Small feet, big suffering

A lot of women today eat very little, do impossible workouts each day, and stay unhealthily slim, which they believe is the ideal measure of beauty. The demand for skinny physique grips all age groups. As a result, frail woman with hollow cheeks get attention. This is nothing new. The weird distortion of body existed in many cultures.

For instance, Kayan women of Myanmar have their necks stretched wearing brass rings. Thailand’s Kayan women also have giraffe-like necks. A lot of men in Iceland spend hours each day beefing up their muscles, eating king-size meals, to achieve giant-looks for which they are famous. That is happening right now, in front of our collective eyes. But when it comes to weird body-distortion, Chinese women a century ago managed the weirdest. May be you have heard about lotus feet of Chinese women. 

They dreamt of having their feet foreshortened to just four inches—very tiny, like that of a baby’s. The custom dating back over 1,000 years, beginning from Tang Dynasty and lasting until early 20th century, considered tiny feet “beautiful”.  It reached at its peak during Qing Dynasty. However, in 1912 after the formation of Republic of China the custom was banned. However, it went on in rural China until 1940s.

Are there any of them still around? When this question first popped in her mind in 2005, British photographer Jo Farrell was in Honk Kong. She has since spent 13 years photographing and documenting the surviving dainty-feet women. They make up fifty-five of these surviving women in the provinces of Shandong, Yunnan and Shanxi, according to Mailonline, UK. It all began in 2005 when she talked to a taxi driver in Shanghai. Bingo! The man said his grandmother was one of them. 

Jo Farrell met Zhang Yun Ying at her house in Shandong. “The first time I met Zhang Yun Ying and held her foot in my hand it was just incredible - so soft and so incredibly formed” Mailonline quoted her as saying.

The culture is slowly dying out, with only a few of them alive today. Most of them are in their 90s, and indoorsy too. As urban China buries its past under its furious development projects, the rural China still harbours its old culture.

Farrell’s project, “Living History” is an answer to it. Why these women had their feet bound at all?  The answer simply is that small feet for women was considered beauty once. Large feet looked manly and strong, and they came in the way of finding better husbands—remember we are talking about an ancient custom. Most of these women,now in their autumn of lives, had their feet shrunk when they were children.

Some of them were pre-teens when they underwent the painful procedure. It involved binding of feet in two directions. First off, small toes got crushed under the ball of the feet and the heel pushed toward the toes, creating a steep arch. Overtime, the bound feet would stay there, creating petal-closed lotus feet—that made women eligible brides. The best pair of bound feet measured four inches—a little bigger one at 5.2 inches. 

They would wear nice embroidered shoes the kind babies wear today.  Jo Farrell’s photo-documentary brought to light one of our dying cultures.