In China, for one thousand years, women practiced the custom of binding their feet. Footbinding usually began between the ages of 6 and 9 years. Mothers would first soak their daughter's feet in warm water, massage them, and trim the toenails. Then, using strips of cloth from four-to-10 feet long, they would begin the two-four-year process of creating a 3-inch foot by bending the four smaller toes under the ball of the foot and then wrapping them tightly under the instep and around the heel.
It was a long, slow, agonizing process. In the best conditions the bandages would be removed every two days, the foot washed, and any blood or infection or putrefying flesh cleaned away. The binding would then be rewound, more tightly, slowly crushing and constricting the bones of the feet. The pain was excruciating, yet the girl would daily be forced to walk on her feet until eventually the bones cracked and broke. Optimum success was achieved when the broken toe bones, for all practical purposes, fused with those on the ball of the foot; when the toes and arch broke and bent so as to meet the heel; and when the arch raised in such a way that it was parallel to the leg.
The "perfect" foot was tiny, slender, deformed and 3 inches in length 2 1/2 inches if very successful. Approximately 10 percent of the girls whose feet were bound died from infection or gangrene. Naturally a woman was, for all intents and purposes, hobbled, or crippled, for life.
Footbinding continued well into the 20th century. Though it was outlawed by the Chinese government in 1911, it continued until punitive measures were leveled against the practice. An old Chinese saying opines, "There are a thousand buckets of tears for one who binds her feet." Yet in oral histories, recorded by Jeanine Holman, women today who had their feet bound as children, speak of "mother love" when asked how a parent could do such a thing to a daughter. Mothers adhered to cultural prescriptions regarding beauty, believing it was in the best interest of their daughter. More surprising were these comments from the women themselves:
"It was painful and there was nothing to do to find relief. But I never cried. Three-inch feet were considered beautiful and to my mind two inches was even more beautiful."
"Women simply must not have big feet, and that is all. That is why we bound our feet."
"If a woman didnt bind her feet she was not considered a lady and would never find a husband."
"We bound our feet because we believed it was beautiful and the way women should look."
"The pain was so difficult to bear. But I didn't cry because I knew the more pain I felt the better it was because my feet would be so small."
Most people today shake their head in disbelief when learning about footbinding. They find it wholly repugnant. Rightly so. How could anyone approve or encourage such self-mutilation?
Yet how many of us in the world and in the church strive to meet or encourage our daughters to strive to meet the increasingly perverse physical demands placed on women today? In my teens size 10 was a "perfect" size. Today's beauty culture demands size 6 . . . no, size 4 . . . no, size 2.
How many of us are caught up in the relentless quest to adopt the world's standard of beauty? How many seek that "perfect" figure, whether through harmful dieting, pills or perverse and dangerous eating (or lack of eating) practices? How many resort to surgery to enhance, or tuck, or lift, or tighten, or suck out, or add to the body that God gave us?
This does not mean that we should foreswear the healthy and useful care of the body. Sensible eating habits and exercise to take care of the physical temple that God has been given us is important. But the obsessive quest for thin concentration camp thin and for the large bust (that often seems only to objectify and commodify women) simply ought not to be the end all and be all of women's existence. I don't know what Saint Peter will ask us one day when we get to the Pearly Gates, but I am fairly certain that questions about bust size and dress size will not be on the list.
As repugnant as footbinding is to us today, is it just possible that some of our perceptions about what is "beautiful" and what we must do to be "beautiful" are equally as warped? And equally as deadly?
It seems to me that true "mother love" or "aunt love," or "friend love," or "Young Women leader love" demands that we teach and live so others know that we believe God's standard of beauty has more to do with personal virtue and the quality and purity of one's heart. God created us, and treasures us as His children. Christ loves each girl, each woman all women regardless of shape and size, and regardless of the world's increasingly perverse standards of beauty. The Father and the Son find beauty in the purity of our lives.