Sometime around eleven to twelve hundred years ago, in a palace of the Tang Dynasty in Imperial China, a young dancing girl was encouraged to wrap her feet tightly in cloth so that they would remain small, dainty and beautiful, while the rest of her body grew to maturity. Or maybe not. Instead of a young dancing girl, perhaps it was the king’s favorite concubine, who tied up her feet so that they were shaped like little hooves, to dance with on the golden stage shaped like a lotus flower that she had built for him. Because the king liked it, the other concubines followed suit. Or, it could have been a queen born with a clubfoot, who demanded that all of the women of her court wear foot bandages as well, so that their feet would resemble hers, and she would not feel like an oddity.
There are several legends and no clear origin story to the custom of foot binding in China, though we know it was practiced at least as early as the tenth century A.D. It began as a specialized tradition, confined to the fashionable elite ladies of the royal court, but spread to become a normal, common practice among nearly all Han Chinese women by the seventeenth century. Originally, it was meant to indicate that a woman came from a family whose wealth was great enough that she need not work, or even walk very much. Beauty as idleness. Immobility as status. The bound feet were called lotus feet, after the delicate lotus flower, and the shoes to be worn with them were called lotus shoes.
Like many indicators of status, what initially meant wealth came to mean attractiveness on its own, out of context, which all women are expected to possess, or at least to perpetually aim at, despite their social station. Beauty, that load-bearing, obscure object. Women who were not wealthy and still had to walk and work were eventually expected to bind their feet, too. Girls and women with bound feet not only walked on those feet, they labored alongside their families in shops, on farms, and in fields, their wrapped, bent, broken-and-healed lotus feet tucked into tiny slippers, walking shoes, and even work boots.
Around the same time that foot binding first appeared in the court of Imperial China, a Tang scholar named Duan Chengshi recorded a story on a scroll in Classical Chinese. It was about a young girl named Yexian (葉限) who had very small feet. She lived with her stepmother and stepsisters, who treated her badly. Her only friend was a magical fish. One day, the stepmother kills the fish and serves it for dinner, hiding its bones under the dung heap. When Yexian discovers what has happened, she is grief-stricken. While she weeps, an unknown figure materializes out of the sky and tells her that she can wish on the fish’s bones, and her wishes will be granted. Yexian wishes for fine clothes, and is given a robe as blue as kingfisher feathers, and a pair of gold shoes that fit her perfectly.
Yexian goes to a festival dressed in her new finery, but one of her stepsisters recognizes her and she is forced to flee in haste, leaving one of her golden shoes behind. The shoe is found by a cave dweller, who then sells it to the king. The king becomes obsessed with the tiny, golden slipper. He forces every woman in the kingdom to try it on, but it is always too small. Despite being made of precious metal, it is as light as goose down, and is silent – it made no sound, not even on stone.
The shoe maddens the king. He tortures the cave-dweller to try and ascertain the thing’s origin, but it’s no use. He orders that anyone who can wear it be taken into custody immediately. Eventually he finds Yexian, the only woman with feet small enough to wear the golden slipper. He marries her, making her his primary wife, while the stepmother and stepsisters are killed. Though the story may sound familiar, it was then the first of its kind to be written down as literature.
Beauty is mutable. It is the state of being aesthetically pleasing that transcends mere pleasantness. Its embodiment is ephemeral but so are its ideals. We may like to look down on what was done for beauty in the past that we no longer find beautiful now, but it’s more useful to try and believe in the spell it once wove over women and men; to understand that it was just as potent as anything we might succumb to today or tomorrow. It is easy to dismiss the pain of achieving beauties past as grotesque or unnecessary once we no longer find them beautiful; less so when they still captivate us.
Foot binding began for nearly all Han Chinese girls between the ages of four and six. Binding the feet of younger children was not feasible because, it was explained, they could not stand the pain. If their families waited until after age six or so, it was usually too late.
There were different kinds of bindings, but the general idea was the same: the bones of the toes were broken and bent upwards, or back, or both in combination, and the whole foot was tightly wrapped to control and minimize growth. The bones were then continually re-broken and set over the next several years, so that girls reached womanhood with feet that had been molded and constricted into blunt little hoof-like triangles, sometimes no bigger than the front portion of a modern stiletto.
