Tortured for Beauty: Foot Binding and Stilettos

I was listening to ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class’, one of my favorite podcasts, and came to an episode on foot binding. (Check out: ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class’, China’s foot binding tradition, March 19, 2014.)

I’ve known about the practice most of my life, of course, but knew nothing about how it was done. Before I heard the podcast and did a little research on my own, I thought that Chinese girls had their feet bandaged when they were toddlers so they wouldn’t grow to the normal size. The practice was even more horrible than I imagined.

A Chinese ladies mangled feet.

A Chinese ladies mangled feet.


Before I tell you a little bit about how the feet were bound, maybe I should tell you how the practice got started. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Emperor Xiao Baojuan had a courtesan who had small, beautiful feet and could dance like nobody’s business. He had her dance on a golden platform inlaid with pearls and decorated with lotus flowers. Another Chinese emperor asked his concubine to bind her feet and dance the “Lotus” dance. Other rich young women wanted to have lotus shaped feet and the fad caught on.

Basically, young Chinese girls from the tenth to the twentieth century had their feet literally broken to be beautiful. Their toes were pushed up under the ball of their foot and their arches were broken to push the heel toward the mangled toes. After this extremely painful process the feet were tightly bandaged to keep them in this “lotus” position.

Tiny Chinese Shoe

Tiny Chinese Shoe

The bandaging process had to be repeated several times a week in order to clean the feet and keep manipulating the softened bones to achieve the ideal foot size which was three inches. Yes, three inches. Three inches!!! These beautiful little girls, with tiny mangled feet could barely walk for the pain. They had to walk on their heels which caused a distinctive gait that was thought to be very erotic by Chinese men.

Bound feet were considered sexy but were also supposed to be a sign of wealth. A woman with bound feet could do very little farm work. Husbands were proud of having a wife that didn’t have to work in the fields. Mothers bound their young daughter’s feet out of love and concern for their future. After all, their daughter’s wouldn’t be able to attract a husband without tiny lotus shaped feet.

Be sure and ‘Google’ “foot binding” if you’re interested in more on the subject. A brilliant photographer, Jo Farrell, is doing a project on the last remaining Chinese women with bound feet called “Living History.” Her work is well worth seeing.

It is easy to be judgemental about the Chinese practice of foot binding, until, you stop and think about what women and men do to themselves today in the pursuit of beauty. We nip, tuck, tone and go through all sorts of agonizing physical alterations to be more attractive. Why? In the case of the Chinese women, they couldn’t find a husband to provide for them without mutilating their feet. I can understand their rational, but why do, what we do now? Why do women wear five-inch stilettos? Why do we go through painful plastic surgery? When is just being ourselves ever going to be good enough?

I don’t have any answers. It just strikes me as very sad.


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