Friday, January 16, 2015

Beauty Across Cultures: How Far Would You Go?

Initially, I struggled to understand what "beauty" was seen in the act of foot binding. I couldn't really grasp the idea that a large population of people would deem something that I view as gross to be not only beautiful, but also extremely erotic. I understand that there are practices in modern day western society that many other cultures find strange and disturbing, but I still couldn't get past the painful nature of foot binding in general. I finally got it on Thursday night while I was at my DanceWorks formal.

All day Thursday, I was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get dressed up in the dress and brand new, beautiful heels I had just bought. It hadn't even crossed my mind that heels might be uncomfortable for the five hours I was going to be on my feet, dancing and mingling with my friends. They were cute and new. There was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to wear them. I finally got dressed for the formal, putting my heels on as well. They aren't the most comfortable pair of shoes I own, but they are bearable, so I headed out. As the night went on, my feet began to ache. All of the girls around me were beginning to feel the same way, but none of us dared to take off the expensive and gorgeous shoes we had all purchased. When I finally took them off after returning to my apartment, my feet were blistered and aching. I was in pain but I simply kept telling myself that the shoes were beautiful and I had gotten so many compliments, that it was totally worth the pain.

Looking back on this, I feel ridiculous. Why in the world would I put myself through pain just so I could fit in? Why would I be uncomfortable for hours just so that other girls at the dance would tell me I looked nice? And then it hit me. Although not exactly the same, the tradition of foot binding and the concept of wearing heels in western society are very similar. Both are done because they are (or were) seen as normal practices. Just as girls are looked at as strange if they don't wear heels with a formal gown, Chinese women were alienated if they were the rare few to refuse binding their feet. I think that heels are beautiful in so many ways, even though they will eventually leave permanent damage on my feet. I am aware of the consequences and still continue to participate. The same applies for foot binding. There was a point in time when a specific culture found what we may call "deformed" as a work of art. Just as I think wearing heels is wonderful, many Chinese women and men found a bound foot to be something extraordinary.

This brings me to the concept of cultural relativism. When viewing other cultures' practices, it is so important to remain non biased. Yes, it is obvious that foot binding did damage the feet, was a painful process, and left a lot of room for possible infections or medical complications, but it is important to note that many practices in today's society have the same consequences. Unlike foot binding, many of these practices, such as wearing heels, are not only widely accepted but expected. Regardless of how these two different practices are viewed, they are both forms of body modification. These modifications are both very centered in what were/are considered gender norms as well as what is deemed as "beautiful." We, as individuals in society do not have room to judge when we are just as guilty. It is important to remember, what is beautiful to one, may not be beautiful to another. Although this is true, it does not make the beauty any less real to the beholder.

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