Friday, May 21, 2010

On Chinese Foot Binding and America

The book I’m reading now, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, details the life of Lily, a 19th century-era Chinese girl and the customs of her village in Southern China. Like nearly all of the respectable women in her time, her feet are bound, and the description of this stage of her life is gag-inducing to say the least.

Most of us learn about foot binding in elementary school- the toes are tied tightly underneath the foot, causing them eventually to break and heal in a claw-like position. Much of the flesh decomposes and falls off, leaving the foot small in size and pointed in shape, a very desirable aesthetic at the time. The goal was to create a "delicate, golden lily" no bigger than 7 centimeters. One out of every ten women died from infection as a result of this practice, and many were crippled due to the effects of it.

In this picture, a Shanghai girl is photographed circa 1900. She was reluctant to show her feet, which were considered a woman’s prized feature, but finally agreed when the photographer offered her four silver dollars.

Learning about the practice of foot binding makes me grateful that modern American culture is generally more lenient and accepting of natural female beauty, but also reflective as well. We look at the practice of foot binding and recoil with horror at this symbol of the oppression of women. Yet I wonder if centuries from now, students will have a similar opinion of the plastic surgery and fad diets that women in our culture voluntarily submit to, presumably for reasons similar to Chinese women of old (prestige, beauty, sexual appeal, etc.).
My hope is that women of all cultures and backgrounds is that they will see and love their own natural beauty and let it shine.

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