Thursday, January 15, 2015

Crushing Your Feet (in the Name of Beauty)

When first looking at foot binding, I couldn't help but think how gruesome and almost barbaric the practice seemed. To someone as oblivious to Asian culture as I am the permanent and painful reforming of one's feet for beauty was very shocking. After all, if you have working feet, why would you want to damage them in a way that could permanently impair the way you walk?

Pretty shocking the first time around
Then high heels were introduced into the discussion, and everything got more confusing. These are shoes worn everyday by people all around me, and these do permanent damage to your feet as well! Then why exactly do I feel so staunchly against foot binding and but not against high heels?
After all, if they all do the damage then what's the difference? Is it simply my Western upbringing that makes me shy from foot binding? Perhaps it isn't even as weird or bad as it seems, simply different from the culture that I was raised in, in the same way that eating bugs seems disgusting, despite it being an environmentally-friendly and relatively healthy source of protein? But no, it's not quite that: eating bugs is a sort of choice, while foot binding often isn't. "Many of the women Farrell met were forced to bind their feet against their will. One woman told Farrell that her mother would cut slices of skin off her toes as punishment for unbinding their feet." (Source) Objectively, then, one can say that the modification was forcefully inflicted upon the girls, which is quite different from deciding to wear heels to work.

But then, there is still pressure on modern women to maintain that perfect (if unrealistic) beauty standard. While there are no threats of bodily harm, women (and men) often feel the need to dress a certain way to fit with our current cultural norms. For example, a business woman might feel the need to wear high heels to the office, but this doesn't necessarily mean she would feel out of place if she didn't. On the contrary, people enjoy wearing heels, which can make them feel empowered. Which begs the question, did any of the women with bound feet feel similarly?

Perhaps some foot-bound women stepped into these shoes and felt graceful and beautiful just like a Western woman in heels and a complimenting dress.

Then there are similar culture clashes in the modern era. In particular, I recall when I first lived in France and was shocked to see a woman on a motorcycle wearing high heels (probably four or five inch ones, at that). She was well put-together, a businesswoman I'd guess, casually sitting on her motorcycle, waiting to make a turn at a light.

Casually Wearing High Heels on a Motorcycle
How uncomfortable that must be, I thought, how dangerous. What if she got into an accident? She must be crazy to wear those! I pointed it out to my host dad, who was driving the car, and he mentioned his similar reaction when he came to America and saw women on motorcycles or women walking around the streets in sneakers. Why would they wear such a nice outfit, one fit for a business meeting, then finish it off with such ugly shoes? Do they not want to look good? If not, why get dressed up at all?

I suppose the takeaway message of the story is that we should be careful in making our judgements of other cultures. After all, our habits and practices might look just as weird to them as theirs do to us.


  1. I liked your comparison of the shock we feel at foot binding with the acceptance Westerners feel towards high heels. I also mentioned in my post the great similarity to the damage to the foot both cause. It is fascinating how quickly we form judgements about another society's practice, when our very own practices come with their own flaws!

  2. I feel like that was a good juxtaposition by Peace (and I suppose by the woman who did the TEDx talk). Really makes you wonder what WE'RE doing weirdly.
    Also, I had a thought last night: an even better comparison could be braces. Most kids don't really get a choice in having them put on, and they're basically forced into an apparatus that gives them severe dental pain and reduces them to eating applesauce and other soft foods for sometimes even a week at a time!

    1. I love your thought of comparing foot binding to braces. Having braces can be very painful and not a choice made by the children themselves, same as foot binding. It's assumed to be normal for kids to go through the pain now with braces as same as in the past for the girls to bind their foot. I believe that both of these 'beauty enhancement' procedures take away the liberty of the children since the decision to perfrom either one of these is made by parents.

    2. I agree with the braces comparison to the extent that braces do not provide room for choice on the part of the kids who have to deal with them. However, sometimes they help people eat more easily and therefore are more of a health component (I understand that is not always the case, but I think that's important to consider).

    3. I do have to mention that my mom didn't get braces when she was younger, and so she wasn't able to correctly brush her teeth. Because of that, she ended up getting a couple of cavities and even had a few root canals, so I think that's why she pushed for me and my brother to get them. SO unlike footbinding, braces do have some health benefits.