Over thousands of years, women have been expected to conform to ridiculous (if not dangerous) beauty standards.
Today, we’re expected to slim down yet be curvy, and to have perfect skin, thick eyebrows, long hair… the list goes on. While this definitely wreaks havoc on our mental health, we admittedly have it much better than our ancestors did. Many of the practices that were expected of women were straight-up destructive to their bodies. You know, like painting their faces with lead or breaking ribs to get a “tidy 16-inch waist.”
But for women in China, beauty standards were downright incapacitating until the 20th century, and even then the tradition continued. As part of her “Living History” series, Jo Farrell has captured a world we have never seen. These women are the last generation to have had their feet bound, and they’re baring all.
We can’t be sure when exactly the Chinese practice of foot binding started, but it seems to go as far back as the 10th century.
It’s said to have started when Emperor Li Yu’s concubine Yao Niang had her feet bound to perform a dance on top of a beautiful, 6-foot-tall lotus on the points of her toes. The dance was said to be so graceful that other upper-class women began binding their feet to imitate her.
Presumably, this is where the term “Lotus feet” came from.
To create the desired look, young girls had their feet tightly bound in bandages to discourage growth, breaking bones, pulling the toes under, and drastically reshaping the arch.
It was obviously painful, as their feet would bleed and even get infected.
They started out as a status symbol because only a very rich man could afford an immobile wife, but the practice spread to lower classes.
The ideal foot was about 4″ long.
Compare that with the average U.S. size eight foot, which is 9.5″ long, and you start getting the picture. While the women on the next page didn’t get their feet quite that small, their feet still look distinctly bound.
Starting at extremely young ages, the process was painful and inhibited young girls’ ability to play.
For Su Xi Rong, foot binding was the only way to get married.
If your feet weren’t bound, nobody would marry you. Her grandmother bound her feet. If she tried to unbind them, her grandmother would slice skin off her toes as punishment.
Sadly, she’s unable to walk anymore.
After gaining weight, her tiny feet were unable to support her anymore.
For Si Yin Zhin, foot binding was just part of life.
Her feet were never unbound, and they don’t even look like feet anymore. They completely took on the shape of her shoes.
Zhang Yun Ying was 103 years old when she had her photo taken.
She said she was only 99. Her daughter explained that anything more made her feel close to death. You can see how exaggerated the arch of the foot is here.
For many Chinese women, it was considered a sign that you wouldn’t “complain” as a wife.
Unfortunately, the deformities would only serve to make their everyday lives more difficult.
When she was growing up with her feet bound, she cried so much that her grandfather complained.
He couldn’t stop it from being done, but at 30 she unbound her feet, as women who didn’t would be fined.
For many women, the bones would break repeatedly.
They would heal as they grew older, but were prone to breaking again, especially in the teen years when their feet were soft.
While it is possible to unbind feet, the process is equally as painful as the binding itself.
Pue Hui Ying had her feet bound at seven, and they were briefly unbound at 12 (it was required at the time). Because it hurt so much, and she would have to re-learn how to walk, she chose to keep them bound even to this day.
Some girls chose to bind their feet themselves, because it was considered beautiful.
Guo Ting Yu was one of these girls. Her mother refused to bind them for her, so she started doing it herself at 15. She didn’t manage to shorten her feet at all, but she did curl her toes under.
These women are the last of over a thousand years of tradition, typically unseen by our society.
Like any dying cultural tradition, we’re beyond lucky that photographer Jo Farrell took the time to capture these women on film along with their stories.