“Beauty is Pain” OR “the Subjugation of Women for Ridiculous Reasons”

I recently wrote an academic paper on a rather ugly side of Chinese history: the custom of footbinding (Or as it should rightly be called, the custom of foot binding WOMEN’s feet, since females were the only gender subjected to this painful practice).

Bound feet in silk slippers

The origins of footbinding within Chinese history remain part fact, part fiction. Some scholars trace its inception to the ruler Li Yu (970 A. D.), who was smitten with a prized concubine that danced a seductive, yet elegant dance with tightly bound feet. Not unlike a modern ballerina’s toe shoes, the tightly bound feet created a unique swaying movement that was later dubbed the “Golden Lotus” dance.

As is such with cultural phenomena, the practice of wrapping the feet to achieve this desired “lotus” gait took hold with vigor amongst the royal court and so was born a new cultural trend. As more women tried to achieve these “lotus feet”, the practice went beyond a mere fashion trend and became the new measuring stick of determining a woman’s status and overall sex appeal (sex manuals from the Qing Dynasty listed “48 different ways” of playing with women’s bound feet). Thus a widespread ideology manifested that emphasized a woman’s worth by the shape of her feet.

As the concept of “lotus feet” was spreading like wildfire amongst the upper class, it soon trickled down to the masses of China’s rural and agrarian community. In an attempt to emulate the upper echelon of society (similar to today’s celeb-obsessed culture),  these hard-working citizens literally cut their work force in half by insisting that all females have their feet bound starting from a young age.

Again, much of the origins of this practice (particularly the Lotus dancin’ concubine) are most likely based in fiction. What is fact, however, is that this practice existed for over 10 centuries, with 80% of the women population binding their feet during its height. Despite its painful process and resulting deformity, footbinding was encouraged by men and women alike as the ticket to a better life.

And so…the ugly ensued. Under the tutelage of a mother or a female elder, the girls—aged as young as 3 or as old as 11—had their feet systematically broken, contorted and physically shaped into deformity to achieve a specific “Lotus Foot,”or more precisely, a foot that measured no more than 3 inches long.

A foot no bigger than 3 inches could fit into these once popular shoes

The obvious reaction is ouch and gross and um,…how?

Please note that the below procedure is done without the use of modern anesthetics, or for that matter, even the common pain pills that we pop today.

  • After soaking the feet in warm water and herbs (as if this would actually relieve the excruciating pain that is yet to come) each toe but the biggest is swiftly broken and pushed under the ball of the foot.
  • The toes are then tightly bound in this position by winding long pieces of cloth around the foot in a figure eight pattern, creating the ball of the foot and the heel to almost meet.
  • With the broken toes pressed firmly to the heel, the arch of the foot is also forcibly broken.
  • After months of painful binding and re-binding the cloth to make it tighter and tighter, the arch completely folds over and causes the foot to no longer grow.
  • Although the toes are broken, the toenails continue to grow and must be meticulously tended to lest they grow into the skin and create severe infection.
  • Bound feet often smelled of rotting flesh and gangrene disease and thus were rarely unwrapped and certainly never exposed to male husbands, family members or friends.

broken toes pushed under feet

And there you have it. The desired 3-inch feet were created, and with it, a disability for life. Coupled with the physical and emotional scars of having both their feet broken at a very young age, these girls grew into women who could not properly walk, stand for long periods of time or effectively do household chores or field work without crippling pain. Consequently, women were confined to the home, dependent on their husbands/families and drastically limited in their mobility.

The desired "Golden Lotus" effect

With this gruesome practice revealed, one can appreciate the completely messed-up, backasswards irony that bound feet represent. Deformed and rotting flesh are  placed into delicate, embroidered silk slippers in an effort to appeal to men and meet the status quo of a woman’s supposed sex appeal. Paradoxically, the practice that initially began as a way to achieve an elegant, womanly dance, had become a practice in which women could barely walk normally, let alone dance freely. Teetering on mangled 3-inch stubs that were slipped into fine silk, women propagated the fantasy of beauty and elegance, and men chose to see this fantasy rather than the  the unpleasant reality veiled by its superficial exterior.

Another ironic point is the rapid pace at which this thousand year tradition quickly fell from grace throughout China.  As China began to awake to foreign influences at the turn of the century, the majority of middle and upper class society labeled footbinding as barbaric and turned its back on the practice almost as fast as they had once embraced it.

Thus as cultural tides and perceptions continue to change with the ebb and flow of society, what was once today’s status symbol might be tomorrow’s ritual of subjugation.  So the next time I squeeze my feet into those 3-inch heels or burn my hair with a flat iron, or refrain from punching the girl that stupidly states, “beauty IS pain girlfriend!” I’ll keep this phenomena in mind.


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