Normally worn for decoration, for the Surma people of Ethiopia the significance of wearing lip plates is a financial one. The process of inserting these plates (made by the women themselves from local clay, which are then coloured with ochre and charcoal and fire-baked) begins approximately a year before marriage and the final size indicates the number of cattle required by the girl’s family from her future husband for her hand. The plates can reach up to 15 cm (6 in) in diameter, which would require a payment of 50 cattle.
The practice of inserting large, circular clay plates behind the lower lips of the women is seen as a sign of true beauty. At puberty, the lip is stretched with a clay plate, and the size increased incrementally. A girl’s goal is to reach a plate the size of a teacup saucer, or bigger, before she is married.