No, waist beads are not usually considered cultural appropriation. However, this depends on several factors.
For one thing, it depends on whether or not the wearer understands the culture and history behind the beads. Along with that, if the waist beads have been purchased from an African business and the wearer supports black businesses, then this is unlikely to be considered cultural appropriation.
Be careful to make sure you don’t wear them in a way that mocks West Africans or in a way that tricks people into thinking you are West African.
The Origin of Waist Beads
Waist beads are a piece of jewelry which is typically worn around the waist or hip. Originally from West Africa and Egypt and dating back to the 15th century, these beads were traditionally worn by women in order to express their beauty, femininity, fertility, and draw attention to their waist size.
Along with that, waist beads were used to remind people to be mindful and pay attention to their weight, wellbeing, and frequency. In many traditional ceremonies, both men and women would wear these beads.
Different ethnic groups have different rituals relating to waist beads: for example, the Krobo people have a ceremony for girls moving into womanhood where they are adorned in vibrant waist beads and then paraded through the town.
In Egypt, waist beads were traditionally called girdles. They were made from chains, shells, wire, and thread, and showcased a whole array of colors.
Waist beads were then popularized by the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, and since then, there has been a surge in people wearing waist beads.
Usually, the beads nowadays are made from glass or crystal stone, along with sometimes wood or metal. Historically, these beads would be strung together by twine and knotted, before being secured with a clasp – and this is how they should still be made today.
They should not stretch or come off, unlike many of the elastic waist beads sold today.
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Wearing Waist Beads as Cultural Appropriation
There are many celebrities who have worn waist beads –potentially without truly understanding the symbolism and tradition behind them.
Some of these celebrities include Bella Hadid and Kylie Kenner. They have all been spotted wearing the beads around their midriffs, but rarely have they spoken about the fact that they are benefitting from appropriating African culture. Here, they may risk being accused of cultural appropriation.
When companies and individuals profit off waist beads without giving cultural context, this may be cultural appropriation.
Saying that, there are more cases of cultural appreciation than appropriation, and we will talk a little more about this below.
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Wearing Waist Beads as Cultural Appreciation
It can be argued that waist beads are a sign of cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation.
For example, if you purchase waist beads from an ethical business which supports and supplies from a person or country of African origin, then you are one step closer to wearing waist beads as cultural appreciation.
Support black businesses and remember that purchasing cheap factory-made waist beads which refuse to even acknowledge or give credit to the origin cultures is the epitome of cultural appropriation.
Along with that, if you take time to study and understand the history and traditions behind them, this can also be cultural appreciation.
If you have a genuine interest in the way that the beads are made and why they are made, you are one step closer to not appropriating African culture.
Still, whilst the waist beads don’t hold any religious meaning, they still have deep cultural roots, elements of tradition, and specialness to them. As such, wearing waist beads as a Caucasian person who refuses to read up on these would be deeply disrespectful.
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How to Wear Waist Beads as a Non-African
If you feel passionate about wearing waist beads and showing off their beauty to your community, it might be a good idea to do it respectfully.
There are several things that you could do to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation:
- Firstly, get the waist beads from a business that sources the beads from the cultures from which waist beads originated.
- Secondly, once you begin to wear waist beads and undoubtably receive comments on them, consider educating others on the history behind African waist beads.
Generally, wearing waist beads is not cultural appropriation. Instead, wearing them can be a form of cultural appreciation, where you have learnt about the culture which they stem from, respect the origins, and do not benefit from appropriating African culture.
However, when someone wears waist beads in a similar way to celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, merely as a fashion accessory, then this is cultural appropriation and should be avoided.
If you want to do that then there is plenty of non-appropriating jewelry out there – so go for that instead!
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]