Extreme bodily modifications have been around since the dawn of mankind. The practices range far and wide around the world, and include:
- Lip stretching
- Teeth Sharpening
- Ear and cheek piercing
With time, beauty standards evolved and most of these practices are not necessary, only symbolic markers of the past. This includes the old-age Chinese practice of foot binding.
Women today are used to engaging in all sorts of beautifying practices that would have seemed strange hundreds of years ago. Hair dying, plucking and shaving seem tame compared to the practice of shrinking feet by breaking them, however.
Zhou Guizhen, 86, is one of the few remaining women who lived at the time when foot-binding was a common practice in China. Even though it was outlawed in 1912, women still found a way to fool authorities so they could continue with the practice.
Foot binding was a practice that involved applying tight bandages to the feet of young girls as young as 4 years old in order to prevent them from growing. This was done starting from a very young age because of how soft the bones are at that age.
Each toe would be snapped to curl as close to the heel as possible, except for the big toe. The routine was usually simple but devastating: wrapping and unwrapping the feet until they were no bigger than 4 inches.
The practice started in the early T’ang Dynasty (618-907 DC). It was usually only practiced by the wealthy, and men thought it made women more attractive.
Zhou recalls how after the practice was banned, she tricked government inspectors by wrapping her small feet with thick bandages and wearing big shoes to make her feet look big. She was born into a wealthy family and married off to a husband that ended up being an opium addict.
After the communist revolution, Zhou and other women like her were shunned because of their small feet, which disabled them from doing the physical work that was required to fuel the communist dream. Zhou also lost all of her riches and possessions during the revolution.
In an interview with NPR, Guizhen said she regretted binding her feet because she can no longer dance, or move properly. At the time, foot-binding was a status symbol and women had no choice but to engage in the practice to secure a good marriage.
Foot-binding is so painful and so dangerous to a woman’s health that the tiny feet would often make a woman disabled and bedridden. The pain is said to be so excruciating that families would wait until the winter to start binding the feet to take advantage of the numbing capabilities of the cold.
Some of the most common problems that come with foot-binding are infections, which forced the women to cut chunks of their own flesh and pus drainage.
The bandages used for foot-binding were long and made it hard for women to wash their feet. They would only wash once or twice a week, which made their feet smell horrible.
Women would make their own shoes using intricately detailed needlework. Traditionally, the more colourful and elaborate type would be worn during their wedding days.
A three-inch foot was called a golden lotus, while a four-inch foot was called a silver lotus. There are said to be less than a few dozen women left who endured the practice of foot binding.