ancient history Stomach-Churning Things You Didn't Know About Chinese Foot Binding  

Jeff Richard
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Most of us have our morning ritual down pretty well. It's usually a variation of shower, dress, coffee, breakfast, scream at traffic, more coffee, arrive at work, and subsequently ponder our place in the universe until it's time to go home.

But rewind to a bit earlier: in those few precious moments before it's time to get out the door and race to punch in the clock, we probably don't think about the shoes we're slipping on. Okay, maybe some of us give it a little more thought than others, but they're typically the last items we put on, and the first ones we take off. 

They're fairly easy to operate, with the only real struggle coming from maybe a stubborn heel or a frayed lace every now and then. 

The point is, we should all be thankful the process of foot binding is finally over.

But what is foot binding, exactly? Well, imagine bending (and occasionally, breaking) your feet to grotesque angles from the age of five - and that's just scratching the surface. 

So why would anyone want to mangle their own toes to look like a vacuum-sealed pack of cocktail sausage smokies? Click through to find out some insane facts about this primitive practice.   

How Foot Binding Worked

How Foot Binding Worked is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Stomach-Churning Things You Didn't Know About Chinese Foot Binding
Photo: Public Domain

If you've seen the film Misery, you know the foot does not do well under immense stress, particularly when that stress comes very quickly in the form of a sledgehammer wielded by a very angry Kathy Bates. 

In the case of foot binding, the foot equally does not hold up very well when it comes from a very slow process which forces it to contort into a bizarre crescent shape over many decades. 

So how does foot binding work exactly? 

Well, first off, if you were a young girl (we're talking as young as five years, because that's when the bones are still "soft"), and lived in China up until only three generations ago, you may have been subjected to a process which can only be described as mutilation.

First, the feet were submerged in hot water, then the four smaller toes were tightly wrapped in cotton bandages, nestling them under the rest while the ball of the foot is angled downward to create a type of grotesque half-moon. After that? Rinse, wrap, and repeat - for the rest of one's life.

Oh, and don't forget to make it tighter each time. 

Why Foot Binding Was Practiced

Why Foot Binding Was Practiced is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Stomach-Churning Things You Didn't Know About Chinese Foot Binding
Photo: Frank G. Carpenter/Frances Carpenter [Public domain]

By now, your toes are probably cringing and curling for the worst reasons possible, but still not as (literally) bad as those poor girls in China. So why would anyone subject themselves to such torture? 

Early beliefs maintained it was the male perception of beauty that enforced foot binding. That a woman's walk was more elegant and beautiful if she gently swayed to and fro, walking with delicate steps like a majestic lotus flower swaying in the wind...

In reality, that poor woman was one very fragile bone away from completely collapsing to the ground, all just to project a specific type of sexuality. And if that wasn't enough, it wasn't the only reason men were turned on by it.  

They also believed that when a woman walked with a strained gait, it also made her pelvic and inner thighs tighter, resulting in stronger vaginal muscles as well. 

Either way, the process was ultimately about forcing a woman to literally contort to a specific shape for what others perceived to be beautiful during the time.

No One Quite Knows How It Originated

No One Quite Knows How It Orig... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Stomach-Churning Things You Didn't Know About Chinese Foot Binding
Photo: Marco L [Public domain]

It's difficult to pin down exactly when foot-binding began, but historians have dated its start sometime during the tenth century, after a dancer named Yao Niang bound her feet in a similar fashion. Adding to the mystery, it's also unclear as to who was the first person to devise the ongoing practice for what's basically an elaborate foot fetish, but it is believed that because the Lotus Flower was held in such high regard during the time, the concept of beauty could be "elevated" if a woman's foot shared a similar shape. 

Regardless, the fact that foot binding was perpetuated so often came down to the societal order: that a woman should look beautiful, and be as subservient as she can be for her husband. 

Their Boots Illustrate the Shape of Their Feet

Their Boots Illustrate the Sha... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Stomach-Churning Things You Didn't Know About Chinese Foot Binding
Photo:  Queensland Museum

Constructed from silk or cotton, shoes worn by those who were foot-bound were very similar to the feet that would inhabit them. That is, they weren't exactly created for practical reasons like, say, walking comfortably, but rather to extend the misery warped concept of beauty that began when their owners' feet were first mangled. 

Called "Lotus shoes," they were designed to look like the bud of a lotus flower, were typically wedge or sheath-shaped, and were more akin to doll shoes than anything else.