Amanda Foreman: ‘It Was Horrifying To Realize That Every Aspect of Women’s Beauty Was Intimately Bound Up With Pain’

foot-binding-smithsonian-collage

Why Footbinding Persisted in China for a Millennium

Despite the pain, millions of Chinese women stood firm in their devotion to the tradition

Amanda Foreman writes: For the past year I have been working with Britain’s BBC television to make a documentary series on the history of women. In the latest round of filming there was an incident that haunts me. It took place during a segment on the social changes that affected Chinese women in the late 13th century.

“The truth, no matter how unpalatable, is that foot-binding was experienced, perpetuated and administered by women.”

These changes can be illustrated by the practice of female foot-binding. Some early evidence for it comes from the tomb of Lady Huang Sheng, the wife of an imperial clansman, who died in 1243. Archaeologists discovered tiny, misshapen feet that had been wrapped in gauze and placed inside specially shaped “lotus shoes.” For one of my pieces on camera, I balanced a pair of embroidered doll shoes in the palm of my hand, as I talked about Lady Huang and the origins of foot-binding. When it was over, I turned to the museum curator who had given me the shoes and made some comment about the silliness of using toy shoes. This was when I was informed that I had been holding the real thing. The miniature “doll” shoes had in fact been worn by a human. The shock of discovery was like being doused with a bucket of freezing water.

“As I held the lotus shoes in my hand, it was horrifying to realize that every aspect of women’s beauty was intimately bound up with pain.”

Foot-binding is said to have been inspired by a tenth-century court dancer named Yao Niang who bound her feet into the shape of a new moon. She entranced Emperor Li Yu by dancing on her toes inside a six-foot golden lotus festooned with ribbons and precious stones. In addition to altering the shape of the foot, the practice also produced a particular sort of gait that relied on the thigh and buttock muscles for support. From the start, foot-binding was imbued with erotic overtones. Gradually, other court ladies—with money, time and a void to fill—took up foot-binding, making it a status symbol among the elite.

Lui Shui Ying (right) had her feet bound in the 1930s, after the custom fell out of favor. (Jo Farrell )

Lui Shui Ying (right) had her feet bound in the 1930s, after the custom fell out of favor. (Jo Farrell )

A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, represented the height of female refinement. For families with marriageable daughters, foot size translated into its own form of currency and a means of achieving upward mobility. The most desirable bride possessed a three-inch foot, known as a “golden lotus.” It was respectable to have four-inch feet—a silver lotus—but feet five inches or longer were dismissed as iron lotuses. The marriage prospects for such a girl were dim indeed.

“First, her feet were plunged into hot water and her toenails clipped short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape…”

As I held the lotus shoes in my hand, it was horrifying to realize that every aspect of women’s beauty was intimately bound up with pain. Placed side by side, the shoes were the length of my iPhone and less than a half-inch wider. My index finger was bigger than the “toe” of the shoe. It was obvious why the process had to begin in childhood when a girl was 5 or 6.

[read the full text here, at The Smithsonian]

First, her feet were plunged into hot water and her toenails clipped short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring ten feet long and two inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every two days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot. Sometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. The girls were forced to walk long distances in order to hasten the breaking of their arches. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together. After two years the process was complete, creating a deep cleft that could hold a coin in place. Once a foot had been crushed and bound, the shape could not be reversed without a woman undergoing the same pain all over again. Read the rest of this entry »


Rickets Making a Comeback in the U.K., Doctors Say

300px-Rickets_USNLMMaria Cheng reports:  (LONDON) — Rickets, the childhood disease that once caused an epidemic of bowed legs and curved spines during the Victorian era, is making a shocking comeback in 21st-century Britain.

Rickets results from a severe deficiency of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Rickets was historically considered to be a disease of poverty among children who toiled in factories during the Industrial Revolution, and some experts have hypothesized it afflicted literary characters like Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol.”

Last month, Britain’s chief medical officer, Dr. Sally Davies, described the return of rickets as “appalling.” She proposed the country give free vitamins to all children under 5 and asked the country’s independent health watchdog to study if that would be worthwhile.

More… TIME.com