The growing popularity of waist beads as a trend in the West has led them to take on their own meanings and interpretations. Now, many women wear them as a form of personal expression or as a fashion statement. Although waist beads are not limited to any race, culture, or country, it is still very important to know and understand the significance of waist beads within African cultures.

Waist beads have a long history in Africa dating back to ancient Egypt and are worn for various reasons and purposes. They are a symbol and celebration of womanhood, sexuality, femininity, fertility, healing, spirituality, body shaping, first menses, protection, seduction, and wealth amongst other things. The meaning of the colors and different shapes of beads varies with every tribe and they can be thought of as a visual dialect. Each bead, color, and shape relays a different message depending on the receiver.

Traditionally, mothers adorned their daughters with waist beads during their first menstruation as a rite of passage into womanhood. The beads symbolized a young lady’s fertility, developing body, and her sexuality. A young lady’s beads were adorned with bells to let possible suitors know that she was at the proper stage for sexual intercourse. In many cultures the waist beads symbolized a young woman’s purity and were to only be taken off by her husband on their wedding night.

Waist beads can also be worn for seduction. For some, the beads posses intimate appeal and can provoke desire. Yoruban women are said to have laced their beads with charms and fragrances that were known to be irresistible to the opposite sex. Some women wore different shapes of beads and only wore them during intimacy as a means of enhancing the sexual experience of her and her husband. The beads to some women are what lingerie is to modern women. Wives would often lure their husbands with the rattle of the beads or use them as a means to communicate their fertility at certain times of the month.

Many women have also used waist beads as an instrument of body shaping. The beads were used to alert women of their weight gain or if they were pregnant. Unlike clothing, the beads do not stretch; they break or roll up the waist so as mentioned before, instead of using scales as a means of weight measurement, the beads were used for women to monitor their weight. If your beads were higher on your body or popped, it meant that you were gaining weight and if your beads lowered on your waist, it was a sign that you were losing weight.

There is so much beauty and history behind waist beads. They are more than mere shapes, colors and sizes. Each string of beads holds traditions, values, and customs. It’s fine to use these beads as a form of expression or as a fashion statement but please do not forget the history.

-Bilphena Yahwon

Image credit: http://waistbeads.com

About The Author

Bilphena Yahwon
Editor/W.I.A.A.D. Facilitator

Bilphena Yahwon is a Liberian artist, writer, womanist, social justice activist and student currently pursuing a BS in Information Systems/Business Administration. In the future, she hopes to establish a non-profit focused on using art as a tool to facilitate positive change in the lives of children who are homeless, in the foster care system, and former child soldiers in Liberia.

  • gloria

    wow-never got anyone appreciating waist beads before like this-or it being talked about-I have been puting them on since i was a teen. my mom made sure all the girls in the family got them. for us the Acholi-Uganda. it is a sign of beauty. we have them on in certain dances also. But it was also one of the ways a girl got engaged to a boy where he presented the girl he intended to marry with them. its dying tradition for us-the engagement part but i adore it soo much. :)

  • Ihechi

    Jigida!!! >>> http://tooxclusive.com/2012/09/12/kcee-give-it-to-me-ft-flavour/
    oh, in case you don’t know, Jigida is Igbo for waist beads :)

  • EbonyLolita

    I was aware of waist beads after seeing them on the Egyptians on pyramid walls. I did my research & I bought my 1st waist beads from a Nigerian woman as a way of gauging my weight. I’m actually MAKING several waist beads for “sensual” reasons. See knowledge & decide what you want to use them for. It’s a personal decision. *Shrugs*

  • Adeline Umubyeyi

    I personally love waist beads, they’re beautiful. These days they are a fashion statement.

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  • http://twitter.com/AlDaBeader Alieu Sallah

    I am a bead artist and jewellery designer, i design and made loads of waistbeads in past and i saw over the years how waist beads sales incresaes, i do not make a lot of them now because it time consuming. But after reading this article, i am motivated more now to design some more.If you want a Free Bespoke waistbeads it will make you one for free.

    • Jennell

      I would love more waist beads. The first I got were from Nigeria…if you make some can you please contact me? Thanks.

    • Kui

      I’d like one please :)

  • Waist Beads by Sewra

    Thank you for using my image for your blog. Please give waist bead photo credit to: Waist Beads by Sewra/www.waistbeads.com

    • http://www.africaisdonesuffering.com/ Rise Africa

      Thank you for the notification Sewra, we’ve edited the post and given you due credit. Wonderful picture!

  • Bilphena

    Hey Shermy! Most of the information on waist beads can be found on google. To my knowledge, there are no academic resources with this information. Most of the information I used to write this post was based on me talking to the older women in my family.

  • Shermy

    Awesome info, is there a book or other resources for more information?

  • Boobsandbacon

    I disagree with the below statement about culture but I feel fully informed about waist beads. Thought it was just a means for weight but now that I think about it, from experience, it makes sense.

  • http://twitter.com/beuosu beulah

    good breakdown of the use and significance of waist beads. I assumed they were used for some of the reasons that you mentioned but I definitely learned more about their purpose(s). however, I don’t quite agree with the last line. I don’t think it’s fine to use these beads as a fashion statement or any form of expression for that matter if you’re not a part of the culture from which they come. that’s when you get into cultural appropriation territory.