Lip plates, also known as lip plugs or lip discs, are a form of body modification where gradually larger discs (usually circular, and made from clay or wood) are inserted into a pierced hole in the lower lip, thereby stretching it. The term labret (pronounced "LAY-brett") denotes all kinds of pierced-lip ornaments, including plates and plugs.
In Africa, a lower lip plate is usually combined with the excision of the two lower front teeth, sometimes all four. In some cases (Sara, Lobi) a plate is also inserted into the upper lip. Other tribes, such as the Makonde, wear a plate in the upper lip only. In many older sources it is reported that the plate's size is a sign of social or economical importance in some tribes. However, because of natural mechanical attributes of human skin, it seems that the plate's size often just depends on the stage of stretching of the lip.
In South America, lip plates are nearly always made from light wood.
Among the Surma (own name Suri) and Mursi people of the lower Omo River valley in Ethiopia, about 6-12 months before marriage the woman's lip is pierced by her kinswomen, usually around the age of 15-16.
These days, it appears that Mursi girls of age 13 to 16 just decide for themselves whether they want to wear a lip plate or not. The initial piercing is done as an incision of the lower lip of 1 to 2 cm length, and a simple wooden peg is inserted. After the wound has healed, which usually takes 2 or 3 weeks, the peg is replaced with a slightly bigger one. At a diameter of about 4 cm the first lip plate made of clay is inserted. Every woman crafts her plate by herself and takes pride in including some ornamentation. A final diameter of about 10 to 15 cm seems common, although sizes of up to 25 cm are reported and can be seen on recent tourist photographs.
Many recent sources (for example) claim that, for Mursi and Surma women, the size of their lip plate indicates the number of cattle paid as bride price, though anthropologist Turton, who has studied the Mursi for 30 years, denies this.
In some Amazonian tribes, young men traditionally have their lips pierced when they enter the men's house and leave the world of women  . Lip plates there have important associations with oratory and singing, and the largest plates are worn by the greatest orators and war-chiefs, like the well-known environmental campaigner Raoni of the Kayapo tribe.
In the Pacific Northwest of North America, among the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit, lip plates symbolised social maturity by indicating a girl's eligibility to be a wife. The installation of a girl's first plate was celebrated with a sumptuous feast.
Tribes that are known for their traditional lip plates include:
- The Mursi and Surma (Suri) women of Ethiopia
- The Suyá men of Brazil (most no longer wear plates)
- The Sara women of Chad (ceased wearing plates several decades ago)
- The Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique (ceased wearing plates several decades ago)
- The Botocudo of coastal Brazil (in previous centuries, both sexes wore plates)
In the West, some people, including some members of the Modern Primitive movement, have adopted larger-gauge lip piercings, a few large enough for them to wear proper lip plates. Some examples are given on the BME website
- http://www.mursi.org Mursi Online, David Turton's site
- http://www.mursi.org/life-cycle/lip-plates Mursi Lip-plates (dhebi a tugoin) on Mursi Online
- http://www.photographersdirect.com/stockimages/l/lip_plate.asp One of many similar sites.
- David Turton: "Lip-plates and 'the people who take photographs': uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists in southern Ethiopia," Anthropology Today 20(3) pp 3-8, 2004.
- Carol Beckworth and Angela Carter: "African Ark", page 251. Collins Harvill 1990.
- Anthony Seeger: "The meaning of body ornaments: a Suya example," Ethnology 14(3) pp 211-224, 1975.
- Aldona Jonaitis: "Women, Marriage, Mouths and Feasting: the symbolism of Tlingit labrets", pp 191-205 of Arnold Rubin (ed): "Marks of Civilization". Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 1988.
- http://www.bmezine.com/news/presenttense/20050203.html Interviews with two plate-wearers
- http://www.bmezine.com/pierce/05-lips/scalp001.html Photos of modern scalpelled and other large-gauge lip piercings
- http://www.bmezine.com/pierce/05-lips/plate001.html Photos of small lip plates