The novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005) is the story of the lifelong friendship, starting from childhood, of two women in early 19th century China as each undergoes major life changes, one moving up the socioeconomic ladder, the other down. Told through the eyes of one child who begins life as the daughter of a poor farmer and rises, through marriage, to become a noblewoman, it gives insight into the curious and sometimes brutal life of the various classes of women in the patriarchal Confucian system.
The book describes the hidden and secret world of women in that gender-segregated society, its superstitions and rituals, and the rigid hierarchy and roles that people, especially women, were assigned to. Women were meant to stay in the home and drilled with the rules known (p. 24) as the Three Obediences (“When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son”) and the Four Virtues (“Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery”) so that they will grow into the ideal of a virtuous woman. Women are told repeatedly from birth that they are worthless and any woman who does not bear sons is treated even worse than normal.
But what I found truly horrifying were the descriptions dealing with the binding of feet. I had been aware of course of this terrible practice but to have the process described in detail in the novel was chilling and makes one wonder how such a barbaric standard of beauty could have even been conceived and implemented except as a means of dominating women and breaking them both physically and in spirit.
The ideal of the perfect foot sought by the binding process seems grotesque now:
Of these requirements, length is the most important. Seven centimeters – about the length of a thumb – is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all the weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and the arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. (p. 26)
This result was obtained by brutally binding the feet of very young children with tightly wound bandages. Children started undergoing this process around the age of six or so, and it is, as you can imagine, not only excruciatingly painful but dangerous, with death from gangrene and permanent crippling not being uncommon. Even when “successful” the result was women whose mobility was impaired. To be quite frank, I found those sections too difficult to read and skimmed them. The descriptions of little children screaming in pain as their mothers put them through this process was just too much for me to take. This is another example of adults callously violating the bodily integrity of children by imposing their own beliefs on them.
How could such a terrible practice ever become seen as the norm or even desirable? From the point of view of men, having women who were restricted in their movements may have been seen as good thing as it enabled them to dominate them more easily. (The efforts by the Taliban and other Muslim fundamentalists to deprive women of education and keep them virtually prisoners in their homes seem to serve a similar purpose.)
But how did it happen that women also internalized this as a desirable standard of beauty? It is suggested that the practice began with wealthy women and that the very negatives associated with it, such as impaired mobility, were seen as signs of wealth and privilege since it implied that one was a woman of leisure who had servants to do all the work on one’s behalf.
But as is often the case with fashion, what begins as an extravagance to be flaunted by the wealthy is then adopted by everyone as the standard and that may be why foot binding took hold among almost everyone in China except the servant classes, who were needed to do work. Thankfully the abolition of the Chinese monarchy and the creation of a republic in 1912 resulted in the banning of the practice, and after the Communist Revolution of 1949 the ban was even more strictly enforced so I believe (and hope) that the practice has disappeared altogether.
While reading the novel, it struck me that this kind of practice took place in the west too, though in less extreme forms. The kinds of clothes women wore in Victorian times, with highly restricting corsets, suffocating layers of petticoats, and ornate wigs and makeup were also a means of flaunting the fact that one had nothing better to do than spend vast amounts of time and money paying attention to one’s appearance.
Nowadays, fashions are not so physically constraining but there are still things that are the result of rich people’s lifestyles being adopted by others. For example, take the idea that one’s wardrobe must be changed frequently. To be seen in the same outfit more than once, let along many times, is to commit a fashion faux pas. This strikes me as absurd. It seems logical to me that if someone looks good in an outfit, they should wear it many times. Just because rich people can afford to purchase vast numbers of outfits and discard them after one or two wearings does not mean that this is not a silly and wasteful practice. But it becomes positively ruinous for people who internalize this as good fashion sense but cannot afford it.
The spending of vast sums of money on accessories and makeup and hairstyles and other ‘beauty’ treatments are other examples of rich people’s extravagances being adopted by people who cannot afford them.
As anyone who has seen me and the way I am dressed and groomed will immediately realize, I am not really an expert on fashion so there may be other contemporary examples of women going to extremes (either physically through plastic surgery or cosmetically or sartorially) that I am unaware of, purely because they have internalized a concept of beauty that has as its source nothing more than the flaunting of wealth and privilege.
I am not saying that one should not take care of one’s appearance or try to look nice. But what we talking about here goes well beyond minimal requirements or common sense.
POST SCRIPT: The metrosexual danger
David Mitchell points out easy it is for men to look well-dressed and warns that those few men who pay too much attention to their clothes and grooming risk ruining it for the rest of us.