High heels and bound feet: really so different?


Binding feet in ancient China sounds effing intense, let’s not lie: folding women’s feet in half when the bones were soft enough, wrapping them tightly and leaving them to grow like that, an irreversible procedure amounting to traditionalising mutilation. In the west, it’s seen with a facination and horror as a torturous form of misogyny, if not, at least plain weird. But sometimes, fascinated horror at the supposedly “alien” practices of another culture are all the more horrific because they carry echoes in our own culture, albeit in a more extreme way.

The practice dates back centuries. What started as an exclusivity of the aristocracy, it became normal with all down to the peasantry, and in the 19th century it was widespread, although never among the Manchu people. It was eventually outlawed in 1911. 

A 17th century author Liu-hsien (sometimes called P’u Sung-hing) had seven reasons why a girl’s feet should be bound:

(1) To make her like a woman, not like a man. If she were seen to be manly, to have “natural” feet, she would be laughed at and bring shame on her family.

(2) Women are like flowers; bound feet will make her walk with “mincing steps”, like a willow.

(3) Men from good families will not want to marry a woman with long feet, and even if she hides her feet til after marriage, they will be discovered, and it will only bring shame and misery.

(4) Bound feet show a woman does not labour and is therefore visibly wealthy. (Women of the West also kept their skin pasty to show their wealth.)

(5) Any girl that does not labour yet has unbound feet is not fit to do so.

(6) “Girls are like gold, like gems. They ought to stay in their own house. If their feet are not bound, they go here and there with unfitting associates. They have no good name. They are the defective gems that are rejected.”

(7) The parents, who know how pretty bound feet are, will be able to “command a high price for the bride.”

Most of these reasons are preposterous, of course, and show how women were firstly, seen as property of men, either their parents (i.e. fathers) or husbands, and there fore their lives and indeed bodies should be controlled accordingly. See points 3, 4, 5 and 7. (I especially like the line about commanding a high price for the bride. Why don’t we just set up markets and put the women-slaves in pens and sell them that way??) Although having said that, when women I know start talking about what body shape men “really like” or what clothes men would “really prefer” us to wear, I ask myself who our bodies and our behaviour really belongs to in Western culture too.

What is also interesting, is the way that the unbound feet were seen to be manly. But women are no more or no less born with “natural” feet than men, so here a social practice that divides women and men has become included in the “natural divisions between girls and boys. But then, according to Liu-hsien, women aren’t people like men are, they are “flowers” or “gems”. And it was the bound feet’s diminutive size that really made them womanly, something that high heels also do to your feet; with the heel at a height, the foot’s total length is decreased, and the ball of the foot on the floor looks like the whole foot. More diminutive, more pretty, more “feminine. Yes, high heels do make women taller, but no-one said they should be bigger than men. Women like that are kind of ridiculed, (and shame is brought on their family….)

And as for that sexy willow walk (2), hundreds of films, music videos, plays and advertisements have testified to the sultry sashay of the stiletto-ed silhouette. And hundreds more have used the waddling plod of woman as we know her in her natural state to show the unsexiness of maybe older women, fatter women, uglier women. But anyone who has seen someone in sky-highs for the first tme will know that the sexiness is a matter of opinion, and probably would look just as weird to someone from ancient China as the willow walk sounds to you or me. In reality, walking on bound feet was supposed to be agony. A night in cheap heels feels kinda similar. 

The other harsh reality, apart from excruciating pain, was that women’s normal gait was reduced to a hobble, and she needed the help of others to move. As Liu-hsien rightly points out, she couldn’t go and work in a field (4, 5) , nor could she leave the house of her own free will (6) and mingle with people who her husband or family didn’t approve of. In other words, when a child’s body was first forced to relinquish power over the feet’s natural growth, the girl herself was forced to relinquish freedom over her body’s movement and the choices she could make. Creating such a huge difference between men and women’s bodies widened the gap between their social and economic power, leaving omen deformed and deflated in all areas of her life.

And as for high heels, well of course the great concession here is that you can take them off at the end of the day, even dress up in them secretly and noone will know. It would have been much harder to be a tranny in old China – much more of a life choice thing.

But nothing so removable could be quite so effective in hobbling you. Ever tried to run for a bus in your heels? You can’t, really, you can just kind of waddle very quickly. High heels also don’t just make your feet nice and small, they also make them nice and useless. and it all seems a bit too much like women aren’t supposed to run for the bus. In many ways, some women put on their diminutive mentality as females every morning, and whether they take them off with their heels at night is to be answered only by them.

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1 Comment

Filed under Feminism

One response to “High heels and bound feet: really so different?

  1. Nice blog with interesting title ”
    High heels and bound feet: really so different?” Enjoyed going through it. Keep it up the good work.

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