Chinese foot binding emerged as a practice in China in the 7th century CE, but was first used minimally. It was not common in the upper classes until about the 12th century CE. From that time forward, not only the aristocracy, but also even middle and lower classes practiced Chinese foot binding to achieve what was called the “lotus foot.” For most moderns, the appearance of the misshapen and malformed foot is merely an example of the type of barbarism inflicted on women in many different cultures. Chinese foot binding is yet another example of ritualistic abuse of women’s bodies.
Women chose, as was frequent in a male dominant society, to bind their own feet. It was thought to be fashionable and a mark or distinction to have bound and almost nonfunctional feet. Chinese foot binding was then inflicted on young female children, with mothers performing the binding when girls were as young as five.
One result of Chinese foot binding was extreme pain. The
first year of Chinese foot binding would result in breakage of four toes. They would knit back together in a deformed fashion, and young girls would have to walk solely on their heels to avoid walking on the painful toes. Chinese foot binding also inhibited normal growth of the feet so that the bound feet of grown women were extremely small.
In fact, the smaller the feet, the more aristocratic the woman seemed, so it soon became popular among the lower classes to compete with each other over whose daughter’s feet seemed the smallest. Because Chinese foot binding inhibited movement, girls often couldn’t perform the kind of work required in running a household. This magnified the position that Chinese girls were less preferable than boys, particularly among the lower classes, where work was needed to keep food on the table.
The practice of Chinese foot binding was outlawed in 1911. In China today, a woman binding her child’s feet would be subject to criminal charges of child abuse. However, the uselessness of girls is still a commonly held belief, particularly with the Chinese restriction on each family only having one child. It is considered far more fortunate to have a boy child, and this in part accounts for the many Chinese girls who are abandoned at orphanages.
This is of course not true of all Chinese girls. Many Chinese families adore their daughters. In fact, the ruling against Chinese foot binding was meant to protect Chinese women from such abuse. However some views on the value of the feminine can still be seen as holdovers from a less enlightened time period.
It is almost incomprehensible to look at the x-rays and pictures of feet that were subject to Chinese foot binding, and realize this was done for the sake of fashion. Yet it would be foolish to think that the Chinese were the only culture practicing a fashion technique that could actually harm the body. Many American women who wore high heels for much of their lives still suffer from the after effects. Yet these are not as pronounced as those caused by foot binding.
As well, the corseting of young girls from the 18th century onward in Europe and the US resulted in malformations of the back, and inability to pursue regular exercise. This also can be viewed as a barbaric attempt to satisfy fashion.