Sunday, July 22, 2012

Painful Beauty

Author's Note: Today's entry has nothing to do with spanking. I'm going to discuss and rant on the things women have done in the name of beauty over the years. If you're offended by frank dialogue or disturbed by photos of people with deformity, then I suggest you skip this entry. This is also not meant to be male bashing. I love men! But there was a time when it wasn't like it is now between the we'll see.

"Don't go changing to try and please me..." so sang Billy Joel in his 1978 hit "Just The Way You Are". That's a nice sentiment, but one that couldn't be further from the truth. Throughout the ages, women have done some pretty horrifying things to themselves in the name of beauty. Sure, we also do a lot of things that we do a lot of things that we never give a second thought to; things like putting on makeup, dying our hair a different color (or if you're like me, to cover the gray) or wearing clothing that men find attractive. All pretty benign when you think about it. But take it a bit further into the realm of the more uncomfortable; such as wearing uncomfortable high heels, getting our ears or other body parts pierced, or getting dermabrasion or a chemical peel. All are a bit painful in their own way, but the pain isn't permanent. I remember getting my ears pierced for the first time as a 13-year-old back in 1974. The girl who pierced my ears used a sort of gun to literally shoot the earring through my earlobe. It hurt like heck, but I was so proud to have withstood that rite of passage. But we also do other things that are more permanent and a bit more extreme; like liposuction, breast implants, having our noses or eyes done, tummy tucks, buttock lifts and other cosmetic surgery. We do it all in order to appeal to men or to make us feel better about ourselves (because now we can attract a man). But there was once a procedure practiced on innocent girls that goes way beyond anything a sane and rational person would do. Around 976 AD, there was a certain Chinese emperor who developed a romantic interest in a concubine with very small feet. He once watched her dance with ribbons wrapped around her feet and fell in love with her on sight. Thus, one of the most cruel and nefarious practices of all time took hold--the brutal practice of foot binding. For a thousand years, bound feet were the ideal of beauty and femininity. China was (and still is) a male dominated society. Women were expected to be submissive to the wishes of their fathers and husbands. So when foot binding took hold, no one really objected. Who, after all, didn't want to be beautiful and desirable? It started, as most fads do, with the upper class. A girl in an aristocratic home was expected to have bound feet, a required charm for catching a husband of wealth and good breeding. Men in China found bound feet to be incredibly erotic and there exist to this day songs, odes and poems all singing the praises of women with bound feet. Of course, a woman could rebel and refuse to bind her daughter's feet. But then, of course, she was dooming her to a life of spinsterhood. No man of any worth would marry a woman, no matter how beautiful the rest of her  was, if her feet were unbound. Conversely, a woman of ugly countenance could snag a husband if she had the requisite tiny feet. So men focused on womens' feet as the object of their sexual desire. But there were other reasons why foot binding was such a good idea (for men):
1) Foot binding effectively crippled the young girl for life. A girl with bound feet couldn't walk any great distance and so they were basically imprisoned in their homes.
2) A young girl who couldn't walk without assistance wasn't likely to be sneaking off to meet her lover. So bound feet were an outward symbol of chastity and purity.
3) Foot binding reduced a woman to being purely decorative. Unable to hold a job or earn a living, her only hope of a good life was a good marriage. Poorer women (especially in the rural areas) also began to bind their daughters' feet in the hope that the girl would marry above her station. This ploy rarely worked as the foot binding was often started later in life in order for the girl to be able to work in the fields or on the farm. Starting at a later age almost never created the desired effect--three inch "Golden Lotus" feet.
One happy side effect of foot binding (for men) was that the mincing gait of a girl with bound feet supposedly strengthened the walls of the vagina and made sex with her awesome (for men). For poor  girls with bound feet, a life of working at hard physical labor on the farm or in the fields meant a life of great pain and suffering. My feet are normal and they often ache after a regular workday. I can't imagine how much pain these women endured. But there's an old Chinese proverb that says "There's a thousand buckets of tears for a girl with bound feet." The women would sit daily and hand stitch beautiful tiny slippers for their feet. The tiny shoes were required because the wrapping never came off their feet, except when they were washed.

