The Kayan women of Northern Thailand are known for the exquisite and incredible brass coils they wear around their necks. They are often called the “long necks” or the “giraffe women” by outsiders and can wear up to 25 coils, which many never take off. National Geographic Channel’s show Taboo took a look at these and other body modifications.
Myth has it that the women will break their necks or be unable to support them if the coils are removed but this is simply not true. Maeneng, above, is the matriarch of her village, and while she is the only one to wear 25 coils, she often helps adjust and repair the coils of other women.
In this picture 19-year-old MaeBlae is having her coils redone as they were causing discomfort. She had not seen her neck for 5 years and was excited to see what it looked like. When asked about the discomfort of coils she said, “At first there is some discomfort, but it is worth it for it is beautiful.”
Children are often given their first set of coils at age 5. This consists of a set weighing about 4 1/2 pounds, then slowly new rings are added. In actual fact, the Kayan women do not have their necks elongated, rather it works in the other direction.
As the weight of the coils press down, the clavicle is lowered, and with each addition to the neck rings it falls further, compressing the rib cage as well. The shoulders finally fall away to give the appearance of an elongated neck.
The necks are stunning with their solid brass coils and of course there is folklore around the custom. Some anthropologists believe the folklore surrounds a belief that the coils will stave stave off tiger bites, while others think it has to do with making the individual look like a dragon, an important part of Kayan mythology. When talking to the women, though, it seems like beauty is the main reason they wear the coils.
You can discover more about the long-necked Kayan women on June 1, 2011 at 10pm on the National Geographic channel.