As long as I can remember waist beads have been a symbol of pride, femininity, tradition and heritage. I grew up in Nigeria and the delicate accessory worn around a woman’s stomach and waist is rooted deep within my culture, whether as a traditional symbol of womanhood and fertility or worn as a contemporary fashion statement. Before I started wearing waist beads, I didn’t feel a deep connection with my body nor sense of self, and I certainly had no idea of how I could adorn and celebrate my body as a Black woman. This changed when my “thick” sister paraded the house one day in skimpy clothes showing off her shiny, colourful beads with pride. I soon noticed a lot of the older women around me also wore waist beads and I observed how they exuded so much confidence and talked about their bodies with so much pride.
Now since I started wearing waist beads, they’ve given me a sense of stability and a heightened feeling of body awareness. While it has taken me a long time to accept who I am, I have grown to love my body more when I can feel my beads wrapped around my waist and belly. It seems I’m not the only person who feels this way. Waist beads have become more popular on social media in recent years, and the hashtag #Waistbeads has garnered more than 297.9 million views on Tiktok. From being used as body adornments and for spiritual reasons by Black women, the accessory has gained wide acceptance in popular culture — even Rihanna has been seen rocking similar jewellery over her baby bump recently.
While people of all races and ethnicities wear waist beads, this accessory undeniably has African origins, worn by both men and women in numerous African societies for generations. They are single or multiple strands of beads made from various kinds of glass, metal, crystal, bone and wooden beads that are worn around the waist and stomach. It’s understood that waist beads have origins in ancient Egypt, where they were known as ‘girdles’ and were worn by ladies as a status symbol. The Yoruba tribe of Nigeria popularised African waist beads and were used as early as the 15th century for a variety of reasons; female children are given waist beads by their mothers when they get their period to signify their rite of passage into womanhood and, in some African societies, as proof of her fertility and sexuality.
Despite their long history within African cultures, some people however see waist beads as something unholy. As a result of colonialism, a lot of innocent and simple African traditions have been ruled out as sinful, and waist beads haven’t escaped similar judgements. The more waist beads have been made famous by some contemporary online sensationalists and charm entrepreneurs, a lot of people have attributed them to some spiritual powers or divination thereby demonising it. “Before now, if a woman was seen wearing waist beads, she’d be viewed as sexually promiscuous, demonic, and filthy and might even be considered a lesbian,” shares Blector*, 22, who also grew up in Nigeria and runs a waist bead business. “But now, they are largely seen as body adornments and self-love accessories,” she explained.
I can remember my mom continually questioning my sister about why she wore waist beads. She would respond that she simply loves how they look and feel on her body. It should go without saying that there is nothing evil about wearing waist beads. Yes, they can be used for protection or as charms of some sort but how waist beads are worn are entirely dependent on who is wearing them and their personal intent.
“Since wearing waist beads, my stomach became the main attraction…and feel more confident showing it off.”Samantina zENON
@kurukerwaistbeads How to put waistbeads on. #waistbeads ♬ original sound – toohot4scotty
Today, the use of waist beads have evolved to meet the various desires of the modern wearer; from boosting body confidence, enhancing sexual attraction, celebrating femininity, and, in many cases, tracking weight gain or loss. While modern dieting tools can have negative implications, waist bead wearers say they feel less body conscious in the accessory.
“No matter how much I dieted or how many pounds I lost. I always felt like I could never have the perfect stomach. When I tried pursuing my dream career as a model, I was shamed by many agencies for not being thin enough and not having “the look”. These negative remarks were affecting my mental health and also my relationship with my body,” NYC actress and author Samantina Zenon explains to Unbothered. “My stomach has always been the problem area for me, and for many years, I felt self conscious and uncomfortable wearing certain clothes, because I did not have the flattest stomach,” she added. “Since wearing waist beads, my stomach became the main attraction, and people always compliment my waist beads, which helped me embrace it and feel more confident showing it off.”
“I use waist beads to monitor and track my weight,