when it is tight on them, they will know they are gaining weight. Unlike clothing, the strings do not stretch; they break or roll up the waist with increased girth. So in the absence of scales as a weight measurement, tight waist beads indicate weight gain.

Modern-day America and Britain have modified the use of waist beads, growing an entire industry around tying a string around your waist to get killer abs.

Sculpting your waistline by using waist beads coupled with regular exercise will help your stomach muscles work harder, so graduating from a larger string of waist beads to a smaller string is seen as a badge of honor.

Using waist beads is designed to remind you to suck your stomach in, contract your muscles then breathe out slightly; repeating this step throughout the day is known as a vacuum exercise. 

Bone Waist Beads.

By tradition, waist beads were made of natural materials such as bone beads, shells, stone, or clay beads; however, modern times have seen waist beads produced from synthetic materials like glass and plastic. 

Bone was one of the first things used in Africa for decoration before the discovery of precious gems and metals. Most contemporary bone beads are made from the neck and backbones of birds and fish or cut into fine shapes using cow, sheep, goat, camel bones, and antlers, ivory, and teeth.

Using the sharp edge of a stone, early African ancestors carved bone into a variety of shapes for jewelry beads. Each bone bead had a story or meaning behind the design, and depending on the material used, the waist beads are a sign of peace, regrowth and tranquility of life and purity. Bone jewelry is still used in Africa today crafted by Artisan and painted with lacquer for the piece to last a lifetime.

However, before bone can be carved into a waist bead it must first be processed. Processing raw bone is a simple process if you are using small bones such as bird, fish, or even snake vertebrae. The first step to processing raw bones is to clean with soapy water and scrub with a stiff brush after removing all the meat gristle and ligaments.

The bones are boiled in an acid bath until the marrow is extracted and you are left with dry non-greasy bones. After this step is completed, the bones are rinsed thoroughly and dried in the Sun for days. Modern processing bones uses chemicals that makes the bones last longer and the process less grisly.

If you are using ancient bone processing techniques or modern bone processing techniques in the end the bones are carved into the shapes for beads that are strung together and used by women in Southwest Nigeria, Benin, Togo and the Yoruba tribes as waist beads.

Clay Waist Beads.

Clay is found all over Africa and the making of clay beads from the soil of the African continent is common in ancient times and modern times in Africa. Gathering the right soil type to make clay beads is an important first step. African people who have made clay beads for generations can recognize good clay for the bead-making process. 

Another good type of clay to use is clay from termite hills as the glue from the saliva of termites makes the clay quite strong and helps bind the clay to form beads. Clay is work by hand, shaped and fashioned into the desired shape freehand by pinching coiling and rolling the clay into small waist beads. After drying, the beads are placed outside around a pile of wood and carefully baked outside around the fire for many hours; this is a kiln in its most natural state.

Clay is made by mixing dry clay with water in clay mixer. Clay straight from the ground in Africa is not like the clay you buy from a ceramic clay store or hobby supplier. It contains unwanted materials such as rocks and twigs and needs to be processed to remove before working into clay beads. A screening removes stones, roots, and other larger particles. Before firing, the beads are decorated by impressing or carving of the bead; sometimes the design is religious or sometimes just decorative.

Ileke or Jigida Yoruba African waist beads symbolize body sculpting, sexuality, and femininity.

Waist Beads are Intimate Private Jewelry.

It is considered distasteful when waist beads are shown in public. In many cultures, the waist beads symbolized a young woman’s purity and were only to be taken off by her husband on their wedding night. Most waist beads are worn under clothing and are a private affair.

Unlike today's purity rings, waist beads are not shown in public. Purity rings are the exact opposite when it comes to modesty than waist beads; purity rings are a sign to the community as a commitment to purity, a promise to stay sexually pure until marriage.

Waist beads in African culture have a conservative meaning when you are wearing waist beads and they show you might get a funny look from someone because the showing of waist beads is not acceptable. 

Many people in modern-day Africa may not have the same feelings as their ancient ancestors regarding modesty and waist beads; waist beads are seen as more of a decoration than a statement about intimacy and privacy.

Weight control and beauty, many waist beads are handmade versatile, functional African art.


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