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Standards of beauty vary all over the world. We know this, but seeing it in real life can still shock us.
Who isn’t a little taken aback by, say, Ethiopian beauty scars or Burmese stretched necks or Maori facial tattoos? They seem more strange than striking to our American eyes.
Yet these are simply different norms and nothing to worry about — at least most of the time. But one culturally constrained kind of beauty has exacted a terrible toll on those who practice it.
That’s Chinese foot binding. According to Incredible Nature, Zhou Guizhen is one of the last Chinese women to have bound feet.
When interviewed by NPR in 2007, the then-86-year-old woman said that she regretted having her feet bound. What exactly did foot binding involve?
Well, the Global Times stated that foot binding usually started with soaking the appendages in animal blood and herbs. Then the subject would have her (it was always a girl) toenails trimmed and feet massaged.
Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it went downhill from there.
Next, the subject would have her toes curled down into the sole of her foot, twisted until they broke. Silk or cotton cloth was wrapped around it and pulled tight.
The process was repeated multiple times with the bindings squeezed tighter with each reapplication. Young women were then urged to walk regularly so that their feet would be crushed into an “ideal” shape.
“I regret binding my feet,” Zhou says. “I can’t dance. I can’t move properly. I regret it a lot.
“But at the time, if you didn’t bind your feet, no one would marry you.” Sadly, the price of “golden lotus” feet was shockingly high.
Women struggled to keep their feet clean, and any cut, which would usually originate from an ingrown toenail, could lead to gangrene. Due to decreased blood flow, cuts would often fail to heal, and women would fall ill from sepsis.
Far from a modern practice, foot binding began roughly 3,000 years ago. Attempts to outlaw the practice aren’t as old, but they aren’t new either. The Manchus tried during the 17th century, as did the British in the 19th century.
Foot binding was finally outlawed in the early 20th century, but the practice still continued for some time. In fact, Zhou Guizhen wryly recalled how her family would trick the inspectors.
“When people came to inspect our feet, my mother bandaged my feet, then put big shoes on them,” she said. “When the inspectors came, we fooled them into thinking I had big feet.”
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