Hair Rollers and High Heels
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
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.
Next week’s post: Tiger Love