Fashion and foot binding

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.


  1. Eric says

    Helena Rubinstein once wrote, “There are no ugly women, just lazy ones,” which I think has been adopted as the global motto of the fashion industry (especially if you substitute “cheap” for “lazy”). The underlying idea seems to be that time, money, and effort, if spent liberally enough, can overcome any deficiency in appearance. Hollywood seems to go out of its way to reinforce this concept, too.

    The irony is that it’s true…for men. As the Mitchell video points out, the bar is so ridiculously low for us that a haircut, a trip to the gym, and a suit that actually fits are enough to clear it with room to spare.

    In western culture, at least, this wasn’t always the case; men’s fashion was as complex and demanding as women’s through the 18th century or so (at least among the wealthy).

  2. Alex Jacobs says

    High heels are something that I wish would go away. It’s not just that they’re considered fashionable, which is not something that matters to me, it’s that they are a standard in many business and formal settings where it could disadvantage a woman to not wear them. They’re of course miles below foot binding in painful things women do to their feet, but if there’s any place that comfort should be the first thought it seems like it should be the feet.

  3. says

    Very interesting video and have to say that fashion is suitable for both women and men, it is jut a way people use to express themselves and show how they are different from each other. Also a way to express their wealth.

  4. says

    As I read this article I was struck by the similarities between “foot binding” and as you mentioned the Victorian Age’s corset that women wore. It does seem strange that in this day and age people continue to destroy their bodies in search of “beauty”.

  5. says

    One recent equivalent of the food-binding of old is the frankly barbaric procedure of leg-lengthening surgery in South East Asia. Because shorter legs are the norm there, and influenced by Western ideas of beauty, mechanically stretching the legs is an operation that is happening, quite legally.

    Obviously, unlike the foot-binding, this procedure is not performed on children, just consenting adults, but, still, the idea sends shivers down my spine. Sounds like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story, doesn’t it? One can only wonder what the long-term effects can be…

  6. says

    I have to say that I never knew of foot binding. That is so incredibly terrible, beyond the expression of words! I’ve never heard of this book, but I feel I simply must read it now. Thank you.

    As for today’s standards, I recently went shoe shopping with a friend and saw these designer shoes -- pointed-toe heals to be exact -- and remarked on how impossible it is to fit into such things. In addition to that, I told her how I’d heard that some women actually get plastic surgery to remove their pinky toes so that they will fit into designer shoes like that. I simply don’t understand it.

    At least today, however, anything we do to our bodies is our own choice, at least in the western world. With the foot binding, it seemed these girls had no choice but to get such procedures done. Today, doing something like that to a child would result in social services beating down your door -- thank goodness for that!

  7. says

    I had heard of foot binding before, but did not know that it involved breaking childrens’ bones! It is truly awful how far people go to conform to a cultural standard of beauty.

    It reminds me of the Grimm’s version of Cinderella, where the older stepsisters cut off part of their feet to fit into the glass slipper.

  8. says

    Fashion is one thing, mutilation to obtain societal acceptance is another. Or are they? Cultures throughout the world have experienced periods where they have used fashion to subdue and control women. Thankfully, most mutilation especially foot binding has disappeared publicly.

    How many women have or strive to achieve the skinny runway model image subjecting themselves to disorders such as Anorexia nervosa or even bulimia?

    Willfully wearing high heels while in pain is a testimony to societal influence on the effects of fashion acceptance vs comfort or common sense in this country. Remove greed and control and who knows we may turn the corner yet. Mankind still has a long way to go.

  9. says

    To each his own I say when it comes to fashion.

    Everyone is different, so what one person may think is fashionable someone else may not, what one person thinks is stupid another may find it to be interesting.

    I agree that it’s stupid to spend money on clothes that you can’t afford and to wear something once but there are some who would disagree.

    But people have the right to spend their money how they see fit and to dress the way they want.

    People really need to come a point where they can start thinking for themselves and not being so concerned about what others think, easier said than done I know.

  10. says

    As a mother, I absolutely cannot imagine destroying my own child’s healthy feet in that terrible way -- especially considering the agony it must have caused the poor children.

    It’s amazing how cultural conditioning makes the people of a culture see the most appalling things as perfectly natural.

    I wonder what things we do unthinkingly that would be appalling to other cultures?

  11. says

    I was going to say thank God we don’t have such drastic standards of beauty, but then I stopped to think… what about circumcision? It was originally motivated by religious faith, but I don’t think that’s the case much anymore. We cringe when reading about foot binding, but I wonder if people of the future will cringe to hear how we circumcised our sons? It isn’t as painful as foot binding, but it could be considered a form of mutilation--one that’s acceptable in our society right now.

  12. says


    I agree with you. Circumcision of males or females is a barbaric religion-based relic of the past that should be abandoned.

  13. says

    People like to look good in front of others and Fashion is simply an agreement as to what the majority ( or vocal majority ) of people find pleasing at a particular time period. But imposition of what the group culture arbitrarily assigns as Fashion is definitely a violation pr personal human rights.

  14. says

    I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See quite a while ago and found it fascinating. The descriptions of foot binding were vivid enough but I felt compelled to look it up on the Internet. The pictures my Google search resulted in brought tears agony into my eyes.

    I am so glad that this horrible practice has been banished!

  15. says

    Foot binding is really a barbaric practice that should be banned forever. For years, men have done their best to subdue and dominate women with so-called “cultural practices” that are cruel and dangerous. It is really important to stop these practices and protect women all over the world from cruelty.

  16. says

    You may say that people should not worry about what others think but what if someone gets confidence by wearing fashionable items and wanting to look good? It can actually aid someone’s mental health by wanting to be fashionable. I do, however, view extreme fashion such as footbinding against a person’s will as barbaric!

  17. says

    When it comes to fashion, i think we should not criticize anyone because people have different tastes and we have to own that.Whichever way one decides to surface must be respected due to the fact that,that’s how she wanted to appear.The video is great and thanks for the information.

  18. says

    On one hand we can be horrified of binding girls’ feet in China as Rena Klingenberg writes, but on the other hand we make to our baby girls ear piercing without any stress at the age 0, and then we bring our babies to make vaccination through injections although the babies cry.
    It all depends on the people’s system of values otherwise called “culture”.
    In the modern culture we prioritize health and long live (even without a spouse), but then in China they valued the most the ability of a girl to attract a wealthy man to marry him and they did everything for this purpose.
    And a fashion is only one element of the culture.

  19. says

    Really, fashion should not be for ‘looks only’

    The best shoes, for example, expensive designer shoes cost a lot because they were made well. Made well by a fashion designer who understands feet and the human body attached to them.

    Often times, the pricepoint *determines* the quality and comfort of the shoe….

    Looks are secondary. And foot binding? Ugh….ways to ruin feet…


  20. says

    It is amazing what different cultures will do in order to fit the mold of their definition of “beauty”. High heels and foot binding are definitely uncomfortable to say the least. What about the cultures that encourage excessive piercings? Ouch!

  21. says

    So sad to read.This is the first time I ever knew of foot binding.Imposing one beliefs should never endanger that of another especially one that is a child.

  22. says

    “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son” Women had it tought in China.

    I saw a foot binding doctumentary meny years ago with my mother. I was too young at the time to understand why parents would put thier children through something so painful. I remeber my mother being so angery about it.

    Unfortunately, much of the punishment women experience now is self inflicted all in the hope to be beautiful.

    What ever happened to natural beauty?

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