Waist beads are a traditional African accessory that consists of small glass beads on a string or wire worn around the waist or hips. They come in different colors and shapes and may also include decorative stones, crystals, or charms.
We would make bold to say that African waist beads were more commonplace a couple of generations earlier, certainly a lot more so than they are right now.
There was, in fact, a rather innate fascination with waist beads that existed, especially for some younger women who longed to reach the age where they could adorn some.
Hidden from view underneath the modest female clothes that were favored in those times, the beads peeked out at random intervals, surprising and enticing an onlooker.
Although some people remained unaware of their significance, the allure of a beaded woman was practically undeniable.
What Are Waist Beads?
Waist beads are a traditional African accessory that consist of small glass beads on a string or wire worn around the waist or hips. They come in different colors and shapes and may also include decorative stones, crystals, or charms.
They’re also referred to as belly beads, waistline beads, or beaded waist chains.
In Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and other West African countries, waist beads are a symbol of femininity, fertility, sensuality, and spiritual well-being. Today, in both Africa and the United States, women use waist beads for aesthetic and practical purposes.
Waist beads are these ornaments worn by any ethnicity or culture for spiritual healing purposes, decorative adornment, empowerment and confidence building as well as sensuality and weight loss tracking.
Origin of Waist Beads
While there’s so much history behind waist beads, it’s generally agreed that the existence of waist beads dates back to antiquity, as far back as the 15th century.
In fact, many scholars are of the opinion that the history of beads began in ancient Egypt (North Africa) where they were donned by beautiful women as a status symbol. They were simply called ‘girdles’ at the time.
In West Africa, many historians believe the tradition of waist bead was popularized by the Yoruba tribes, notably in Senegal and Ghana (notably the Ewes, Ashantis, Krobos, Ga-Adangbes) where they speak of nobility, femininity, and affluence.
Today, countries like Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone have also adopted the waist bead.
Uses of Waist Beads
There are many varied reasons we have come across as to why African waist bead were/are worn. Common folklore attributes it to the definition of a woman’s waist; in essence, that it helps them to maintain their figures.
Traditional Ghanaian culture though had a more practical usage, where the many strings of beads around the bikini line were employed as an anchor to strap the menstrual cloth.
Some other varied uses or significance of the waist beads include;
As a symbol of femininity and sensuality, only the partner a woman chooses would have the honor of seeing them fully.
As a sign that a woman had reached marriageable age and could now have suitors
Strung with bells, to show that a woman was still pure as at the time of marriage.
Worn on babies during naming ceremonies, some say; to accentuate their waistlines and hips as they grow.
As a weight measure; when gaining weight, the belt of the beads climb up and when you lose weight, it falls elegantly on the hips.
Upon addition of precious stones, waist bead takes on healing or rejuvenation qualities; depending on ailment or what needs to be enhanced (i.e. love, physic powers, balancing), various semi-precious stones can be included in the design of your waist bead.
How Do you Choose The Right Waist Beads for your Body?
The best thing about waist beads is how individual they are. You can wear as many strands of beads as you like, and you can wear them for whatever reason you want. They’re a powerful means of self-expression.
To measure yourself for waist bead, waist bead artist Anita from The Bee Stop first recommends deciding where you want your beads to sit on your body. Do you want them high on your waist? Down at your hips? Right at your belly button?
After you decide, wrap measuring tape or string around that part of your body to get the measurement. If you’re using a string, mark on the string where the two ends meet, then measure that length with a ruler.
Try not to wrap the string or tape too snugly around your body. It will result in a tighter fit than you may anticipate.
Some waist beads are permanent. That means the string doesn’t stretch, and there’s no clasp to take the beads on or off. They’re designed to stay on your body 24/7 until they break or you decide to cut them off for good.
Some removable waist beads are also adjustable or come with extender chains. These may be a good option for people who want to continue wearing the same waist bead at any size without worrying about “fitting” into them. Instead, the beads fit you.
The waist bead bears different names in different tribes. In Nigeria, the northern part of the country calls it Jigida while the Yorubas (the people of Southwestern Nigeria) call it Bebedi. In Igbo, it is called mgbájị́.
Waist bead may look like a simple accessory, but they can have a transformational effect on the wearer. Wrapping a pair of beads around one’s waist can feel sensual and grounding. The beads serve as an ongoing reminder to be more aware and loving toward one’s body.
Other women feel empowered by waist bead in other ways: a connection to their heritage, a symbol of fertility, or a way to gauge their weight and posture.
Waist beads are an intensely personal item, so there are as many ways to find meaning in them as there are styles of beads. As waist bead grows in popularity, this West African tradition will likely continue to evolve for years to come.
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