Many of the shoes for lotus feet came with a tiny fluted heel, or an internal wedged arch, to make the already manipulated feet look even smaller when shod. High heels and lotus shoes are often mentioned in contrast to each other, but in many instances they were one and the same.
Susan Sontag, writing on women and sickness, noted that frailty and vulnerability had increasingly become an ideal look for women. But this only holds true if the woman can maintain her charms – that is, if she can suffer and be made frail without complaining about it. Women are expected to suffer, must expect suffering, and yet must not speak of it.
‘A lady never admits that her feet hurt,’ says Marilyn Monroe’s character in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But why is that? Perhaps, despite its ubiquity in the female experience, expressed pain is an indication of damage, or impending damage. Like the princess in ‘The Princess and the Pea,’ but in reverse, a true lady of quality will not feel the pain inflicted on her, by herself or society, so that she can be considered feminine and beautiful. The pain belongs behind the scenes. To admit to the pain is to admit that there is a backstage to the scenery at all, that there is artifice, which is a kind of fraud. If pain means injury, and injury means damage, then because women have long been seen as part human, part-commodity, the expression of pain indicates an admission that she is damaged goods, and of lowered value.
Yexian’s slippers were impossibly small, but they were also silent.
As important as these miniature, triangular feet were for Imperial Han Chinese women, just as important were what having those feet did to the body and how it moved, which an added heel or wedge further exaggerated. The women walking on such feet had to develop extra strong muscles in the thighs and backside just to keep their balance. This kind of physique was then associated with the tiny feet in their beauty ideal. The lotus feet also necessitated an extreme halting, mincing gait, which was very different from a man’s gait, walking as he did on unbroken, natural feet. This altered type of walking was deemed feminine and desirable. It is a gait not unlike that produced by a woman today walking in very high, uncomfortable heels – the feminized walk described by a group of British researchers at Portsmouth University as supernormal stimuli.
Often, how a woman walks in high heels has less to do with the height of the heel itself and more to do with how well the shoe is attached to her foot, and how much pain she is in. With the more extreme bound feet, however, the distinctive walk they produced was involuntary. This elicited a sort of behavioral gender dimorphism in addition to the change in the culturally accepted female body shape. Natural feet were considered manly, and so the natural state of the body became masculine; one had to sculpt, suffer, and reinvent to be read as female.
The lotus flower is a symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism, and has at times been used as a sexual metaphor in Taoist texts. It’s the name of a seated yoga position, and also a British sports car. Growing as it does out of the muck, it is often harnessed as an image of beauty in adversity. After her suicide, Sylvia Plath’s estranged husband Ted Hughes selected an epitaph for her tombstone, taken from a Chinese poem, which read: Even amidst fierce flames, a golden lotus is planted. I was taught by my hippie parents in Northern California in the 1980s that ‘lotus’ was the word for a girl’s private parts. This caused years of confusion when unfamiliar adults thought they were saying ‘flower’ or ‘sports car’ or ‘sit cross-legged’ or ‘beauty in adversity’ to me, when what I heard was something else.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, has argued that the ‘high heel walk’ is, at least in part, culturally constructed. Ideas about what exactly high heels do to the female body have changed over time, as have descriptions of the walk. Do high heels make women totter? Strut? Sashay? Do they make the body appear curvier, or leaner?
Much has been written about the way high heels are supposed to emphasize the breasts and buttocks, making these two words sound like they refer to cuts of meat rather than regions on a woman. Do they force a curve into the lower spine and push the ribcage open? Perhaps they encourage, rather than force. It’s possible that walking in normal, well-fitting, well-secured high heels does not actually compel a person to walk any particular way at all, but rather makes certain consciously performed walks easier or possible.
High heels do make the legs look longer, increasing their ratio to the rest of the body by putting more distance between where the toes touch down and the hips. Long before Western fashion allowed for trousers and short skirts on women, the high-heel-wearing men of seventeenth-century Europe discovered that a raised heel causes the muscles of the exposed calves and thighs to flex and look shapelier. They are like push-up bras for everything below the waist. As writer Mary Karr asserted in an essay about high heels for the New Yorker, ‘an elongated foot and leg just announces, Hey, y’all, there’s pussy at the other end of this.’
