A Podiatrist's Nightmare

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A friend sent these images depicting foot-binding in China. To say the least, I knew this practice was painful and caused permanent malformations, but seeing the damage makes my own feet scream in agony. How did such a strange and harmful behavior like this ever become a cultural fashion/fad/fetish?

An elderly Chinese woman who was one of the countless victims of foot-binding. She can barely stand or walk, even with assistance. Gee, I wonder why?

An elderly Chinese woman, one of countless millions of female victims of the ancient custom of foot-binding.

Here's a close-up of another Chinese woman's bound feet in shoes;

A closer look at those bound feet -- kinda creepy, huh?

But what do those feet look like without those fancy shoes on them? Here's a closer look at a bound foot that isn't covered with a shoe, but with the bindings still in place;

Chinese woman's bound foot, shoe removed.

And what do these feet look like when they aren't wrapped in tight bandages? This woman removes the bindings from one of her feet;

Chinese woman, removing the tight bindings from one of her feet.

I wonder if that hurts, or perhaps her foot is so numb that she doesn't even notice?

Here's one of this woman's feet with the bindings removed. Notice the placement of her toes on the sole of her foot, and that crease in the middle of her foot -- her entire foot architecture is completely remodeled!

Chinese woman's foot, bindings removed.

Here's a close-up of her bare foot;

A closer view of an old Chinese woman's foot that has been the victim of foot-binding. GAH!

This makes me feel sick.

Here is a picture of a Chinese shoe intended to be worn by adult women -- without the bound feet trapped inside them. Presumably tiny feet that are no more than 3 inches long are "sexy" to Chinese men, although I'd bet the women would express a vastly different opinion, if asked.

Shoes for adult Chinese women compared to a pack of cigarettes.

How does foot binding work? Below are two diagrams and an x-ray to give you an idea. Basically, women's feet were bound by wrapping bandages tightly around them when they were very young girls, usually between the ages of five and six years old. The bandages were wrapped so tightly that they broke the girls' toes and bent them underneath their feet permanently so they healed that way.

Human foot bones; diagram of bone conformation (top left)
and x-ray of a bound foot (top right)
as compared to a normal foot (bottom image).

Predictably, women with bound feet couldn't walk very well (sometimes, they couldn't walk at all), and when they worked in the fields, they often did so on hands and knees. I guess that's how Chinese men prefer their women; on their hands and knees.

Human foot, bones labeled in English.

The reason that little girls' feet were bound was to fulfill the parents' hopes that their daughters would be married to a rich man. But I have no idea why a rich man would want a crippled and deliberately misshapen wife who could barely walk -- perhaps so she couldn't run away? But women with tiny feet have been a cultural icon of beauty and desirability since the distant past. For example, some of the earliest versions of the Cinderella fairy tale originate in the Sung Dynasty of China. In these versions, the Prince falls in love with Cinderella because she has the tiniest feet of any girl in his kingdom, so the glass slipper will only fit her.

Fortunately, this custom has fallen out of favor in China, and is rarely practiced these days, although there are still plenty of old ladies (as you see here) who were victims of foot-binding in their childhood.

More like this

These women are China's unwilling equivalent of the Standing Babas of Mumbai.

Notice the "proud"[?] smile on the old woman's face as she reveals her grotesquely re-molded foot?

When we studied communist China in school (Britain, 1980's), we learned that after enduring this torture during the imperial period, the still young women were mocked and ridiculed as symbols of aristocratic indolence when communism came in. Literally adding insult to injury, I think.

This would presumably be a sign of beauty for the same reason as many other less extreme fashions - they show that you can't/don't work, and therefore must be rich. Compare it for example with crinolines, high heels, long gowns or extreme paleness. In a society where most people get by by manual labour, anything that shows that you don't marks you out as an elite.

Extreme fashion victims who suffer for status and style.

For all the bad things the Chinese government has done it hasn't been all bad. Eliminating the worse of starvation, controlling the birth rate and stopping this practice have been all to the good.

It does make some sense that keeping a number of nearly crippled women around would be a status symbol. Only the richest and most powerful could a ford to have dependents who could produce little or nothing. Only the rich could afford to have servants wait on them, literally, hand and foot.

