Fashion Torture

Hair Rollers and High Heels

photo courtesy of Alice Bolton

photo courtesy of Alice Bolton

Why do we do it—pantyhose, pierced ears, Spanx, platform pumps? We’re not stupid. So why do we cinch our waists and flatten our hips until our innards cry out, poke holes in our ears and walk around on ankle-spraining, toe-numbing shoes?

When I was in high school, we slept on rollers, enduring the pain of sharp, stiff brushes poking into our heads all night long. Then in the morning we back-combed our hair, tangling it until it looked like a rat’s nest. (Hence the other name for the procedure: “ratting”.) When our hair was poofed out enough, we smoothed over the top and sprayed it.

(If you aren’t old enough to have endured this blessedly short-lived form of fashion torture, check out the early episodes of Mad Men.)

In middle school, my contemporaries and I wore multiple layers of starched, scratchy slips under our full skirts. It was a minor torture for us, a larger burden for our mothers, who spent hours starching the voluminous slips and hanging them out to dry on the rotary clothesline.

So I admit to understanding the impulse to be attractive and up-to-date despite the pain and inconvenience it might occasion.

The Particular Torture of Bound Feet

photo courtesy of Dr. John C. Bullas

photo courtesy of Dr. John C. Bullas

Still, it’s hard to appreciate how societal forces could have impelled millions of Chinese women to bind and break the feet of their daughters.

For centuries, the ideal bound foot, the Golden Lotus, was only 3 inches long, maybe 6 to 8 inches shorter than an unbound foot. To achieve such a radically shortened foot, the four outer toes were pressed against the sole of the foot and broken. Then the arch was broken and the foot bound tightly, only to be re-broken and bound over and over again.

To achieve “success,” the painful process had to be started when the girl was between 2 and 7 years of age. I can only imagine how many tears those mothers and daughters shed in their pursuit of fashion, prestige and marriageability.

Fashions come and fashions go. Unfortunately, this one hung around for almost 1000 years. At its height it was common among all but the lowest classes.

My husband’s grandmother was one of its victims. She spent a lifetime on (or off) her tiny bound feet. Living on the small southeastern Chinese island of Gulangyu, an island that banned wheeled vehicles, she had little choice but to traverse the island’s lanes by sedan chair. More often she simply stayed at home, conducting business from her bed.

Bound feet were supposed to keep women dependent. But, despite her disability, my husband’s grandmother was a can-do kind of person. She actively managed not only the household but also various charitable pursuits and the properties she inherited. She may have been a victim of “fashion torture,” but she was also a woman who lived a full and productive life.

Strangely enough, on the night she died, my husband, then a teenager, woke from a sound sleep knowing she was dead. He jumped out of bed and ran to his mother. “Ma,”he cried, tears streaming down his face. “Grandmother is dead.” 

“Don’t be silly,” she told him. “Go back to bed.”

They were living in Japan then. His grandmother was in Taiwan.

The next day a telegram arrived. His grandmother had indeed died. I suppose it’s not altogether surprising  that there would be some contact between them at the moment of her death. She and my husband had a very close relationship.

Something similar happened between my dad and me. Maybe I’ll write about that one day.

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Next week’s post: Tiger Love

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. Nicki!
    Gasp. Very few Western women understand the tradition of feet binding. The aha! sentence in your blog for me is, “Bound feet were supposed to keep women dependent.”

    BTW – the phenomena-realization that a loved one has died is an ‘interactive’ haunting in the six main categories of hauntings [ ] and occurs when the deceased is emotional tied to a loved one and cannot bear to part from them.

    I totally LOVE getting the ‘note’ that your blogs have posted – I’m sure your other followers are equally delighted to hear from you.

    • So, my husband’s realisation that his grandmother had died was an “interactive haunting.” I should have known that the author who has written 22 ghost stories would know the word for it. Thanks, Emily.

