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"Beauty is Pain" : Foot Binding in China » Women's Courage

"Beauty is Pain" : Foot Binding in China

January 13th, 2011 by kaking Leave a reply »

This blog will focus on global perceptions of beauty and the effect of this on the physical and mental well-being of women internationally. Throughout the quarter, this blog will look at how perceptions of beauty have changed over time and also the extensive measures women go through to conform to such perceptions of beauty. Furthermore, this blog will show how what is considered “beautiful” varies between different countries and cultures.

For my first blog topic, I will focus on the rather painful cultural beauty practice of foot binding because I believe that it is a topic that many people are vaguely familiar with, but do not know the history of foot binding or its harmful consequences.

The Chinese tradition of foot binding began in 10th century and was practiced until 1912, when it was banned [1]. Despite the ban though, many women still continued to bind their feet in secret. Foot binding was initially very popular among court circles and the wealthy. Over time though, the practice spread to more rural areas, where young girls realized that having bound feet was not only a status symbol but it could also help them to marry someone wealthy. By the 19th century, approximately 40-50% of all Chinese women had bound their feet. In the upper classes, virtually all women bound their feet [2].

The process of foot binding was very painful. Generally before the age of 14, when the bones were softer, a girl would have almost all the bones in her foot broken. Then a tight binding was wrapped around the foot, so that the bones repaired themselves in a new and smaller form. Eventually the soles of the feet would bend inwards. Sometimes, the foot binding process even occurred as early as the age of three.

Women went through all this pain because of the cultural belief that binding their feet would turn them into a highly desirable “three-inch golden lotus,” with the three inches referring to the ideal foot length [1]. Not only was having bound feet considered beautiful and alluring, but for men, bound feet became a sexual fetish, as reflected in the pornography of the era [3].

Foot binding had many notable effects on women. Besides the physical pain that many of these women felt during the binding process, infections were common and ulceration, gangrene and paralysis sometimes occurred. Furthermore, some scholars claim that the practice of foot binding made women more dependent on men and thus increased female subjugation, by restricting their movements and preventing women from traveling far from their homes. Indeed, feet were generally so compressed that women had to hobble around and lean on either other people or stationary objects for support [3].

Unfortunately the effects of food binding are generally not reversible and this ancient practice has continued to affect the lives of elderly Chinese women today. A UCSF study that looked at the consequences of foot binding found that elderly women with bound feet were less able to rise from a chair without assistance and were more likely to have fallen within the previous year in comparison to women with normal feet. Researchers also found that these women had a harder time squatting [4].

Throughout a large part of China’s history women participated in foot binding for social mobility, the chance to marry into wealth, and because small feet were considered beautiful. However, as we have seen foot binding perfectly exemplifies the old-saying that “beauty is pain.”

[1] npr.org “Painful Memories for China’s Footbinding Survivors.” By Louisa Lim
[2] The Sex Life of the Food and Shoe by William Rossi
[3] http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/studpages/vento.html
[4] The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. http://www.sfmuseum.org/chin/foot.html

For more information on foot binding, please watch this informative YouTube clip. Chinese Foot Binding



  1. ntahir says:

    I could not have thought of a more appropriate title for this post than “Beauty is Pain”. The image you post in this blog is absolutely horrifying. It is unbelievable that women would have to go through so much pain, have their feet look deformed, and not be able to perform the normal functions of feet, because of a custom that was making women “more desirable”, and basically taking the concept of masculine supremacy & feminine subjugation to a whole new level. When I was in high school I read a novel by Adeline Yen Mah, called “Chinese Cinderella”, and it also touched upon the concept of foot binding in China. In this autobiography, the author describes how dependent and functionally impaired her grandmother was because her feet were bound. I can’t even imagine how increasingly difficult it must be living with bound feet, especially during one’s old age when physical changes such as increasing body weight are very common. As these old women grow heavier than they were in their youth, it must be even more difficult to carry that weight on those feet. Reading this post made me think about how this practice (that, like you mentioned, is shockingly still practiced today) strips a woman of her basic human rights. She can never feel independent again. She can never go on a long walk on her own if she feels like it. She is basically an object of attraction to a man, that perpetually tries to please society and men’s notions of beauty, even if that means putting herself through years of excruciating pain.

  2. sbyron says:

    I’m blown away at your photograph and the thought that millions of Chinese women suffered enormous pain in the pursuit of “beauty.” What is even more interesting is that foot binding, from what I understand of it, is virtually nonexistent today. My question is what forces drove this Cultural Revolution? How does a society completely reconstruct, or in this case directly oppose, their view of beauty…a view that they’ve supported for decades? What sparked the change or did change occur over a long period of time? Was change motivated or influenced by the West? I think that studying the eradication of foot binding and its influences/drivers can help us perhaps find a more nuance understanding of ways to address other culturally motivated problems like FGM.

  3. Elise says:

    Wow. That image is absolutely stunning and horrifying. I learned about the practice of Chinese footbinding this Fall in HumBio, and was fascinated by the ways in which it was used by men to subjugate women. I’m really intrigued by how you included it in your exploration of “beauty as pain.” This is such a huge part of life around the world today, and I am so excited to read your blog posts on the issue.

    Here are the things that immediately come to mind when I think of beauty as a source of physical and emotional pain for women…We see the practice of female genital mutilation, sometimes said to produce a more aesthetically pleasing body. In communities where FGM is widespread, a girl or women who does not undergo the process may be viewed as unclean and undesirable to marry or sleep with. Then there’s the pervasive and deadly pursuit of the “perfect body,” which manifests in unhealthy body image, eating disorders, and self-destructive behaviors. We see this Western phenomenon spreading around the world as women with dark skin try to lighten themselves with bleaching/whitening creams, and fair-skinned women risk skin cancer by exposing themselves to harmful UV radiation in tanning booths. Girls and women starve themselves, in an attempt to be perfectly thin. But thin is not enough. There are so many contradictory messages in the media; tabloid magazines both glorify the sex appeal of thin celebrities and point out the bikini bodies that are TOO thin. So how in the world is a woman expected to develop a healthy body image? This is something I am committed to exploring through the lens of international women’s health, because I am so personally invested in the issue.

  4. taniat says:

    Even though the practice of foot binding is discussed less and less because of its decrease in prevalence, it is interesting that scholars often use this example when writing about female genital mutilation. Both of these topics are tied together by the idea that both foot-binding and FGM are methods of sexual control over women. Both of which make a woman more suitable for marriage, as determined by cultural standards, but confer no health benefits (actually, both result in poor health) for the woman.

    Do you know if there was opposition to foot-binding before the government of China issued a ban on foot-binding? I’m curious to know if there was any movement on behalf of the women in opposition to this painful practice.

    Your blog topic reminds me of the article we read for class in Mann et al pp336-62. I think it would be really interesting to explore the idea of “beauty is pain” at the intersection of individual rights and government laws concerning the health of individuals. For example, breast augmentation – with such negative possible side effects, should it be more regulated by the government?

    Very interesting blog-topic! I’m excited to read your future entries.


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