Sole Beauty

Muse Science Magazine for Kids|April 2020

Sole Beauty
The painful history of foot binding
By Sue Amory Verner

“Will it hurt, Mother?”

Changying met Mother’s deep brown eyes. Was she crying? Mother rubbed Changying’s feet, massaging oil on the bottom and over the toes. Her light touch felt almost like a hug. Then Mother took firm hold of the pinky and snapped it. Lightning stabbed Changying. She fought the thrust of her stomach. Mother continued. A second toe. A third. A fourth. Unbelievable pain. Agony even. Pain that started now and would last the rest of her life.

“You are a good daughter, Changying,” Mother said when it was done. Changying nodded, choking back the sobs. She could not stop the tears, but she did not scream. This was important. This was what a woman had to do. This was beauty.

What Is Beauty?

How important is beauty to you? What would you do to have a boy or girl like you? To have someone call you attractive? To look like another person wants you to look? In China starting sometime in the 900s CE, the answers to these questions were striking. Women, first of the upper classes and later of all classes, went through a torturous process known as foot binding. Foot binding was a “beauty treatment.” The goal of foot binding was to restrict the foot’s growth, making it tiny, delicate, and cone shaped. In those times, if a woman wanted to be beautiful, she had to have tiny feet.

The ideal foot was a “golden lotus,” one that was only 3 inches long (less than 8 cm) with an arch so high and tight you could hold a coin there. A 4-inch (10-cm) foot, known as a “silver lotus” was also acceptable. If a girl’s feet grew to be any bigger than that, she was considered an “iron lotus,” and her marriage prospects weren’t good. For comparison, measure a smartphone. Most are about 2.5 to 3 inches (6 to 8 cm) wide and 5 to 6 inches (12 to 15 cm) tall.

The Process of Foot Binding

The process of making a girl’s feet beautiful usually started between the ages of four and six. The girl’s mother or a woman in the village did the procedure. She started by washing the girl’s feet in hot water. Then she carefully clipped the girl’s nails short and rubbed the feet all over with oil. After that, she broke four of the girl’s toes (all but the big toe) and pressed them against the sole of her foot. She also bent the foot nearly in half, or as close to it as she could get. She then wrapped the foot in a strip of long, thin cloth, holding everything in place.

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April 2020