As a child, Sydney Smith loved dressing in giraffe print clothes and accessories. As an adult, she took her love for the animal one tremendous step further. Here is how Smith became known as Giraffe Woman.
Sydney V. Smith was born in Rockville, Maryland, and grew up in her home state. While Smith lived an ordinary life in many respects, she soon realized there was something unique about one of her physical attributes.
"I've always had a long neck," Sydney explained. "In middle school, they called me, 'Giraffe Girl.'" Being an adolescent girl in middle school can often be tough, and looking different from one's peers can make this time even more challenging. Could Smith handle being called Giraffe Girl?
Embracing the Nickname
Fortunately, Smith didn't find the animal nickname offensive. In fact, the young teen embraced the label. Sydney didn't feel insulted when peers called her Giraffe Girl; she thought of it as a compliment and took her similarities to the animal to the next level.
Sydney's love for giraffes grew so much, that she wanted to have more in common than a long neck. Smith began dressing in giraffe-print clothing and accessories and bought giraffe stuffed animals. The young woman cemented her reputation as Giraffe Girl.
Searching for Ideas
But it got to a point where simply dressing in giraffe print and embracing her uniquely long neck wasn't enough. Smith needed to feel even closer to the animal she came to idolize. So Sydney took to the internet for some ideas on how to up her giraffe game.
Smith surfed the web for inspiration on how to become more like her favorite animal. Was there something else she could do other than buy clothes and accessories filled with giraffe print and pictures of the long-necked creature? Sydney soon found out there was...
It was then that Smith learned of the Kayan Lahwi people of Thailand and Burma. The women of these tribes were known for wearing brass coils around their necks that appeared to lengthen the physical attribute. The neck rings were a big part of the community's cultural identity.
"I saw the pictures of the long-necked tribes in Thailand and Burma in National Geographic, and I became fascinated with them," Sydney explained. But what could a teenage girl in Maryland do to attain the same look that the Kayan Lahwi people practiced for centuries?
A DIY Neck Stretcher
Sydney decided the neck rings were exactly what she needed to delve further into her Giraffe Girl identity. The youngster's neck was already a bit longer than those of her peers and she wanted to make it more extreme. But the Kayan women used brass coils that rarely came off.
Smith couldn't create brass rings and put them on the same way the tribal women did. So she got creative with a DIY project: Sydney cut some coat hangers and wrapped the wires around her neck before going to bed. "My parents thought it was ridiculous," Smith recalled.
It was far from the look sported by the Kayan Lahwi tribe, but it was the best Smith could manage in hopes of elongating her neck. While the tribal women traditionally wore the rings from the age of five and for most of their lives, Sydney only wore hers at night.
But according to Smith, the night-time practice proved effective. "After a few years, it became obvious that my neck was longer than the other girls," she said, adding that it wasn't "freakishly" lengthy. But still, a young Sydney had an important decision to make.
Smith believed that her already long neck had become even more elongated by the coat hangers turned neck rings. But while she had spent a lot of time embracing her Giraffe Girl name and becoming increasingly similar to the animal, Sydney didn't know if it could continue.
The uncertain teen decided to take a break from the body-modifying practice and see how it felt. "I stopped for a while to consider if being a long-necked woman was what I really wanted," Sydney shared. Smith spent years contemplating the topic - should she go back to it?
She Wanted To Do It Again
For a long time, Smith welcomed the features that made her unique but was now unsure whether she should make those differences even more extreme. At the same time, Sydney had grown somewhat attached to feeling the wire coat hangers around her neck at night.
"I had missed the comfort from the pressure on the top of my neck and shoulders and had been thinking about doing it again for a while," Smith explained. "The comfort and exhilaration of this process were really all I was after." But was it too late?
Too Little, Too Late?
The Kayan Lahwi women typically began wrapping the rings around their necks from the age of five. The tribe members went through puberty and experienced their bodies mature, often with the coils accompanying. Sydney already had a late start on the custom, and now she had taken a break for a few years.
By the time Smith chose to return to the neck-elongating process, she was a grown woman. Still, Sydney decided to go for it despite the age difference. The determined Giraffe Girl, now more of a Giraffe Woman, wanted to make her long-neck dreams come true.
"Should I Stop or Go for It?"
And so Smith began wearing neck-stretching rings. But this time, it wasn't limited to the night time - she sported them around the clock. Still living in Maryland at the time, Smith wore turtleneck sweaters and worked behind the scenes at her restaurant job to avoid exposing the rings.
Sydney said that by 2011, her neck had a hard time supporting her head on its own. This was a turning point for the young woman. "I asked myself, 'Should I stop or go for it?' Knowing that I would be enslaved to a ringed necklace for the rest of my life," she said.
