Waist beads are mesmerizing accessories many women-and sometimes men-wear that have traditional roots in Africa. They are worn for a wide range of purposes and come in different shapes and colors to fit any person. Since people of African descent are all over the world, the cultural accessory has maintained a global popularity and continued legacy.
When walking down 125th and Lenox or through the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, my eyes are always caught by the endless strings of vibrant, shining beads spread out on tables and hanging on the end of vendor kiosks. Unlike other accessories, waist beads have a unique story to be recognized in modern fashion.
Waist beads don’t have just one singular purpose. While they can be worn “for show,” that’s not always the reason. In fact, waist beads have different cultural traditions across regions in Africa, so depending on who you ask, they may have a different meaning.
There are two ethnic groups that are popularly credited as the originators of waist beads: Egyptians and the Yoruba tribe. Waist beads have been recorded in Egyptian history as early as the 15th century. Known as a “girdle,” they were worn by dancers and were also a symbol of status amongst women.
The Yoruba tribe makes up a large region of Nigeria. For Yoruba women historically, waist beads exuded “sensuality and femininity.” They were meant to make women seductive to the male gaze. The Green Views article, “The History of Waist Beads in Ghana” states, “The Yoruba women are known to have once laced beads with charms and fragrances that would be considered irresistible to the opposite sex.”
Because of their sexual appeal, waist beads are known in cultures as the “African Lingerie.”
The Igbo-another large ethnic group of Nigeria-have been noted as being the oldest culture to incorporate waist beads in fashion. The beads-known as Mgbájí-were meant to be worn as decoration during celebrations. They can date back to 500 B.C. through ancient artifacts, and are known to have been worn by men and women across economic backgrounds.
“These ornaments are typically made with beads, copper, corals, stones, etc and held together by a string or wire,” stated the article, “The Significance of Waist Beads in Igbo Culture.”
In Ghana and many other African countries, waist beads can signify different personal milestones. Sometimes they are put on babies when being named. Girls also may be gifted waist beads by their mothers when they get their first period to signify their growth into womanhood.
In other cultures, women will wear waist beads to signify virginity as they are only meant to be taken off by their husbands.
Waist beads can also be worn to track weight and body shape. You’ll know if you lost weight if the beads are strung looser than usual around you. If they’re tighter, you may have put on a few pounds.
The accessory can also represent fertility, meditation, purity, self-love and more. Sometimes they are meant to be worn under clothes, and tied on permanently until they break off themselves. Others are made with elastic strings or clasps that make them easy to take on and off and wear over clothes.
Modern Issues with Waist Beads
Nowadays in some cultures, parents may look down on their children for wearing waist beads because there can be a stereotype of promiscuity associated with them. This mentality could be similar to mothers not wanting their teenage daughters to wear crop tops for instance. They don’t want “loose” children.
Also, with TikTok and other social media platforms, waist beads have been exposed to a wider audience that may haven’t seen them otherwise. It raises the question, is it appropriate for people of other non-Black ethnicities to wear them?
I liked the response of the waist bead small business, Decorated Muse, via TikTok. Basically, just have good intentions and respect the culture.
By the way, you can shop their products here: https://www.decoratedmuse.com
In conclusion, it’s important to know that waist beads have different cultural origins and significance spanning Africa. As generations to come continue to wear them, it’s important to recognize and share these stories to keep their history alive.
Waist beads are my favorite accessories, and I think it would be interesting to see how Black fashion brands may incorporate them into future looks.