It amounts to anatomically enforced conspicuous consumption.

I have encountered a radically-different theory: foot binding makes women lame and hence much easier to control by patriarchal males. A female can count herself lucky to have even born to to avoid being killed at birth in that sexist culture.

By biosparite (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

When we learned about this in my Anthro course in college, I sought out more info and read up on it, and as it turns out, apparently the crease on the sole of the foot has a purpose. Think foot fetish.

Yep. That's what it's for.

Not discounting the other theories about (physically) subjugating women, and the theory of conspicuous consumption, because that's part of it too. This is just one of the more interesting facets of the whole foot-binding phenomenon.

By stephanie (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

Drool. Pardon me while I masturbate.

By Brock Lesnar (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

From a physiological point of view, bound feet, with the associated balance problems and need to take tiny steps, do the same thing as high heels - tighten the muscles in the groin and thigh area, making for "tighter" intercourse.

I've head that the eroticization of the foot itself involved eating almonds and dates from the crease, though I don't think the actual act would have been possible.

And, as a San Francisco resident, I've seen this in person. I would note that every Chinese male over a certain age in the room was utterly fascinated. I've seen cleavage have the same effect in a different situation.

'Presumably tiny feet that are no more than 3 inches long are "sexy" to Chinese men'

'I guess that's how Chinese men prefer their women; on their hands and knees.'

This should be in the past tense at the very least, lest you attack one form of bigotry with another.

By Name Name (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

Foot binding may be barbaric but I offer circumcision and breast augmentation as equally absurd practices.

By bobh28630 (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

i have to agree with 2:27. unless you can show me where this practice still takes place in contemporary chinese culture, i will assume that you did not have the consideration or inclination to avoid generalizing myself and others as barbaric and oppressive.

By name name name (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

As far as I know, footbinding started as a fad during the Tang dynasty after traders on the Silk Road introduced the Chinese to toe dancing. Eventually, this fad grew into a fashion.
Unfortunately I cannot check the source for this right now, but I think, I read it in Louise Levathes "When China ruled the sea".

bobh28630: Circumcision and breast augmentation may not serve much practical purpose, but they are hardly ever debilitating if done correctly. Foot-binding is not so benign. Breast augmentation can be quite helpful for someone seeking a reduction, say, due to back problems. They pale in comparison to the absurdity of this practice.

By ironyCurtain (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

Circumcision is a religious argument in more ways than one, and the issue probably isn't going to be resolved here.

A better comparison might be corseting. Or steroids. It's all about enhancing gender differences.

I heard that footbinding started when some princess was born with club feet. The bent-under toes do resemble that problem.

I've seen those tiny shoes before, but I never knew how women could fit in them until now. Eeek.

According to one legend, the custom started with an emperor's favorite concubine, a gifted dancer with naturally tiny feet. Evidently the emperor had a tiny-foot fetish, and the rest of his concubines started binding their own feet to make them smaller in an effort to regain his favor.

I've also heard speculation that the Cinderella fairy tale may have roots in Chinese folklore.

By anomalous4 (not verified) on 16 May 2008 #permalink

If you want more information about this practice, read "Aching for Beauty" by Wang Ping. They were a symbol of wealth -- the wife didn't have to walk, so could afford to have crushed, unusable feet. They were also a physical advertisement of an obedient, patient personality; by binding their feet to the point of crushing bones and putrefying the flesh, the girls could show that they were able to endure agony. (Indeed, if your feet were larger than your neighbor's by a quarter-inch or so, she was obviously a better-behaved daughter and therefore a more desirable wife!)

Tiny feet did certainly become fetishized over time, and lots of classic Chinese erotic poetry concerns the "lotus foot". The author even bound her own feet for a while to try to make them smaller... and, if I recall correctly (I haven't read the book in a couple years), she still has foot problems as an adult as a result -- despite not deforming them nearly as badly as is seen here.

Cómo puedo hacer para contactar con esta mujer??????? Esto es una locura......

Clary de Paraguay

By Clara Gómez (not verified) on 30 May 2008 #permalink