Higher Human Forms: Foot Binding

A 1930s shoe made for the bound foot. Gerhard Joren/LightRocket/Getty

We've already discussed the astounding power of supernormal stimuli, but today's installment of Higher Human Forms demonstrates what happens when we begin to reshape our functional bodies after that illusory ideal.

Chinese foot binding allegedly began in 970 CE with Emperor Li Yu's passion for a dancer's wrapped feet. The ideal spread among the imperial courtesans, the upper class and finally seeped through all social classes in most Chinese ethnic groups. It was the stuff of songs and poetry. Miniscule feet became a key standard of feminine beauty, and thus a perceived* means of marrying into a higher social class. So it fell to mothers and grandmothers to ensure female offspring boasted the smallest feet possible.

The Physical Process

Humans are natural flesh crafters. We form extreme ideals about the human body and we don't mind altering our flesh to conform to those standards -- no matter how torturous the method.

And the methodology of foot binding is certainly torturous. As explained in "How Foot Binding Works" by Melanie Radzicki McManus, the process went down as follows:

  1. First, the feet of a 4-7-year-old girl were softened in hot water.
  2. After a few hours, dead skin was exfoliated, toenails were clipped and alum was sprinkled between the toes to stop perspiration.
  3. Next, cotton bandages were soaked in hot water so they'd shrink as they dried.
  4. Then the binder folded the girl's four small toes under her feet and began wrapping each foot with the bandages in a figure-eight pattern.The bandages were sewn together in places to ensure a tight bind.

This was an incredibly painful process, actually breaking the bones in the arch of the foot. The big toe and the heel remained largely unaltered, but the four toes would fold under while the heel moved in toward the front of the foot. The image to your right should help to illustrate the transformation. A tiny pair of shoes finished the process.

I say "finally," but bound feet required a lifetime of care and rebinding. The process itself sometimes resulted in dire complications, but even a successful foot binding left the recipient physically handicapped. I encourage you to read the aforementioned HowStuffWorks article for a more in-depth break down of the process.

The Cultural Impact

The Chinese outlawed foot binding in 1912, but centuries of foot binding had a profound cultural impact. Most notably, tiny deformed feet became objects of beauty and sexual obsession. We conditioned ourselves then, just as we condition ourselves now with plastic surgery, to crave anatomies that do not exist without human interference. That's quite astounding when you think about it.

Furthermore, as pointed out in the McManus article, bound feet impacted Chinese architecture: Single-story homes and narrow streets (with handy walls to lean against) became mandatory to accommodate a handicapped gender. It limited China's colonial ambitions, enforced a strict home economy model and strengthened patriarchal dominance.

All of this, because we humans dip into the realm of forms and attempt to carve its image from our flesh. Foot binding itself may be a thing of the past, but the energy behind it continues throughout human culture.

* According to "Bound History" by Simon Montlake, surveys of bound-foot women found that only a small proportion married someone of a higher class.

Higher Human Forms is an ongoing blog series profiling the many fascinating ways in which humans have reshaped their bodies throughout human history. To quote plastic surgeon Joe Rosen, "The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are."

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.