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Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder
by Valerie Sartor
2010-06-06 09:28:16
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I was just home in the US on a short vacation. I stood in line at my favorite grocery store and was somewhat startled when the pretty, young female cashier grinned at me. Both of her ears were pierced, adorned with big, black button like things; her tongue was pierced with a silver ball. She had a giant butterfly tattooed on her left arm. The girl couldn’t have been more than twenty. I tried not to stare.

Her strange idea of attractiveness made me reflect upon the ancient Chinese ideal of tiny “lotus feet.” Most foreigners connect foot binding with images of twisted deformed feet, pain and torture, although for the Chinese, this tradition once represented the height of feminine beauty. 

Similarly, today’s western ideals seem gruesome to me. Plastic surgery, breast enhancements, liposuction, as well as tattoos & piercings, are all meant to attract and allure, just like ancient lotus feet. I know many Western women with huge silicon enhancements; they did it to “look beautiful.” I certainly wouldn’t want my tongue or other body areas pierced or pumped up, no matter how fashionable it seems to be these days.

Just like Chinese foot binding, Western plastic surgery and piercing run the risk of infection, pain, mutilation, and even death. Nevertheless, throughout time, women everywhere, regardless of race and ethnicity, have always done strange things to make themselves look beautiful. 

Long ago, wealthy young Chinese girls had their feet bound. Bandages about ten feet long and two inches wide were wrapped tightly around the feet, forcing the four small toes under the sole of the foot. This made the feet narrower and shorter. Every day, bandages were tightened so the girl’s feet shrank. The pain was said to have been excruciating. (The pain for plastic surgery and piercing is not pleasant, either). After two years the girl’s feet became three to four inches long - lovely and petite, but numb and useless for walking.

In China, foot binding lasted for almost 1000 years, starting late in the T'ang Dynasty (618-906) and gradually spreading through the upper classes during the Song Dynasty (960-1297). During the Ming period (1368-1644) and the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) the custom of foot binding spread from the rich to the middle classes. A billion women had their feet bound.

Interestingly, the Manchu conquerors, the Hakka Chinese, and the poor did not follow this fashion. In 1911, foot binding was outlawed.

In the same way, wealthy Western women have started the plastic surgery trend. Rich debutantes, movie stars, and celebrities – modern day courtesans – all opt for plastic surgery, changing their bodies to attract the opposite sex. Nowadays, middle class women crave it too.

In China, foot binding made the women more dependent on others and less useful. Incidentally, by hobbling females, this process certainly stopped them from running away. Chinese legends mention the concubine Yao Niang. Her delicate tottering was extremely appealing: it seemed as if she "skimmed over the top of golden lilies.”  Her bound feet created the name ‘lily feet’ or ‘lotus feet.’ 

Ancient Chinese men thought foot binding made a woman walk in ways that enhanced her feminine allure. Such bound foot women had to walk with all of their weight on their heels, teetering like small toddlers. Western women today also move oddly in stiletto heels; some lurch, like me, out of clumsiness, while models on cat walks have ‘sexy’ strides.

Chinese men thought that smaller, bound feet concentrated the nerves in the foot, creating a major erogenous zone. Western men like tiny feet, too. Everywhere, small feet are still fashionable for women - but I won’t squeeze into a tight pair of shoes to save my life.

Less than a hundred years ago, Western women also wore spine-deforming corsets. These articles of clothing changed Western women’s bodies, just as foot binding altered Chinese women’s feet. Today, tattoos, body piercing, breast implants, lipo-suction and rhinoplasty are fashionable. Extreme makeovers are common; TV shows promote these operations as ‘beauty enhancements.’

Plastic surgery, piercings and tattoos are meant for public show. Women show off body parts that formerly were concealed out of modesty. In China, bound feet attracted men by the fact that they were concealed. Bound feet were encased in bandages, socks and shoes, and then doused in scent. Feet stayed hidden under layers of leggings and skirts. Only lovers could view or even fondle a woman’s tiny feet.

Times certainly have changed.

Let’s keep in mind the fact that Chinese customs, seeming odd or even barbaric, may have counterparts in Western norms. Clearly, women everywhere like to please men; women like to follow fashion; women like to be beautiful. How far will any woman go – in China or in the West – to delight her man?


The author is American and lives in Beijing

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Athenian Stranger2010-12-27 18:09:52
Two crucial difficulties:

(1) The fact that Chinese barbarism has its counterparts in the West does not make it any less barbaric.

(2) Old Chinese foot-binding was primarily the mark of subjugation. Women did not "choose" the binding: it was imposed upon them in their childhood.

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