VII: Mythbust Monday — Kayan Long-Necked Women

Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you have all (probably not) been waiting for: the return of Mythbust Monday!

I know I missed it like a convict misses hugs and his mom’s apple pie after 6 months in solitary.

Ok, I probably didn’t miss it that much. Moving on.

Today’s myth is as follows: the long-necked women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe of Burma, famous for many brass rings they wear on their necks, will break their necks if they remove the rings because the weight of their heads is too much for their weak and elongated spines.

Let’s start with a little background on the Kayan women and their brass neck rings. The origin of the tradition of wearing brass neck rings to elongate the neck is unknown. It’s speculated that it comes from a desire to protect the wearer from tiger bites or to emulate the dragon goddess they so revere. Either way, the Kayan women have been elongating their necks for centuries.

The Kayan women start wearing the brass rings at around the age of five, starting with only five or six rings, which weigh a total of about four and a half pounds. A new ring will be added every few years. Each ring is actually a loop in a single coil of brass. Often this brass coil is a girl’s only valuable possession.

Now here’s where the mythbusting happens. In order for the myth to be true, the coils would have to be stretching or separating the vertebrae of the neck or otherwise deforming them enough to place the entire weight of the head on the coils instead of the weakened neck.

But the coils don’t really stretch the neck. It’s all an elaborate illusion.

The heavy coils actually press down on the collarbones and shoulder blades, as opposed to pressing up on the head. They push the shoulders down to a 45 degree angle while also compressing the rib cage. Take a look at this woman‘s shoulders and you’ll see what I mean. The rings shorten the torso without altering the woman’s height, giving the appearance of a longer neck. And although the rings can cause scarring and discoloration on the shoulders, the Kayan women are easily able to adjust the rings and clean underneath them, which they would not be able to do if the rings were supporting their heads.

That means this myth is as false as George Washington’s teeth, which, being made of ivory, were very false indeed.

In fact, it is not unheard of for Kayan women to remove their rings. The punishment for committing adultery is the removal of one’s rings. Women also remove their rings if they are travelling and fear they will be killed for the valuable brass, or if they are in extreme financial need and selling the brass rings is their last option. Women also remove their rings quite briefly every few years to have them refitted.

So no, having their necks rings removed will not kill the Kayan women. It may cause some discomfort and it will certainly cause them to be ogled at by other members of their tribe, but it’s not even close to a death sentence.

And I thought braces were bad. Yeesh.


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