Inspired by Lady Gaga
While Sydney's original influence for being more giraffe-like was the Kayan people, this time, it was a Hollywood icon who inspired her to go full throttle. After attending a Lady Gaga performance, Smith felt moved to follow her neck-elongating dreams.
"Her [Lady Gaga's] freak empowerment message made a special kind of sense for me," Sydney shared. "I figured if she can wear meat dresses, I can be a giraffe woman." That was the final sign that Smith needed to commit to the distinctive lifestyle fully.
Going All In
Sydney enlisted the help of a good friend to help make her dreams a reality. The aspiring Giraffe Woman had her pal create customized rings fit specifically for Smith's neck. But unlike the previous ones she used, this set would be more permanent and had to be soldered together.
To assure a perfect fit, Smith's friend's melted the necklaces' metals together when the accessory was already on her neck. "He managed to do it safely, though I did get burned a little," she said. The rings had a screw that could be removed and free Sydney's neck in case of an emergency.
While Smith eventually had a total of fifteen rings around her neck, she didn't start with that many. "I took it slow and would add an extra ring when needed," Sydney detailed. But despite efforts to go slow and steady, the lifestyle change brought new discomforts.
"It took a while to learn to sleep with them, but now if I take them off, my neck feels limp," Smith said at the time. But sleeping wasn't the only issue. "If it's summer and the air conditioner isn't working, my neck starts to sweat, and I start to smell," she added.
The neck rings were at times uncomfortable for Smith. While the women she imitated grew up wearing the coils, it was a new feeling for a grown Sydney. And it also had negative consequences that surpassed simple discomforts. The necklaces made it harder to do everyday tasks like drive.
"I don't have the normal range of motion I once did. It makes driving a little hard," Smith said. "A fast-lane change is scary when you don't have free-range movement." Sydney added that, on the bright side, her peripheral vision had improved over time.
The rings made it harder to complete some daily activities safely, and, according to professionals, it also might've had some genuine medical risks. "I don't recommend anyone doing this," said Dr. Jonathan Nissanoff, a Southern California orthopedic surgeon. "It could injure nerves in the neck."
While it was once believed that removing the rings would kill the women of the Kayan tribe, that was now known not to be true. But people who removed the rings did experience severe scarring, mold, and weakness. Would Giraffe Woman have to wear them forever?
There were physical challenges and potential dangers to Sydney's special necklaces. But perhaps even more difficult to navigate were the social hurdles she encountered. "I became more introverted and isolated," Smith recalled. "I tried to avoid the public."
Strangers often approached Smith and asked about the rings, and she also had trouble developing intimate relationships. Sydney said that significant others always wanted "to talk about the rings... Or, a partner would act like they were okay with it, but then ask me to remove it or not bring me around their family."
While the neck coils in some ways isolated Smith, she eventually started to receive media attention for her look and moved to Los Angeles. Sydney became increasingly popular as she added more and more coils. At its heaviest, the stack had 15 rings and weighed five pounds.
Modeling offers started coming in, and Smith saw a career opportunity. "I'd like to work as a specialty model, but my original intent was not to exploit myself," she shared. "However, it seems to be my calling." Sydney soon had a spread in a very famous magazine.
A Circus-Themed Photoshoot
Penthouse, the popular men's magazine, asked Smith to model for one of their publications. The story emphasized Sydney's distinct features and lifestyle alongside other unique women. But the circus-themed photoshoot and "sideshow attraction" portrayal was reminiscent of darker times.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, women from the Kayan Lahwi tribe were taken from their homelands and forced to tour with the Ringling Bros Circus and show off their "amazing features." But for Sydney, the circus-themed story meant more fame and publicity.
Ripley's Believe It Or Not!
As more people became fascinated by Smith's neck coils, she got a very special opportunity. Ripley's Believe It or Not, an American franchise that covers extraordinary events, featured Sydney in an exhibit. She was showcased right next to the women who originally influenced her.
"Inspired by the women of the Kayan Lahwi tribes of Thailand and Myanmar, Sydney V. Smith of Los Angeles, California, has been living with 15 copper rings around her neck, in order to extend it, for five years!" the museum wrote in their publication. But not everyone agreed with what Smith did.
Some People Thought It Was Wrong
Some people thought that Sydney's use of the metal coils to elongate her neck was appropriating a culture and community she did not belong to. In 2019, Smith took to Instagram to share her perspective on the topic. "Do whatever makes you happy," she started.
The post continued, "I truly believe that so I also wear what makes me happy... The term 'cultural appropriation' is subjective by the beholder. If creating an emotional connection to different cultures brings you happiness, please feel free to express yourself." Smith eventually began to question her decision for other reasons.
Should It Stay, or Should It Go?
