This is the Chinese tradition of foot binding; it was done in the name of beauty, and in the hopes of a girl marrying well.
The most sought after foot size was less than 3 inches, this was named the Golden Lotus. A four inch foot was a Silver lotus, and anything 5+ inches was unpleasantly referred to as an iron lotus.
Binding was a very long and painful process which often began when the girl was just 4 years of age. The first step would’ve been to soak the feet in a bath of hot water, animal’s blood, and various herbs. Then the girl’s feet would be oiled, massaged, and her toe nails cut as shortly as possible. This next step would have been terribly painful; the toes would be stretched down into the sole of her foot, stretched until they broke. The arch of the foot would also be bent in half until it broke, and afterwords the foot wrapped up very tightly in silk bandages. These bandages were changed every couple of days; the feet would be washed, extra skin would be cut off, and the foot would be bound even tighter. The process was usually started when it was cold outside, the extreme weather was thought to numb the poor girl’s foot.
Though this process took approximately two years to complete, the women had problems with their feet for the rest of their lives. It was common for lotus feet to become infected, and toes even rotted right off. Gangrene was also a major concern.
Foot binding was a status symbol because the girl would not have been capable of manual labor, but there was an unexpected aspect – a hidden agenda on the parent’s part. Little girls were often given jobs in which they had to remain seated for hours on end, jobs such as basket weaving. How difficult would it be to keep your average 5 year old seated in one place for such long periods? If her feet were broken, it was much more likely to happen. That said, there’s little doubt that girls generally wanted to possess tiny lotus feet, much the same as women in Victorian times wanted to have a tiny corseted waist.
It is believed that this practice dates back to the Song Dynasty, or the 10th century. There are many theories as to how and why this became a beauty craze, but many agree that it most likely originated with Emperor Li Yu. The emperor’s favorite mistress, Yao Niang, performed on a stage which resembled a lotus; it’s said she danced so elegantly with her tiny, bound feet, and she wore bejeweled shoes. All of the other concubines were green with envy over the Emperor’s obsession with this woman, so many of them began to bind their own feet in hopes of becoming more attractive to the emperor. The smaller the woman’s feet, the more beautiful and elegant she was.
Not only were lotus feet a status symbol, but men were sexually attracted to them. Are you ready for the reasoning behind this? It was theorized that, if the woman’s feet were deformed in this way, she would be forced to use other muscles for walking – her pelvic and inner thigh muscles. Due to this, she was believed to have better control of her sexual organs, making her better in the sack.
Though foot binding was outlawed in 1911, it was still practiced until 1939. Anyone caught binding their feet after this was fined by the government.
A few of these pictures, namely the black and whites, were taken by a photographer named Jo Farrell.
Disclaimer – I do not own any images on this site.