Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Behind the Beauty

Our in-class discussion about Chinese foot binding traditions sparked a lot of thoughts and contemplation on my part.  As an outsider, it is easy to look at foot binding and say it is disgusting and gross and argue that the practice should not have continued as long as it did.  However, trying to imagine being a young Chinese girl tends to change my mind a bit.  If I were a seven year old girl with a choice to have my feet bound, I would probably agree to it.  The girls knew, even at a young age that having bound feet was the key to getting married and having a “good life” that was respected by the community.

We, as Americans, also do many things that can cause life-long damage to our bodies along with many smaller “everyday” things that do not cause much damage.  I, like many other teenagers and young adults, do things to myself almost every day that are painful.  I have gotten waxes, I have plucked my eyebrows, I have pierced my ears, and I have worn uncomfortable shoes.  While these examples are nowhere near as extreme or damaging as foot-binding, they do serve as some type of comparison.

Another example that I thought of the other day is ballerinas wearing pointe shoes.  Pointe shoes allow ballerinas to dance on the tips of their toes and make the dancing appear “magical.” For those of you that don’t know, pointe shoes have a tip that is made of fabric, cardboard, and paper that is hardened by glue.  When these shoes are new, they are extremely stiff and uncomfortable.  Girls would often beat the new slippers against hard surfaces like concrete or brick, pound the box of the shoe with a hammer, and open and close doors on the shoes to “wear them in.”   I took ballet for seven years as a child and the entire time I wore normal ballet slippers but always dreamed about being able to wear pointe shoes.  As I got older, I started noticing the feet of older girls who wore pointe shoes.  They had blisters and cracked nails along with toes that were permanently bent.  Once I was old enough to wear them, I decided to stop taking ballet lessons.  I had heard the girls complaining about the pain they had and I did not want that.  After thinking about this the other day, I researched “pointe shoe damage” on Google and saw pictures of feet that looked so familiar to me.  There was also a diagram of a foot that showed a displaced bone, a rotated toe, and large bunions.  While dancers can still walk and participate in activities without lifelong pain, the altering and damaging effects that pointe shoes have is perhaps comparable to Chinese foot binding.


  1. There are several excellent documentaries on Netflix about ballerinas. I was stunned by the physical injuries female dancers endure. It makes me shake my head in wonder that so many girls take ballet and yet the toll on the human body is ignored. I am also struck at the gender divide. So many women I know save their ballet shoes. Many men I know my age have saved their baseball mitt. Not sure what this means if anything. Great post.

  2. Your comparison of foot binding to ballerina wearing pointe shoes is very fitting. Many girls strive to reach the pointe shoe level; some might even train endless hours to get to that level and the final results is not far from those of foot binding. This creates the thought of why one is praised and encourage while the other is not.

  3. Bonnie, Body shape for a ballerina I am told is critically important. When a ballerina lifts her entire body up on her toes via the pointe shoes does it always hurt to do so?

    1. I think the body shape is critical because the less weight they carry the less pressure it will be placed on their toes when they dance in pointe shoes. My high school classmate who danced in pointe shoes was petite and slim so I am assuming that body size matters a lot.

  4. Girls are not allowed to start training on pointe shoes until they reach a certain age (usually around age 11--13) or have a certain amount of training. This allows the bones to reach full growth. Obviously, ballerinas cannot start out wearing pointe shoes but have to go through a lot of training beforehand to gain enough strength and perfect their form.

    Regarding the pain, I'm not sure if the pain ever goes away completely, but the body adjusts and pain tolerance goes up. Most girls wear additional things to reduce the pain, but the problem with doing so is that with enough protection to get rid of discomfort, it is hard to feel the floor. Ouch pouches are padded covers that essentially look like the tip of a sock. Jelly tips are padded/jelly tips that cover the toe. I know there are many other accessories that help reduce pain.