Myanmar’s “Giraffe Women,” Embodying A Vanishing Custom

Woman from the Padaung tribe in Ywama village, Myanmar
Woman from the Padaung tribe in Ywama village, Myanmar
Phyu Zin Poe

LOIKAW â€" Myanmar"s so-called "giraffe women," famous for the traditional neck coils they wear, appear destined to disappear. Young Burmese have rejected this tradition of wearing the heavy brass rings, saying they are painful and uncomfortable. And for those who do, carrying on the custom has become less about tradition and more about earning a living from tourists.

San Bon village is one place where Burma's long-necked women call home. It's about 30 minutes by car from Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state. Residents say that at one time all the women here wore the neck coils as a symbol of their identity. But now, only five of 200 local women wear them.

Muu Phoe, 50, is the only one in her family who wears them. "At first, I couldn't get used to it," she explains. "It was painful. I wanted to take them off, but I was worried that I might lose them. These neck coils mean a lot to me because I inherited them from my grandma. After a week of the pain, I got used to it and I felt alright to wear them."

That was 20 years ago, and now she never takes them off, not even when she sleeps. There are 14 rings around her neck, weighing a total of 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds). She also wears brass coils around her knees.

When I met Muu, she was busy sewing traditional dresses in her tent to sell to the tourists that visit her village. "We depend on the tourism business as we are unable to farm anymore," she says.

During the time of her ancestors, the rings were a symbol of identity, beauty and wealth. There is no written history of when Kayan women first started wearing the neck rings, but some historians says the tradition dates as far back as 800 years.

"In the past, girls who could wear the most numbers of brass neck rings were the most popular among the young men in the village," Muu explains. "If a girl didn't wear any neck coils, she would find it difficult to get married."

No longer about heritage

Traditionally, Kayan girls started to wear then on their fifth birthday, adding one each year until they were married. But these days, the custom is understandably fading out. Those carrying on the custom tend to do so to earn a living, often working in hotels and performing traditional dances for guests. Others travel to neighboring Thailand and China, where they can also find work in the tourism industry.

Muu Lae, 33, says she gave the neck rings a try but just couldn't get used to it. "I tried to wear them for a day, but they're too heavy," she says. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't open my mouth, I couldn't go to the toilet and I couldn't sit. I wonder how my aunt, who wears them, can stand them."

Kayan girls in Thailand â€" Photo: Benoît Mahe

Instead, Muu Lae sells neck rings and traditional clothes to tourists. In fact, it's mostly Burmese tourists who buy the coils to wear for special occasions, she says. "Some foreigners and local people from Yangon come to buy them, but the majority of my customers are Kayan villagers who buy them to wear in traditional celebration events but not to wear for life."

As the tradition dies out, some say there needs to be a solution to preserve it. "We need a master plan for maintaining this cultural heritage," says Kyaw Than, an advisor at a Kayan cultural preservation group. "Giving jobs to these women at hotels is not a solution to maintaining the culture. We need suitable job opportunities."

Although Muu Phoe says protecting their heritage is important, none of her daughters will wear the neck rings. "I don't know what will happen in the future," she says. "This is our ancestors' cultural heritage. I want to protect this culture, but I could not say whether it will survive."

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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