Foot binding is a very dynamic issue when considering its history, purpose, and controversies. Upon first exposure, it is very difficult not to view foot binding through a Western lens; it is shocking and unfamiliar. However, for the exact reason that I come with a Western perspective, it is unfair to immediately dismiss the practice as “disgusting” or “barbaric.” It is important to try to understand the perspective of those who practiced foot binding and also look at what we have valued as a culture. Even when trying to have a more encompassing view of foot binding, I still have difficulty finding the practice totally acceptable.
As the TED talk briefly discussed, foot binding was a popular practice after an emperor’s favorite concubine engaged in the practice. It essentially morphed into a practice that was essential for gaining status in society. Women were engaging in foot binding in hopes of marrying into high society, as that was the beauty standard. However, due to the debilitating nature of foot binding, women became “useless” around the home.
Immediately, there are a lot of questionable aspects to the practice. Women were being told what they had to do to be considered attractive. These standards not only limited individual expression, but it also set up a patriarchy that insinuated that the purpose for women was to serve the man. Furthermore, the idea that women were “useless” due to the fact that they were unable to complete household tasks further demonstrates the patriarchy in place. A woman’s worth was being determined in a very limited scope. To make matters worse, foot binding was taking that very “worth” away. Their only other purpose to men was to sit around as an object of sexual affection.
As terrible as all of this sounds, I still have to remember my personal biases. I’m a liberal, college student in the United States, all of which affect my world outlook. However, as high and mighty as we can think I can seem by denouncing something that seems to be a fairly cut and dry act of misogyny, we need to realize what we do. Immediately, we draw comparisons to high heels. Just like with foot binding, there are strong societal pressures that tell women they should be wearing high heels everywhere from the work place to a night out. Parallels continue in reasons behind the practice as well. Foot binding, according to Chinese societal standards at the time, were considered highly erotic. The high heel serves a similar purpose, as its structure causes women to have a posture that accentuates typically “sexy” body parts, as discussed in the Ted Talk.
As easy as it is to call ourselves out for setting questionable standard for women and criticizing another culture for doing the same thing, there are more issues at place that demonstrate that we may not be as guilty. The idea of cultural relativism comes into play. In essence, cultural relativism says that each culture has its own set of standards and there is no fair way to say that one culture’s standards are more legitimate or true than another’s. If that is to be taken at absolute truth, then there is nothing wrong with China’s model. While we may see foot binding as appalling, that basis is on our own standards, and who is to say our standards are the truth? By that same token, our high hell culture may actually be the morally repugnant one.
Cultural relativism is not without its flaws, though. If there is no cultural relativism, there is no way to measure moral growth, because there is no set morality to compare things to. Additionally, with a total lack of moral objectivity, there is bound to be tension between differing cultures. What seems to make sense is weak ethical relativism, which says there is some universal objectivity. While there is still disagreement over what falls under that objectivity, to me, violating freedom over one’s body or impacting their health is universally repugnant.
While there undoubtedly very pervasive pressures put on women to wear high heels, there is a degree of choice in the matter (not that this excuses the pressure). Chinese women did not have a choice, and it became so ingrained in the culture that people did not even begin to question it. That lack of choice of control over something that affected physical development, to me, pushes it over an ethical line. Therefore, unless someone is partaking in foot binding on their own volition, foot binding seems to be something that should not be culturally endorsed or allowed.