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Foot Binding – The Burden of Beauty

The red letters of the day ask but a series of questions – To what extent is a female’s social value dictated not by her academics, work, accomplishment, skill, or intelligence, but only by “the male gaze”? How she looks and appeals to others, particularly men, as an object of beauty? Every facet of a woman’s beauty was, has and will be inextricably linked to her anguish. Most women who have coloured, plucked, or cut their hair, squeezed their feet into painful high heels, or surgically altered areas of their anatomy are familiar with the notion of suffering for beauty. Millions of Chinese ladies went even farther, tying their feet together to transform them into the sought-after “three-inch golden lotuses.”

Foot-binding is one example of a lengthy history of civilisations restricting women’s physical movement as a foundation of civilised living, alongside their rights as citizens and legal standing as human beings. Foot binding is a Chinese tradition in which young girls’ feet are bound with tight bandages. This binding significantly restricts foot development, causing painful deformities. Foot binding gained popularity as a way of demonstrating rank and was subsequently embraced as a sign of beauty in Chinese culture. A small foot in China, like a small waist in Victorian England, considered the pinnacle of female elegance. In France, for instance, women were imprisoned if they were discovered strolling down particular routes at specific hours. These practises demonstrate how we are inclined to accommodate women, and the harm we are willing to inflict and endure in order to keep control over their mobility and freedom is far from resolved.

It took millions of years for humans to develop into bipedal walker, depending on multiple points of the foot to transfer weight distribution with each stride. Foot-binding decreased these points to the big toe and heel bone; the arch was pushed up to shorten the foot, and the other toes were bent beneath the ball. In several cases, the arch was totally shattered.

The girls feet were first immersed in hot water, and her toenails were cut short. The feet were then rubbed and oiled before all the toes were broken and tied flat against the sole, forming a triangular shape. Her arch was then stretched as her foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were secured with a silk strip ten feet long and two inches broad. These wrappings were removed for a limited period of time every two days to prevent blood and pus from contaminating the foot. Excess meat was sometimes chopped away or allowed to decay. The girls were made to walk great distances to expedite the collapse of their arches. As the heel and sole were squashed together, the wrappings got tighter and the shoes smaller over time. The procedure took two years and resulted in a deep fissure large enough to contain a coin. Once a foot had been crushed and tied, the form could not be changed without causing the lady the same anguish. Girls with shackled feet would never be able to walk smoothly again, greatly restricting their capacity to navigate around the world. In so many instances, infections, impaired circulation, and weaker bones and ligaments aggravated the severe agony of foot-binding. For the remainder of her life, a girl’s feet were generally bound with bandages and strips of silk or cotton, based on just what her household could purchase.

Foot-binding is presumed to have been influenced by Yao Niang, a tenth-century royal performer who tied her feet in the shape of a new moon. She dazzled Emperor Li Yu by dancing on her toes within a six-foot golden lotus adorned with ribbons and valuable stones. In addition to changing the form of the foot, the technique resulted in a unique stride that depended on the thigh and buttock muscles for stability. Foot-binding has always associated with sexual connotations. Other court women, with wealth, leisure, and a gap to fill, gradually adopted foot-binding, making it a status symbol among the elite.

By the nineteenth century, it was reported that 40-50 percent of Chinese women had bound feet, with the proportion reaching over 100 percent among higher class Han Chinese women. foot binding became a way for lower-income women to marry into wealth. In Guangdong in the nineteenth century, for example, it was common to tie the feet of the older daughter of a lower-class household who was to be raised as a lady. Her other sisters would marry poor men and work in the fields, but her eldest daughter would preferably never work. Over hundreds of years, multitudes of Chinese girls’ limbs were brutally deformed in order to adhere to reigning societal expectations. Females were warned that not  having their feet intact properly might jeopardise their prospects in life. Young ladies’ feet were smashed periodically over years to acquire a much more appropriate size and form. Each painful surgery required the girls to relearn how to walk, touching the ground from a novel posture and in great agony.

The little “lotus foot” inside its exquisite silken shoe was regarded being one of the most appealing characteristics in a potential wife; the smaller the foot, the more sexually appealing the female. Recent evidence showed that foot-binding was likely used not just to keep females at home and engaged in handicrafts, such as spinning cotton, in hope to cater to their family’s revenue. Whatever the reason, the final consequence was significant bodily damage. Except for the first toe, a girl’s toes were squashed toward the base of her foot and tied with linen bands. The procedure may begin as early as three years old, though five was more typical, and was continued for two or three years, with her toes regularly rebroken and tied further securely.

Foot size became its own sort of money and a way of attaining social movement for households with marryable daughters. The most attractive bride had a three-inch foot, dubbed a “golden lotus.” It was considered respectable to have four-inch feet (a silver lotus), while feet five inches or longer were considered iron lotuses. Marriage prospects for such a girl were bleak.

Although foot binding is no longer practised, many Chinese women continue to strive for extremely precise aesthetic goals. Chinese ads frequently use models with exceptionally light complexion or genuine Western models, implying a significant Western influence. Chinese women go to considerable efforts to maintain their skin as pale as possible, including wearing long gloves that protect their arms in the sun, carrying parasols, and investing in skin whitening treatments. Though it is now outright rejected in China, it has persisted for a millennium due in part to women’s emotional engagement in the ritual. The lotus shoe serves as a reminder that women’s history is neither a straight line from suffering to development, nor is it simply a scroll of patriarchy writ large. Women, have always been twisted in more literal ways. Foot-binding was one of them. Corsets was other; we often forget that Victorian women’s hourglass form came at the price of their lung and rib cages. Even while job seeking, most Japanese companies still demand women to wear high heels. In response to a petition calling for its abolition, Japan’s ministry of health and welfare defended it as “occupationally important,” despite the pressure high heels have on backs, knees, and foot bones, as well as the possibility of spinal slippage.

But anything for beauty, right?

– Uttara Jantwal

Picture Credits: chinahighlights.com



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