Kayan Lahwi Women Look At A Guard At St. James's Palace, London, 1935 (Colorized)

January 31, 2021

Kayan Women Wear Their Rings From An Early Age

This photo is a fascinating experiment in contrasts. Not only does it feature the "giraffe women" of the Kayan Lahwi people, also known as Padaung, but it shows one of London's famous Buckingham Palace guards. If you're not from one of those two cultures you probably don't know what to think. Even though Western culture is somewhat more used to seeing Buckingham Palace, anyone who didn't grow up in England must have some fascination with them.

The same thing goes for the Padaung women who take part in the custom of stretching their necks with brass coils. While this practice may seem strange to people in the west, it's a part of their culture that they take very seriously. Today, people are more accepting of different cultures, but when this photo was taken in 1935 people weren't so interested in learning about new "strange" cultures.

What must have these women been thinking when they visited England and experienced a world that was so different from theirs? Let's try to figure it out. 

source: jecinci

The Padaung people, or the Kayan Lahwi, hail from Myanmar (then known as Burma) and Thailand. The women of this culture place brass rings around their necks from the age of five giving them the appearance of an elongated neck. As the girls grow, larger coils are placed around their neck, pushing their collar bones down and compressing their rib cages.

While these women are known as "giraffe women," their necks aren't actually lengthened, it just looks like it because of the deformation in the clavicle caused by the neck rings. Anthropologists have surmised that the rings were initially meant to make the women look less attractive to other tribes, but that now they work to make the women more sexually attractive by accentuating their slender necks.

The coils are rarely removed unless they're being replaced by a new version. Urban legend states that the wearer's neck will break after spending years in the ring. While the muscles in a Padaung woman's neck do grow weak, the only thing that happens once the rings are removed is a slight discomfort that goes away after a week or so.

Giraffe women in England

source: getty images

As far as we can tell, these Padaung women were in England as a part of a Carnival where they were most likely appearing in its oddity section or possibly a sideshow, as was common at the time. Other photos from this set show the four women traveling around London while men and women gawk at them, and a shot of a Padaung woman holding her baby while speaking with a police officer in what looks like the "backstage" area at the carnival.

At the time, no one in England would have had any idea that women like this existed unless they were anthropologists, so the population at large was vexed by their very existence. Another photo from the set shows the women waving to Londoners upon their arrival at Victoria Station, and another shows the women being examined by a doctor. The entire photo set has the vibe of "Would you get a load of this?"