Beauty Is Pain: Women In Rural Senegal Tattoo Their Gums Black

January 4, 2013  |  

Dodai Stewart of Jezebel writes about a viral video about women in rural parts of Senegal tattooing their gums black, as a sign of beauty.

According to the Stewart:

“In this video making the rounds, a woman named Marième, who lives in Senegal, goes to get her gums tattooed black. “I want black gums to obtain a more beautiful smile,” she says. “It’s become an obsession.” Later, she admits: “I’m scared.” As she should be! The procedure, which takes place outdoors using handmade needles and black powder made by burning oil and shea butter, is not for the faint of heart: Marième is in so much pain she cries and cannot get the seven layers of tattooing planned — she stops after four. “It hurts. I would never recommend this torture to anyone,” she says.”

Probably the most trill part of this video comes courtesy of a woman with an amazing beehive of hairstyle, who proudly states that of this ancient tradition “…Listen to me, tattooed gums and a silver tooth: that’s what’s attractive.”

Maybe WAR, the soul-funk band from the 70s was right: maybe the world is one big ole’ ghetto with tattoos, gold and silver fronts and rainbow-colored weaves. Surprisingly I’m cool with that.

Not exactly the gum tattooing. That actually sounds quite painful. I remember once contemplating taking my own life after a really bad toothache so I can’t imagine the emotions that would arise from getting repeatedly stabbed in the gums. The crazy vain things women do in the name of beauty. But I have to admit that there is something both satisfying and validating about women reveling, although painfully and probably unnecessary, in beauty standards outside our European-centered norms. Most particularly, having women declare admiration for a physical trait, which I have naturally and have never thought of as affectionately.

Historically speaking, being a “blue gum” was considered a derogatory racial slur, popularized in the South, used to describe a person with skin (down to the gums) so dark that they look blue. No one has ever made such a derogatory comment – not any that I can recall off hand – to me about my gums; but I do remember a playmate from my childhood pointing out my “oddity” in such a way that I instantly became conscious of it. She said something about having a Whoopi Goldberg in the Color Purple smile. And then she smirked in such a way that hurt just a little inside. It wasn’t long after that I learned to master posing in such a way as to not smile too wide, thus eliminating the risk of showing too much of my “discolored” dental margins. Only until fairly recently, have I learned to smile freely without worry about how gummy I might look.  And only until watching this video, thinking, “you know, there is something kind of sexy about the contrast between my dark gums and my pearly whites…”

While having dark gums can be a sign of some periodontal issues like gingivitis and cancer, generally speaking having blackened gums is pretty benign and is more than likely a result of higher concentration of melanin in the skin. That right there is just another way in which our ancestors occasionally like to shine through. However, because anything outside the standard troupe that beauty can only exist in the form of being pink and pale (or as close to it as possible), dark gums are regarded as not as attractive, if not abnormal.  As such, some folks go to extremes to rectify the “problem” including gum bleaching and surgery. Again, shaking my head what we folk do in the name of beauty.


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