BS Architecture ANTHRO 10 THV1
I arrived late in class, probably missing the first five minutes of the ‘film showing’. I settled myself on the last row, within a comfortable hearing distance from the television set, but occasionally tilting my head so as to get a better view (a ‘tall’ classmate was sitting in front of me). When the old- lady-with-the-lotus-feet spoke in Chinese, I frowned in dismay. I am inflicted by myopia and I cannot see the subtitle from where I seat. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words and the eye is the window of the soul--- I can effortlessly see immense amount of sadness over that old lady’s eyes as she speaks on the ‘moving picture’.

Standardizing Beauty
A Reaction Paper on National Geographic’s Documentary about the Chinese Foot-binding Culture

"A beautiful face may wrinkle and a slender body may become fat and snazzy, whereas a pair of lotus feet keep their charm as long as the woman lives" -old Chinese sayingTo be beautiful is to have the approval of the society’s definition of beauty. The Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies defines “beauty” as “a historically specific evaluation of physical attractiveness that expresses prevailing racialized social hierarchies. (…) Women were either categorically ‘beautiful’ only to the extent that they shared the features of the dominant racial or ethnic group, or were considered beautiful in particularly eroticized1 and exoticized2 terms”. Since it is the society that defines what is beautiful for a particular time, this implies that in most cases, “a society’s culturally dominant group set the standard against which others were judged”. This is exactly the case behind the culture of foot binding in China. From its seemingly vague origins, an entire culture based on what was set by their patriarchal society, was woven.

The form of the “normal” feet as contrasted against that of the “lotus feet.”

“Lotus Foot” was a name given to the bound feet of the Chinese women that was once considered highly erotic. I literally cringe over the thought that these women underwent excruciating pain just for the sake of being called “beautiful”. The origin of this practice was unclear but it was generally accepted that it started during the 11th century. One story tells of “an Empress with a foot deformity that the court attempted to follow”. In another, the story was connected to the reign of the Sung Dynasty where “the court dancers, who moved so delicately upon the petals of lotuses had such tiny, dainty feet that resembled a golden lotus.” This “dainty feet” became a highly eroticized symbol of femininity and grace. The binding of feet was considered “the Eastern equivalent of European corsetry, an extreme form of body modification considered to be highly erotic.” [2] Curiosity led me to search for more myths governing the lotus. The lotus flower, according to The New Encyclopedia Britannica, is “sacred” to the people of “Egpyt, India and China. (…) In addition to [its] artistic uses, (…) [the flower] has symbolized fertility and related ideas, including

Eroticized – to make erotic; Erotic – of or concerning sexual love or desire, tending to arouse sexual desire, dominated by sexual love or desire. <> 2 Exoticized – to make something seem to be exotic; Exotic – intriguingly unusual or different, excitingly strange. <>

birth, purity, sexuality, [and] rebirth of the dead.” [3] The lotus is also “a metaphor for the feet of the gods, saints and other exalted spiritual beings”. [4] For the young females of ancient China, having their feet bounded in tight cloth was never their choice. It was their parents who inflicted this culture believing that having their daughter’s feet bound would increase their chance of marrying someone with standing in their society. All the pains and sufferings that a woman undergoes to achieve the “golden lotus feet”3 were considered insignificant in the quest for tiny feet. Standards of beauty have most often been used to rank women. A woman is valued for her beauty while a man is valued for his accomplishments. The practice of binding the feet in China was not only specifically done for a woman to be labelled “beautiful”. It was rather a direct translation of how the culture dictates and defines where exactly a woman should be in the society. A woman with lotus feet is literally bound for her movement is restricted. A society is defined by its culture. This culture, as discussed in class, is “shared, learned, adaptive, integrated and changing”. A textbook in Anthropology written by William Haviland discussed culture as “consists of the abstract values, beliefs and perceptions of the world that lie behind people’s behaviour”. This culture is shared by members of a society. Haviland predicted that “when acted upon, [a culture] (…) produce[s] behaviour that is intelligible to other members of (…) [a] society.” [5] Thus during that particular time, when the ‘lotus feet tradition’ was universally accepted in China, binding the feet of one’s daughter was logical.

Body “enhancement” by surgery and liposuction.

A society’s definition of beauty is, most of the time, surprising. Humans strive for perfection and we undergo extremities to attain it. In our modern world, traditions of how to enhance our looks have evolved. The literal ‘going under the knife’ of people is proof that the culture of the lotus feet is still very much present. Cultures vary and continually change but the body will remain the topmost site of humans’ interests. Beauty is standardized as the society defines what should be considered beautiful. While we cannot defy these ‘culture’ altogether, we must remain critical. I, for one, wouldn’t want to have that old Chinese lady’s sad eyes.

Sources / References
[1] Cashmore, Ellis. “Beauty”. Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies. Routledge, London (2004) [2] Krauss, Desiree. “Lotus Foot”. Online Posting. Morbid Outlook. 30 August 2008. <> [3] “Lotus”. Vol.7 Micropedia Ready Reference. The New Encyclopedia Britannica,15th Ed. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago (2002) [4] Fishman, Laurel. “The Sublime Essence of the Lotus Feet”. The Official Steve Vai Website. Inside Real Illusions: Reflections. 29 August 2008. <> [5] Haviland, William. “Culture”. Anthropology, 10th Ed. Wodsworth, Thomson Learning Inc. USA (2003)


The ideal length of the “perfect foot”, called a “golden lotus”, was three inches long. The three-inch perfection was a rare occurrence but it was something to strive for nonetheless. <>

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