Waist Beads, Deeper than an Accessory

Written By Fasade Jarrett

For centuries, waist beads have been worn by women in many different cultures and countries across the continent of Africa. Nearly every culture has a unique meaning for the use of waist beads.

For example, the Hausa culture in present-day Nigeria uses waist beads as beautification for girls of all ages, including newborns and toddlers, and they are also believed to ward off negative energies. Similarly, the women of the Yoruba tribe–where my name originates from–use waist beads to support fertility and protection. In the Igbo culture, waist beads are worn by both men and women, but they are very significant in women's lives.

Some waist beads are worn only for special ceremonies. For example, when waist beads are presented by the groom, they are considered to be a part of an integral part of the bride’s wedding attire. The special occasion would not be complete without them.

Long-Standing History

The history of waist beads can be traced back to ancient Egypt and pre-colonial West Africa. Many accounts of their usage in history have been lost, intentionally erased, or kept hidden in the confines of academia, inaccessible to multitudes of people. Due to chattel slavery, imperialism, and colonization, the people of the African diaspora have been dispersed all across the globe, bringing many of their traditions with them. These traditions found new life in every new place, resulting in numerous cultures having distinct African influences.

This has brought light and awareness to so many beautiful traditional cultural practices.

Sadly, with that also comes cultural vultures, appropriation, and the spread of misinformation. Waist bead history enthusiast, Brie Penermon, has curated a great following in her pursuit of accurate information about these beautiful adornments. With the founding of Fitbeads, Penermon has created a platform where women can connect and learn about their bodies and culture through traditional African adornments. She says about waist bead research, “I think there is a lot of research to be done on the subject. It’s a shame waist beads are not as documented as they could be. There are so many similarities and interesting differences across cultures that haven’t really been explored.”

Cultural Debate

Over the years and with the rise of social media, waist beads have grown in popularity as a “cute accessory.”  There has been much debate and dialogue between people native to Africa and people from other parts of the world, particularly Black Americans. This debate centers on whether or not people should be wearing waist beads like they do other jewelry–decorative and meant to be seen–or if they should be kept hidden, as is the traditional practice in many, but not all, African cultures.

I asked Penermon her views on this, given her research and the different perspectives she has heard. Although her take is not to police others due to the cultural differences within the continent, she had this to say, “I do stress the importance of understanding what you are wearing so if you get asked or called out about it you can have a higher level conversation rather than just saying, ‘I’m not appropriating because my ancestors were also African.’ If you are serious about wearing them because you’re reconnecting to your culture, that should be accompanied by a real desire to learn the culture(s) and not just wear an aesthetic.”

For those who have the desire to deepen their connection to their heritage, Pernermon suggests reaching out to first-hand sources if possible. There is so much information on the internet to sift through,  some of it can be confusing or misleading, and some information is entirely wrong.

“Ask friends, neighbors, and peers who come from a culture that wears them. Obviously, one person can’t speak for an entire group, but I think sparking dialogue is really important in cross-cultural understanding. Just asking around and talking to Africans from the continent who have a tradition of wearing them can go a long way, especially in understanding modern sentiments about them. I see lots of siloed conversations that become echo chambers where African culture becomes reduced to ‘Hotep’ spirituality with no input from actual continental Africans.”

If you’re wanting to learn more about waist beads and their history, follow Brie on TikTok and shop from her site, featuring sustainably and ethically sourced waist beads directly from Ghana.