What, you may ask, is (or was) foot binding? The process started at a young age, about three to six years old. The bones are still growing at that age and it was easier to do to a very young child, who wouldn't be likely to fight it. First the feet were massaged to make the joints more supple. Then the arch of the foot was broken. This was extremely painful. Following this, the four smaller toes were broken and folded under the foot. Then the entire foot was wrapped in bandages that had been soaked in herbs and animal blood to keep infection from setting in. As the bandages dried, they constricted and pulled even tighter. The girl would be encouraged (or forced) to walk on her feet in order to break the bones further. The process normally took about two years to achieve the desired look. Take a good look at the young girl in the picture. Don't you think a smile would make her look prettier? I'm sure her feet are killing her. The feet had to be attended to daily. The toenails had to be trimmed regularly to keep the nails from ingrowing or sticking into the bottom of the foot. But no matter how carefully a girl's feet were tended, they always smelled bad because of fungus that couldn't be eradicated. Also pus from infections and putrefying flesh would have to be removed. Then the bandages were re wrapped, tighter than before. The men who adored these tiny feet often never saw them uncovered. The smell would have driven them from the room and the appearance would have caused them to recoil, as it did me the first time I saw it.

Again, there's no smile here on this young lady. Those feet, to my way of thinking, do not look beautiful. But then again, this is just me. Apparently, women engaged the services of professional foot binders because they would allow their daughters' tears to keep them from wrapping the bandages tightly enough to get the most desirable effect. Foot binding was outlawed in China in 1912, but continued on almost unabated in the rural areas (presumably because they were less effectively policed). But foot binding was done away with permanently around 1949 when someone finally noticed that these women couldn't work and were therefore a burden to the economy.

While Chinese women were enduring the hell of foot binding, their Western sisters were also suffering their own brand of hell on earth. Sometime in the 18th century or before that, someone (probably a man) decided that a thinner waist was desirable on women. Thus the torture contraption called a corset came into popular use. Corsets have come in a lot of forms over the years, but the main function of corsets was to push everything up and create a high full bosom and an unnaturally thin waist. As with foot binding, corsets became a symbol of beauty and femininity but also became a way for men to impose their dominance over women. A woman who didn't wear laces, was considered "loose" and undesirable for marriage. But a "straight-laced" girl was seen as pure and virtuous. This idea really took hold in the Victorian era, an era when mores and morals were extremely strict.

Ladies of good breeding and gentle raising were prized as delicate flowers. Women who were forced to endure these devices had a host of problems to overcome. First of all, they couldn't bend over once they were laced in so they had to put their shoes on before they were laced in. Also they couldn't eat much. They usually carried something called a "nutmeg grater" on a bracelet around their wrist. It contained ammonia salt or something aromatic in case she felt faint or swooned. A curious piece of furniture called a "fainting couch" was also invented so that the corseted woman could simply lie down on her side and faint conveniently without having to remove her clothing (a no-no in Victorian society). Women who were corseted tightly had a number of health problems associated with the displacement of internal organs. Because the last five ribs aren't connected to the breastbone (sternum) the abdominal organs can be moved. This sounds unbelievably painful. On top of that, Victorian women also utilized cosmetics containing lead and mercury and face lotions containing arsenic (easily obtainable in those days). All of these dangerous devices used together accomplished the Victorian ideal of beauty, grace and sweetness. Pale skin was prized, which was one reason arsenic was used as a face lotion. The hair was also a focus of mens' desire. They seemed to prefer it long and wavy. I can only suppose what was done to womens' hair in those days. It was burned with irons for sure.

So foot binding and corseting are only two of the ways that women were pressured to conform to an idealized version of female beauty. There was no "doing your own thing" as we have today. But make no mistake: the pressure is still there. Women who fail to conform to society's version of beauty are usually marginalized and relegated to also-ran status. As a woman who doesn't fit the Madison Avenue idea of beauty I have felt the pain of rejection. But the pain of rejection is temporary and passes with time. The pain of foot binding and corseting was permanent and unrelenting. It gives me pause to wonder what kind of pressure was applied to women to willingly allow themselves to be crippled and maimed. Isn't childbearing enough pain and suffering in a woman's life? And even though we've come a long way since those days, I have to wonder if we really have. Is the pressure still so great that women still subject themselves to the pain of surgical procedures that alter her physical appearance? They inflict strict diets on themselves to keep as thin as possible (preferably to be as thin as the newest supermodel). Women in some countries are allowing a modern form of foot binding--having their legs broken and stretched in order to lengthen the bones and give the woman longer legs. Why do we still do it? When will we be happy with being the person God made us as? When will we be happy in our skin?