The Kayan Lahwi people (Padaung) are an ethnic group from Myanmar and Thailand. Many Padaung girls have their necks fitted with the first spiral at the age of 5; after 2 years, a second coil is added. Coils are then added until a limit of 21 - 25 is reached.
The origin of this custom is shrouded in mystery. Many believe that it is a way to make women less attractive to slave traders. Some think that it’s the tribe's way to protect their throat from tigers. The most commonly accepted theory, however, is that the purpose of the coils to establish cultural identity, one associated with beauty -- a long neck is considered a mark of great beauty.
These photos were taken in 1935 when a group of Padaung women visited London. In the 1930s, circuses and shows were popular in the United Kingdom and the Padaung women, advertised as “giraffe women,” were star attractions, drawing huge crowds.
Padaung women asking a London policeman for directions, 1935
The spirals may reach up to 1 foot high and weigh 20 pounds, giving the illusion of a stretched neck. Actually the neck doesn’t get stretched, the coils push down the collarbones and compress the rib cage. The appearance of the elongated neck is an illusion created by the deformation of the clavicle and sloping of the shoulders.
The coils are usually only removed to be replaced by a new or longer coil. Over time, the muscles covered by the coils become weakened.
Doctors examining a Padaung woman.
One of the women celebrates her 21st birthday with a cake.