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Foot Binding

Traditions of Altering Feet in China

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China, Sichuan Province, old lady customarily binding deformed feet
Yann Layma/The Image Bank/Getty Image

Foot binding was an old Chinese custom in which young girls' feet were tightly bound to restrict and alter their growth. Although it was banned nearly a century ago by the Chinese government and is now seen as barbaric, the practice took years to die out, and a few of its victims -- most far older than 70 -- can still be found today.

The Upper-Class Origins of Foot Binding

Foot binding is thought to have originated in imperial China in the 10th or 11th century, probably as a fashionable practice among wealthy women. Although its first adherents used it as a status symbol to indicate their high social rank, foot binding gradually spread throughout the culture. By the 12th century, even the poorest families practiced it.

How it Worked

When a girl was about three years of age, most of her toes would be fractured and her feet bound tightly with linen strips to impede their growth. The ideal was to create a 3-inch "lotus foot" by limiting growth to just a few inches. The binding forced a girl's toes down toward the soles of her feet to form a concave shape.

The practice became so pervasive that a woman whose feet had not been bound would have difficulty finding a husband; most families demanded a woman with tiny feet when selecting a wife for their son.

Effects on the Body

The physical consequences of this process extended far beyond the feet themselves. Women with bound feet had difficulty walking, squatting and working in the fields. A 1997 study by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that women ages 80 and older with bound feet were more likely to have fallen in the previous year and to need assistance in rising from a sitting position. They also had lower bone density in the hip and spine than women with normal feet, increasing their risk of debilitating fractures.

After the Ban on Foot Binding

Even after foot binding was banned by the Chinese government in the early 20th century, the practice continued in secret for years, especially in rural areas where enforcement was difficult. Chinese families that immigrated to other countries, including the United States, frequently brought the tradition with them, but it was later outlawed in other nations.

Foot binding is no longer practiced today, but its effects can still be seen in China. In the 1997 UCSF study, researchers who examined a randomly selected sample of women ages 70 and older in Beijing found dozens with deformities resulting from the foot binding they experienced after the tradition was banned.

In 2007, National Public Radio interviewed women in their 70s and 80s who had their feet bound in childhood despite the ban -- which sometimes carried the threat of a death sentence for refusing to comply -- because their families worried they would not be able to find husbands if they had normal-size feet. Their deformities proved a liability under the communist government: Their misshapen feet hindered the women's ability to work in the fields and made them less able to support their families.

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