Years of wearing the neck coils lengthened Smith's neck. "I got it up to 9 or 10 inches," she told The Huffington Post. "But I started missing the things I used to do before, like hiking, running, and swimming. With these rings, I can only go in waist-deep [in the pool]."
For six months, Sydney debated whether or not to remove the metal rings. But every time she was ready to do it, something held her back. "Each time I'd go to do it, I'd feel anxiety," Smith shared. "They feel like an integral part of me." Giraffe Woman was at a crossroads and didn't know which way to go.
"Logic Kicked In"
The debate felt neverending as Smith tried to decide whether to permanently remove the metal coils that had been soldered together on her neck. "I spent five years of my life with rings around my neck, and I just became very introverted and isolated," Sydney said.
She added that it "felt like the rings were taking over my life in every way... It was always about the rings; it wasn't about Sydney anymore. I tried sticking my neck out to make it work, but logic kicked in after a while." When "logic" knocked, Smith answered.
The Final Decision
After five years of wearing the rings and carrying around an extra five pounds on her neck, Sydney decided to remove them once-and-for-all. Just like Smith had a pal help her put the coils on, she got another friend to help remove them. The process was far from easy.
"A very hardcore glue held the rings together. We had to put a chemical on it to eat through the glue," Sydney said. "Someone then had to pull the rings apart. It was very painful and took about 15 minutes." Smith's lifelong dream that she invested years into was gone.
Her Tips for Pulling It Off
Smith wasn't done being Giraffe Woman or loving the animal, but she couldn't go on with the lifestyle. "I couldn't function properly as a long neck woman with fifteen rings around my neck in the United States of America," Sydney explained. She said it would take very special circumstances to live with the coils adequately.
"Unless you are willing to completely isolate yourself and you're a trust fund baby and don't ever need to leave the house, don't ever need to drive, then maybe you can pull it off," Smith confidently said. For Sydney, the attention and isolation were too much. But now, it was time to face another serious situation.
Would the years spent wearing neck rings leave permanent damage on Smith's body? Sydney revealed that when she took off the metal coils, her neck "felt very weak, kind of like arms on a toothpick." The Giraffe Woman's most prized feature was also bruised.
Smith began going to physical therapy a couple of times a week to ease the stiffness and pain caused by wearing the heavy stack of rings. "I did neck exercises with my chiropractor, and that helped," she said. But the question remained - did the years-long effort work? Was Sydney's neck longer?
Did It Actually Work?
Although the rings did stretch Sydney's neck while she was still wearing them, it was unclear whether the effects would last long-term. According to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jonathan Nissanoff, Smith's neck would eventually go back to its original size.
"If she's finished growing, then all she's doing is stretching her skin or putting the bones into traction by pulling them apart," Dr. Nissanoff explained. "The rings aren't going to make her bones longer. Once she removes them, her neck will come back to size."
She Has No Regrets
So were the five years of discomfort and isolation for nothing? Fortunately, Sydney didn't think so. Even though it didn't cause permanent change and she suffered negative consequences, the Giraffe Woman has no regrets over her efforts to elongate her neck.
"I do feel my neck is longer than when I started, but I feel like it has shrunk since I took them off," Smith shared. "I believe that a woman with a short neck is not as attractive... I've grown to appreciate my neckline." Although the rings were off, Sydney wasn't ready to completely get rid of them just yet.
Memories Last Forever
Sydney couldn't run, hike, or swim with the rings. That, plus an array of other reasons, led her to remove them. But that didn't mean Smith wasn't still attached to the apparatus. "I really enjoyed the feeling of the rings around my neck," she explained.
Sydney continued, "I miss the sensation of the weight on the collarbones, which was in a weird way very comforting." So as a reminder of her Giraffe Woman dreams and this period in her life, Smith kept the rings in a glass case in her home. Plus, she saw in them a business opportunity.
Smith considered producing and selling more of the rings. "You'd be surprised at how many women see me and ask where they can get it done," she said. "People have asked me where they can get their own rings, so I may start a line of 'giraffe woman' rings."
At the time, Sydney felt tired of modeling and wanted to explore the business side of things. "Doing this got a lot of my showbiz desire out of my system, so I think I'm going to focus on being an entrepreneur," Smith explained. There were also big changes in her personal life.
The Giraffe Woman who once felt alone and isolated found love. Sydney wed the love of her life in 2018, about two years after removing the neck coils. Smith described her husband as, "The one and only man I've truly been able to count on. The one and only man that never played games with me."
And Sydney and her husband are not alone - they are a family of three! The happy couple welcomed a baby daughter, Skyler Rose, sometime before the wedding. The proud mother continues to expand her entrepreneurial horizons as a social media influencer.