  2. Howard Lee

    Majority of the women who had their feet bind lived productive lifes but with a lot of suffering — I know because I saw the suffering of my mother and grandmother. Even though they were never been educated but they have learned how to servival in their later life. It mear means that the inhumaneness of people — Western women wear many things that are harmful to them. The problem with people who wants to be liked by others or care what others think or act.
    Nice blog — looking forward to read more.

  3. Nicki, your writing is amazing! I’ve taken several years of writing classes and you are FAR more talented at “showing’ instead of simply ‘telling’ a story. I will continue to learn as your story unfolds. Thanks for sharing. –V

  4. Hi Nicki,

    I thought the high-heeled girl in the photograph was you!

    I remember the rollers — my sisters used pink rollers in the days of Abba.

    I’ve only just realised BOTH my grandmothers had their feet bound, but one of them was less serious — as they didn’t do it whole-heartedly, so the feet were not too damaged, according to my mother.

    Some textbooks compare bound feet with corset. Though corset is less ‘harmful’ (only causing digestion problem and back problems), all these have their cultural roots.

    Lotus is one of the the symbols of China, signifying purity and peace. Yet it was used to praise the deformed feet. How sad.

    Thank you for this enlightening post.

    • Janet, thank you for another thoughtful comment.

      When I studied Chinese brush painting, Professor Chen told us the lotus was the symbol of purity because it emerged pure white out of the muck of a muddy pond.

      There were support groups, probably during the time of your grandmothers, for women who wanted to stop binding their feet. One was called “The Natural Foot Society.”

  5. What a lovely poem! It’s interesting that Zhou Dun Yi was such a lover of the lotus that he dug a lotus pond in front of his house.

  6. When I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I felt so “numb”. Even though I have heard so many stories about foot binding, I did not feel well-prepared to read the parts which describe the excruciating feet binding process.
    Have you heard of the story that relates the small feet with the legendary Da Ji (妲己)?

    • Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is another book I must add to my reading list. I’m reading Empress Orchid now. Next on the list is The Cooked Seed, also by Anchee Min.

      Da Ji is the evil concubine of King Zhou, right? Maybe she was the one who started this cruel custom.

      • In one of the folktales I heard, Da Ji was a fox spirit. Just like any fox, she has small paws and when she shape-shifted into a woman, her feet were also small.

        The King was enchanted by Da Ji that she used her very image and measurements as the ideal standards of a beautiful woman. Hence began the practice of foot binding… (I hope I use “hence” correctly. L-O-L)

        The tale is obviously too imaginative to be a historical fact, but it was the most interesting version of foot-binding history I have ever heard! 😀

  7. My husband talked to me about the history of bounded feet but I never saw feet without the shoes on. It’s saddening to hear it almost lasted a 1000 years.

  8. Great article and written beautifully! I’m also surprised to hear that this lasted a 1000 years, I thought it was something more like a 100 (never researched it, I just didn’t know that it lasted that long). It hurts just looking at the picture with the bound feet.

  9. That photo leaves me speechless. It’s one thing to read about it in a book, and quite another to see a picture. I can’t even imagine.

  10. My wife’s grandmother had bound feet. The last 20 years of her life she could barely move on her own. When she still stayed with her son and his family in the city he had to carry her always downstairs because she could not manage to do so on her own any longer.
    Because of the pain she felt during all the time also the rest of the family suffered. In the last few years she had the chance to move back into the countryside of Xi’an, where she was born and live with the rest of the big family. It made her life somewhat easier, no more stairs and they were able to install some simple things to make it possible to move on her own on a limited area.

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  12. Somehow I missed this post when originally posted. I love historical novels about China and Japan. The culture is so different from what I know. I learned the most about foot binding from Lisa See’s stories but I did some googling because I just couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe how long it took to die out. In discussions, I didn’t understand how they did it but the pictures (and there are pictures of infected, diseased feet) were explicit. Another reason I am grateful to be born when and where I am.

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