While some of today’s beauty trends seem questionable, none are outright cruel and unusual. Not like this. Foot-binding was a grisly beauty procedure that existed in China for over 1,000 years. The antiquated practice involved breaking and deforming a young girl’s feet to achieve the desired miniature effect.
The practice was done among wealthy Chinese family and bound feet were considered a status symbol.The process would begin between the ages of four and nine. The girls would have their toes broken and curled under the sole of the foot. The feet were then bound tightly in this position with bandages.
The smaller the foot, the easier it was for Chinese families to marry off their daughters to wealthy suitors. A “golden lotus” was a foot that was no bigger than three-inches. A four-inch foot, or “silver lotus” was still considered acceptable, but not as desirable. Everything five-inches and over was an “iron lotus,” and undesirable.
Foot-binding was outlawed in China in 1912, but many families continued secretly binding their daughter’s feet. Today there are only a handful of elderly women alive in China who still have bound feet. Zhou Guizhen from Southern China’s Yunnan province is one of these few remaining women.
Zhou Guizhen was 86-years-old at the time of a 2007 NPR interview on the last survivors of foot-binding. She was born into a rich family, and married into an even richer family. However, she lost all her wealth under communist rule. When the practice was outlawed in 1912, Zhou said that her mother would attempt to cover up her feet from government inspectors.
"When people came to inspect our feet, my mother bandaged my feet, then put big shoes on them," Zhou said. "When the inspectors came, we fooled them into thinking I had big feet." However, Zhou’s feet were anything but. Her mother kept up the ancient practice in order to marry Zhou off into a wealthy family.
Some believe that foot-binding originated in the Shang Dynasty (1700-1027 B.C). It’s said that the Shang Empress was born with a clubfoot and made foot-binding mandatory amongst the noble women in her court. Others believe that it originated much later, around the 10th century.
The other origin story is that foot-binding became fashionable after a 10th-century dancer Yao Niang. Niang bound her feet into the shape of the new moon. She danced in the court of Emperor Li Yu, and her tiny feet made quite the erotic impression, causing many other noblewomen to follow suit.
In fact, the feet were considered so erotic, there was even pornography centered around bound feet. There were even pornographic books from the Qing dynasty that recorded 48 ways of playing with a woman’s “lotus” feet. But, some researchers say that foot-binding wasn’t just intended to make the man happy.
There were undeniably erotic elements to foot-binding. The smaller the foot was, the more likely that the girl would be married off. As mentioned before, it was also considered a status symbol. Since their mangled feet affected their mobility, the girls couldn’t do a lot of high-demand physical labor, like working in fields. But, research done by Laurel Bossen says that their immobility made them better suited for another type of work: textiles.
“We reject the view that women were exempted from work, treasuring their precious bound feet and not economically important,” Laurel Bossen said. “They developed hand skills and worked with their hands throughout their lives.”
Bossen believes that many women, and not just from the wealthiest of families, bound their daughter’s feet to make them more productive with their hands by weaving, sewing, etc. They contributed a lot to their families and the economy, but are given little credit for it.
However, this does not make the tradition less cruel.
In some cases, the foot wasn’t correctly bound, and it led to an undesirable outcome and possibly the lack of a potential suitor. However, the foot was still left terribly deformed. In the photo above, “Her mother lacked expertise so that the feet did not achieve the desired shape, but were nonetheless painfully deformed,” Laurel Bossen said.
While the practice may have been considered attractive at one point, it was absolutely disgusting and unsanitary. The cloths they bound the feet were soaked in an herbal mixture mixed with animal blood. It was difficult to remove the bandages, so they would only wash their feet once every two weeks or so, which created putrid-smelling feet.
There is still a sense of pride about the bound feet among the practice’s few remaining survivors. One woman, Wang Lifen, still admires her feet sometimes, even though they hurt her. "There's not a single other woman in Liuyicun who could fit their feet into my shoes," she said. "When my generation dies, people won't be able to see bound feet, even if they want to."
Zhou Guizhen doesn’t feel the same kind of pride, though. “I regret binding my feet,” she said. “I can’t dance, I can’t move properly. I regret it a lot. But at the time, if you didn’t bind your feet, no one would marry you.”