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In certain Asian and African cultures, a neck ring is a metal coil wrapped around the neck for purposes of body modification. Adorning the body with neck rings promotes neck stretching, resulting in a lengthened neck that is considered the height of beauty in various tribal traditions. Though some tribes still practice the custom of neck stretching, it is less common than it once was and, given the unique appearance of an individual sporting a neck ring, is now largely implemented for the purposes of tourism.
The overwhelming majority of those wearing neck rings are women. In certain cultures, a significantly extended neck is viewed as one of the highest forms of physical beauty. Some tribes will start the neck stretching process on a girl as young as two years old. Older girls may also start wearing neck rings in order to attract male attention.
The neck ring is placed around the throat of the woman or child. Over time, more rings are added. Some neck rings are spiraled and contain more than one coil. The gradual addition of rings places strain on the shoulder blades and drives the collarbone and ribs downward.
After the accumulation of more and more neck rings, the woman's body slowly becomes accustomed to the weight of the adornment. The body deforms itself in order to accommodate the rings. It is not unusual for the collarbone to become bent and the ribs to reposition themselves at a much lower angle. Despite all of this, the neck never actually stretches; it simply gives the illusion of stretching.
This custom has a strong impact on how the neck ring-bearing women function in daily life. They usually have to drink from a straw and are unable to look upwards. A woman might wear up to 20 lbs (9.1 kg) of rings around her neck; this excess weight can make getting around a challenge.
The Karen people of the Padaung tribe in Burma and Thailand are one of the most predominant practitioners of neck stretching. The custom figures heavily into the traditions and practices of the tribe. For example, if a woman is unfaithful to her husband, her neck rings may be removed as punishment. Since the neck muscles have atrophied over the years, they can usually no longer support the weight of the head. Unless someone holds her head up for her, the woman may choke to death; in most cases, the woman will have to spend the remainder of her life lying down.
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