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Waist beads are a traditional African accessory that consist of small glass beads on a string or wire worn around the waist or hips. They come in different colors and shapes and may also include decorative stones, crystals, or charms.
Waist beads have been worn for centuries by women in many West African cultures. In more recent years they’ve gained popularity among women in the West. They’re also referred to as belly beads, waistline beads, or beaded waist chains.
In Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and other West African countries, waist beads are a symbol of femininity, fertility, sensuality, and spiritual well-being. Today, in both Africa and the United States, women use waist beads for aesthetic and practical purposes.
We’ll cover the many reasons why waist beads remain such a popular accessory for women around the globe and how you can find the beads for your body.
Waist beads are commonly used to gauge changes in weight. Rather than step on a scale, people can use waist beads to stay aware of any weight gain or loss in the abdomen.
Waist beads don’t stretch. If you were to gain weight, the beads will sit higher on the waist or feel tight. Conversely, if you were to lose weight, the beads will feel loose and fall further down to the hips.
Unlike the numbers on a scale, waist beads are more compatible with body positivity. Women of all sizes and shapes can comfortably wear waist beads to adorn their body.
There are even adjustable waist beads available if you don’t want the beads to fit differently based on your weight or changes like bloating.
In parts of the world where waist beads are a cultural tradition, the beads are often associated with womanhood, maturity, and growth.
In Ghana, babies are traditionally adorned with waist beads during their naming ceremonies. Only girls, however, continue to wear the beads as they grow older.
In many West African traditions, mothers tie a pair of waist beads onto daughters during their first menstruation to symbolize their passage into womanhood.
Outgrowing a pair of waist beads may also mark the transition into a new stage of life. The beads a girl wears during puberty will differ from the beads she wears after her first child, for example.
Intimacy and fertility
Many women around the world use waist beads in intimate settings to enhance their sensuality. Waist beads may also be closely associated with fertility. Some women wear specific beads during sex when they’re trying to conceive.
Among the Ashante and Krobo cultures in Ghana, larger beads or bells are added to a woman’s waist beads once she’s fertile so she makes noise when she walks to alert potential suitors nearby.
In other cultures, waist beads are worn under clothing for only the wearer and her chosen partners to see, similarly to a special set of lingerie.
Special waist beads are also available for pregnant women. They’re thought to provide protection for the mother and growing baby.
Heritage and pride
While women of all races and ethnicities wear waist beads, this accessory has unmistakably African origins. Waist beads are a popular way for Black women in the diaspora to connect to their ancestors and celebrate their heritage and cultural practices.
Today, the usage of waist beads by Black and Brown women in the West has evolved into a cultural tradition of its very own, one that reflects the diasporic experience.
Many women in the diaspora don’t have direct knowledge of their West African lineage due to the transatlantic slave trade. Reclaiming waist beads also means Black women can reclaim the opportunity to walk in their ancestors’ footsteps. The beads are a constant physical reminder that heritage is never as far away as you may think, and it’s up for personal interpretation.
Waist beads can help a person become more aware of their stomach and posture. The beads fit quite differently depending on how one is sitting and breathing. They can serve as a reminder to sit up straight, engage your stomach muscles, relax your back, and breathe properly.
Waist beads and magic
In Ghana and other parts of West Africa, women traditionally added charms and fragrant oils to lure suitors or protect themselves against negative energy. Today in the United States, many waist bead artists incorporate folk healing technologies into their designs, such as crystals, chakra healing, or intention setting.
The best thing about waist beads is how individual they are. You can wear as many strands of beads as you like, and you can wear them for whatever reason you want. They’re a powerful means of self-expression.
To measure yourself for waist beads, waist bead artist Anita from The Bee Stop first recommends deciding where you want your beads to sit on your body. Do you want them high on your waist? Down at your hips? Right at your belly button?
After you decide, wrap measuring tape or string around that part of your body to get the measurement. If you’re using a string, mark on the string where the two ends meet, then measure that length with a ruler. Try not to wrap the string or tape too snugly around your body. It will result in a tighter fit than you may anticipate.
Some waist beads are permanent. That means the string doesn’t stretch, and there’s no clasp to take the beads on or off. They’re designed to stay on your body 24/7 until they break or you decide to cut them off for good.
Some removable waist beads are also adjustable or come with extender chains. These may be a good option for people who want to continue wearing the same waist beads at any size without worrying about “fitting” into them. Instead, the beads fit you.
There are a lot of styles, colors, and materials to choose from. Your waist beads can be rich with symbolism if you so choose. Each color and stone is associated with a specific meaning:
- Blue: healing, harmony, insight, truth
- Brown: earth, stability
- Green: prosperity, fertility, abundance, hope, healing
- Purple: spirituality, wisdom, royalty
- Red: vitality, passion, bravery, confidence
- White: light, truth, purity
- Yellow: wisdom, clarity, awareness, energy, joy
Stone and charm meanings
- Evil eye: protection against negativity
- Green aventurine: luck, prosperity, wealth
- Hamsa: protection against evil or bad luck
- Lapis lazuli: peace, wisdom, truth, insight
- Quartz: clarity, amplifies other crystals
- Rose quartz: love, compassion, healing
If possible, try to buy your first pair of waist beads in person. That way, the artist can measure them to your body and make sure the beads fit exactly how you want them to fit.
If there’s an African market near you, there may be a waist bead artist there. If not, a vendor can likely point you in the right direction.
If you can’t find a waist bead artist in your area or if you’re more comfortable ordering online, there are a ton of options available.
Keep in mind that if you can’t find premade waist beads in your size, many artists are happy to take a custom order.
Waist beads may look like a simple accessory, but they can have a transformational effect on the wearer. Wrapping a pair of beads around one’s waist can feel sensual and grounding. The beads serve as an ongoing reminder to be more aware and loving toward one’s body.
My first pair of waist beads, for example, completely changed my relationship to my stomach. Before the beads, I felt resentful of my stomach whenever it grew in size. After the beads, I felt beautiful no matter how big or small my stomach looked.
Other women feel empowered by waist beads in other ways: a connection to their heritage, a symbol of fertility, or a way to gauge their weight and posture.
Waist beads are an intensely personal item, so there are as many ways to find meaning in them as there are styles of beads. As waist beads grow in popularity, this West African tradition will likely continue to evolve for years to come.
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.