Bound feet were painful, but they were also beautiful, because society decided it was so. The pain was worth it because beauty was worth. As a woman, the more beautiful you were, the more worth you had. Beauty was pain and pain beauty. A Han woman without bound feet in Imperial China was considered ugly and unmarriageable, and to get married and come under the legal and sexual aegis of a man was then, and continues to be, the primary expectation of women worldwide.
Many versions of the Cinderella story can be found all over the world. From ancient Egypt, to medieval Korea, to the Brothers Grimm in early nineteenth-century Prussia, each version involves four key elements. The first three are as follows: a beautiful young girl in a low social position, a man in a high social position, and a lost shoe that serves to unite them. The fourth and most important element is that the girl’s status is raised because the shoe has brought her to the man.
In these varying but similar Cinderella tales, sometimes there is a magical intermediary who puts the girl in front of the man, such as a fairy godmother, or the spirit of the girl’s dead mother who comes back in the form of a domestic animal or a tree that rains down gifts. But not always. Sometimes it is merely a matter of circumstance that throws the girl and the man together. She is hired to be a dancing girl at the palace, or her shoe is taken by a bird and dropped into a rich man’s garden. In some versions of the story, the shoe is made by the girl herself, and has been crafted or embroidered so finely that the man simply must meet and marry its craftswoman. Often, as with Yexian, it is the tiny size of the shoe that impresses the man, suggesting to him the bodily delicacy of its wearer in her absence. Every version of the story ends with a wedding as deus ex machina: The beautiful, intelligent, kind, or talented girl of low or reduced social status becomes a woman of high social status because she has been selected for marriage by a high-status man.
In fairy tales, women and girls are often asked to pay a price of pain, or silence, or both. In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry explains that one of the primary functions of pain is as a destroyer of language. Physical pain of all kinds defies meaningful description in its aftermath, and while it is happening, in extremis, it functions to dismantle speech into the kind of pre-linguistic sounds that can scarcely be deemed voluntary. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.
As if pain itself did not render one inarticulate enough, women have long been encouraged not only to tolerate physical pain, but to do so without complaining. Original sin lies conveniently with Eve, a woman wanting knowledge. Expelled from Eden, she pays for her knowledge with pain, like Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid. In the Disney retelling of his maritime tale, the price of pain is eclipsed by silence, to soften it for younger, contemporary audiences. It won’t cost much, just your voice! sings the octopod sea witch.
It is a well-known maxim that women must suffer to be beautiful. It is a mantra we repeat to ourselves as we are tweezed, waxed, and threaded; as we endure another hour of cardio, or ignore pangs of hunger; as runway models swallow tissues and cotton balls in lieu of food to stay skeletal and employable; as we shiver in the cold while our dates stand secure in sturdy jeans and wool blazers; as the high heels that we have tolerated throughout an evening of dancing grow bolder and begin to make their assault at the end of the night, with ten blocks left to walk home.
The near universal acceptance of high heels says something about compulsory female handicap. Much of being a woman entails a kind of mass ‘consensual martyrdom,’ as coined by Brooklyn Museum director Lisa Small in a write up of her exhibit Killer Heels. Perhaps women, like Eve, are taught that they deserve pain. This is true for more significant hurts, but also for quotidian pain. Forgotten pain. The kind of pain that we forget, that men are not asked to forget and would not forget. We come to confuse tolerable with comfortable, and continue to move the line further and further as to what we are willing to tolerate. As Mary Karr wrote, every pair of excruciating heels also telegraphs a subtle masochism: that is, I am a woman who can not only take an ass-whipping; to draw your gaze, I’ll inflict one on myself.
We can tell ourselves to be thankful, that it could be worse; that our toes could have been repeatedly broken and bound from the age of six; that we could be obligated to wear tight-laced corsets or painful girdles. But what if it is actually more than that? What if, rather than that we must suffer to be beautiful, what if it is actually true, at least on some level, that in order to be beautiful, we must suffer? Sweetness does not exist outside of the longing for sweetness. Our common understanding of it is backwards: Sweetness was born with our evolutionary wiring to seek it out, because of what it did for us, and not the other way around. What if we, as a patriarchal society, have decided to find beautiful in women that which causes suffering? What if the pain is actually the point?
The above is an excerpt from Summer Brennan’s High Heel, a meditation on the labyrinthine nature of sexual identity and the performance of gender. The book is available now from Bloomsbury.
Image © Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine