History of African Waist Beads

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African waist beads have a long history in Africa dating back to antiquity. In ancient Egypt, women wore them as a status/wealth symbol, for femininity, as well as a way to "train" their waists. Over time, waist beads found its way to other parts of Africa. The Yoruba ethnic group in Nigeria were one of the first groups to popularize wearing waist beads after the Egyptians. They wore them for the same reasons the Egyptian wore them, as well as to indicate rites of passage into womanhood, as a means of intimacy, sexuality, fertility, healing, spirituality, for body shaping of the waist, as a gauge for weight management, and simply as a beautiful accessory.

In West Africa, they are known by many names, including Jel-Jelli, Jigida, Giri-Giri, Djalay Djalay or Yomba, Ibebe-idi, Ileke-idi. They can be very simple or incredibly elaborate. They can be of any size and made of any material, including glass, stone, clay, and sandalwood. In some parts of West Africa, waist beads would be worn with bells on them, causing a slight jingling sound as the woman walked by.  Today, waist beads have filtered into other cultures. Belly dancers in Eastern cultures have embraced the beads, as have women of Islamic cultures and those in Western cultures. 

Traditional African waist beads are worn all throughout life; babies, teens, middle-aged women, and grandmothers and great-mothers. In most West African cultures, once you get into adulthood, your waist beads are considered “private” and not always meant for show. They are typically worn under clothing, such that only your partner would know you have them on. This is different to Westernized modern-day usage of waist beads. Women of all sizes and shapes can wear waist beads; they are not meant only for those with flat stomachs. They are a colorful and beautiful adornment to you body—no matter if you have a flat belly, a six-pack, a muffin top, or somewhere in between. Wearing waist beads instantly invokes an awareness of your body, bringing out your femininity, sexiness, and a deep consciousness of being a woman. It almost changes the way you walk; there is an increased confidence and self-confidence in how you carry yourself. There is a sense of empowerment that comes with wearing them, especially in an area of the female body that many of us are often uncomfortable with and try to hide.