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Almost a year ago, I ordered my first pair of waist beads in the mail. “Excited” would’ve been an understatement. At the time, I had no idea just how much they’d end up teaching me — but in the moment, I was certain that the string of beads would make me feel more beautiful.

Waist beads are a traditional accessory for women in many African cultures. They’re made of glass beads on a string.

I first came across them when I studied abroad in Ghana, where they’re a symbol of femininity, maturity, and sensuality. They’re often kept private, only for chosen partners to see. Other African cultures also associate waist beads with fertility, protection, and other meanings.

Years later, I discovered that waist beads were popular in the United States, too. Women here wear them for lots of reasons, but adornment is probably the most common. After all, the beads’ first purpose is beauty. They make you stop and admire yourself in the mirror, hips suddenly imbued with sensuality.

When my waist beads arrived, I immediately fastened them around my waist and admired myself in the mirror, swaying and dancing and posing. They tend to have that effect on people. I saw the beauty I’d been so looking forward to.

After wearing them overnight, I had to admit it: my waist beads were too small. My stomach had somehow grown since I’d meticulously measured my waist before purchasing. Now my beads dug into my skin. I sucked my stomach in and felt disappointed.

The second-most common reason folks wear waist beads is for weight management. The intention being as the beads roll up one’s waist, they can become aware that their stomach is growing, and therefore a person can take actions to make themselves smaller.

But I didn’t want to lose weight. If anything, I wanted to gain weight.

My beads rolled up past my belly button, and when I checked the mirror, I noted that my stomach was indeed sticking out. It does that often. I used to hate it when I noticed my stomach in the mirror.

I struggle with depression and anxiety, and food is one of the first parts of self-care to disappear when my mental health is suffering.

When my waist beads grew tight, I felt resentful of my protruding belly. Yet when they “fit,” it clearly meant that I hadn’t been eating enough. My weight fluctuates on a regular basis, and I knew that my stomach sticking out wasn’t the real problem here.

And so, rather than try to make my stomach fit my waist beads, I bought an extender chain that allows me to adjust the beads so they fit my stomach. I find myself adjusting almost daily, sometimes multiple times a day.

When my beads are quite loose, it’s a gentle reminder that I’ve likely been skipping meals. When my stomach expands — well, I just lengthen the string and I still feel beautiful.

Instead of resentment, I’ve grown to associate the tightening waist beads with a feeling of accomplishment. I nourished myself today. I am full and fed.

No matter what size my stomach is, I feel gorgeous when I look at my body in the mirror, and it’s all thanks to the beads — their color, the way they sit on my waist, the way they make me move, and the way they make me feel inside.

with meaning
to Anita, owner of The Bee Stop, this design is called “Ho’oponopono,” which means “Thank you, I love
you, please forgive me, and I am sorry”. This phrase is considered to
be very healing when said to ourselves or when holding someone in our mind and
mentally saying it to them.

Yes, the beads are popularly known for weight management. But more and more, they’re being used for body positivity instead.

One waist bead artist and friend-of-a-friend, Ebony Baylis, has been wearing waist beads for almost five years and making them for about three. When she first started, she encountered many people who thought waist beads were only for skinny people or people who were trying to lose weight.

“For me, wearing waist beads was never for my body image. I just loved the beauty and feeling of them,” Ebony tells me. “But I have learned through those I’ve made them for. For them, it does make them feel sexy and comfortable in their skin. They love that it’s not restricted and they can change them or take it off, versus feeling that they have to fit one style or one size.”

Another friend, Bunny Smith, has been wearing waist beads for over five years. She got her first pair after her self-esteem had reached a low point.

“Every time I looked in the mirror I felt ugly and inadequate. The parts of me that stuck out or bulged made me want to chop them off,” she says.

“My sister-in-law suggested I try waist beads, and I lived right by the African market so I went and bought them. For the first time, I liked the way my love handles looked. And I felt sexy, not because I had just lost weight (which was the only way before) but because I saw my own body in a new light, just the way it was.”

Bianca Santini has been making waist beads since September 2018. She made her first pair for herself, in part because many vendors would charge extra for so-called “plus-size” beads.

“They changed my life. I feel sexy, I feel confident, and most importantly, I feel free,” Bianca tells me.

“I often take ‘self-love’ photo shoots to remind myself that I am cute AF and I must say the waist beads have increased that ‘me’ time exponentially. They are so sensual without any effort. They also ground me in a way I never knew I needed. Something that pulls me back to my core and to my womb space.”

Bianca makes beads for a variety of clients. Some of them use them like she does — to deepen their relationship to their bodies. Some also, inevitably, use them for weight loss. Either way, her intention to the craft is the same.

“My waist beads are intended for self-love and healing. I create them and hold that intention as I make them,” she says. “Whenever I feel them as I move throughout the day or when I eat or even when I go to sleep I am reminded of my intention to love and care for myself.”

“When I make them for others, even if they are intended for weight loss markers, I still hold that same intention during creation. That is why people come to me to make them now, for healing and protection.”

A changing body, size, and shape just comes with the territory of being human. You’ll look gorgeous regardless. That’s what waist beads have taught me.

I accidentally popped my waist beads recently, so I sent them back to the artist to fix them (shout out to the amazing Bee Stop!). Being bead-less for over a week now, I feel pretty dang naked, like a part of me is missing.

I’m happy to say, though, that the lessons of the waist beads have not left me, even without the beads on.

My body is beautiful — when my stomach juts out, when my waist is far too tiny, and also when it’s somewhere in the middle. The waist beads don’t make my body beautiful. They’re just a lovely, ever-present reminder that I am.

Kim Wong-Shing is a writer in New Orleans. Her work spans beauty, wellness, relationships, pop culture, identity, and other topics. Bylines in Men’s Health, HelloGiggles, Elite Daily, and GO Magazine. She grew up in Philadelphia and attended Brown University. Her website is kimwongshing.com.