The Last Women Foot Binders

The Last Women Foot Binders

Several men and women are still alive in China who have been affected by China's ancient foot-binding tradition; a tradition that exemplified social norms and their affect on people's well-being and health.

For nearly a decade, Jo Farrell, a British photographer, has been documenting the endangered "traditions and cultures" around the world. As a highlight to her career, the Huffington Post recently reported and showcased her portraits of Chinese men and women who have become unable to walk, drive, stand, or travel because of their bound feet.

But where did this tradition begin? And, more importantly - why?

For thousands of years, curved and tiny feet were considered the ultimate standard of feminine beauty in China. In fact, the standard caused over three billion women to bind their feet, despite the process being long and painful.

Though there are many stories about the practice's origin, of the most popular and accepted starts with Emperor Li Yu in 970 A.D. who was intrigued by a dancer's small, ribbon-wrapped feet. To him, the dancer's choreography seemed more graceful with her small feet. Seeing the Emperor's admiration for the dancer. other court maidens began wrapping their feet. Then, upper-class women did the same and the practice soon became a symbol of status and prestige.

After some time, the tradition began to morph. It was no longer "simple" binding with small amounts of ribbon. Chinese women continued to want smaller and smaller feet. The foot-binding process was created and standardized to create 3-inch feet. The practice thrived for around a thousand years and was finally outlawed in 1912 after the Revolution of Sun Yat-sen. However, secret societies of foot-binding women still existed until the 1950s.

Women were forced to do hard physical labor in 1949 when the Communists came to power. Women with bound fee found the work excruciating and hardly fulfilled their daily quotas. Today, women no longer practice foot binding.

Like the woman pictured above, the process would begin at around 7 or 8 years of age. It was important for it to start then because the bones were still fairly soft and pliable. Feet were first softened in hot water, and then, several hours later, dead skin was scrubbed off. The actual bandaging came next, and cotton bandages about 2 inches wide and 10 feet long were soaked in hot water so they would shrink when they dried. The girl's toes would be folded under her foot and then bound by her mother or by an experienced woman in the village. The girl would then be forced to walk around until she was used to the new positioning. This process would be repeated every other day until the foot was a "perfect" 3-inch crescent shape.

Farrell photographed this women above as a testament to those who had been victims of the ancient practice. Her name is Zhang Yun Ying and, as she strides, she balances on her heels. Though she's now a grandmother, the process of her childhood continues to affect the way she walks, the way she holds herself, and, ultimately, the way she feels about her beauty. 

As Farrell commented:

These incredible women [have] lived through famine, the cultural revolution (where people were penalized for the four olds: old habits, manners, customs, and culture), and family deconstruction/migration of the twentieth century."

It is interesting to learn about the different standards of beauty in different cultures across the globe. But why must women, in particular, suffer through such practices to meet the standards and expectations of a patriarchal society?

Kate is the Founder & CEO of Her Culture and is studying Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU in the fall. She frequently drinks tea and occasionally drinks coffee with lots of sugar. Kate is a High School Ambassador for Her Campus, a Teen Blogger for Huffington Post Teen, and is a cultural millennial blogger for Chelsea Krost. She was recently selected for membership for the National Association of Professional Women and the International Women's Leadership Association.

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