At the Debutante Party

Dear Jenny,

I just came from my debutante party, it was wonderful. I’m sitting here in bed at 3 am changing my foot bandages the way Mom taught me and I have to say that love my bound feet. I feel so comfortable with them. When I was a little girl my mother always said, as she tightened the bandages, that I’d thank her when I grew up. “You have to suffer for beauty,” she said. I would see the servants’ children running around the house and at that moment I hated her.

I wore those exquisite embroidered blue slippers with the very short pointy toes. You were so right! Green may be good luck but it’s also “flashy.” I entered the room with a tottering fragile grace – everyone was looking at me.

I sat down elegantly in one of the upright chairs and immediately tucked my feet back under my skirt so on it the tiny front half of the slippers showed.

A number of very attractive and well-thought-of young men asked to be introduced to me. I noticed that everyone admired me and then they would discreetly glance at my feet.

Mary Lou was there–you remember her from high school. Her mother was never as strict as ours about the foot bindings – her feet looked enormous. They were at least five inches long! I noticed she kept fluffing her skirt to hide them completely. Even men know what that means.

All the young men kept bringing me food and drink and I didn’t need to get out of the chair. But I stood up several times and took just a few steps in my delicate shoes so they should see how graceful I was. Mother was so proud.

Well, it’s late and I should go to sleep.



P.S. When I have a daughter, I’ll certainly make sure her feet are even more beautiful than mine.

bound feet , women, fashion, style, feminism, body image, Body Impolitic

8 thoughts on “At the Debutante Party

  1. Hmm. I’m reading this as a commentary on women’s embracing of oppressive beauty standards, perhaps inspired by the latest blogosphere go-round on the “waxing” issue. My interpretation is that foot-binding is being used here to provoke thought because it’s something that most western women will associate with oppression, more strongly than we do comparable practices in our own society (say, waxing and makeup, or cosmetic surgery and aesthetically-motivated weight loss).

    If my reading is not altogether off-base, I wonder how this use of foot-binding compares to Amanda Marcotte’s recent use of burqa imagery to comment on sexism in western society.

  2. Laura,

    Actually this post was sitting in the back of ours heads for a couple of months. The timing was accidental. The post came out of a conversation Deb and I had then about how women who are dieting (and often suffering) talk about how they are more “comfortable” when they are thin.

    There’s a really clear bright line on practices like foot binding being bad for the body. Waxing, make up etc. are not on the same side of that line. The point is more that if what makes you feel “comfortable” is what the dominant culture wants you do, then you should examine it.

    We’ll be writing more about some of these issues soon.

    There is probably a really interesting complex cross cultural commentary on foot binding and burqas, but I don’t think that this blog and Amanda’s burqa comments particularly relate.

  3. My thought was more that some parts of the critiques of Amanda’s burqa post (and in particular, Brownfemipower’s discussion, available here) might apply here too. My sense is that western women’s representing oppression via the use of images of non-western women plays into what BfP describes as “colonial feminism.” The US is differently situated with regard to China than with regard to Afghanistan, of course, but I think some of the same circumstances are present. So in view of BfP’s points, I’m uncomfortable with foot-binding being held up as an example, which is effective because of our common condemnation of it, to illustrate a point about something happening in this culture. It seems like our own society is rife with egregious examples that could be mined to make the same point, rather than relying on examples drawn from a society toward which ours has (historically, at the very least) taken an imperialist stance.

  4. I have to comment in haste, so I hope I’m not missing a finer political point, but my instant reaction is that it’s so very hard to extract mass self-starvation and disordered eating from its shrine in this culture, and smash it on the floor the way I wanna.

    I feel that there is a real value in comparing the total acceptance of the thin-at-all-costs body damaging behavior in our culture to a foot-mutilation-for-status behavior in another culture. The comparison that is being made is not exact. We can’t know what that meant for 1,000 years when a particular class of Chinese women were its victims–if the alternative was literal death, perhaps it was a fair trade off to them, and they saw it as protecting their daughters.

    But that battle is over, and mine is still in session. To my mind, it can take extreme metaphor to get people to see self-starvation as not “normal or healthy” but as permanently damaging.

  5. Lynne–I don’t doubt the usefulness of the rhetorical tactic. (For that matter, I don’t doubt the potential usefulness of using burqa imagery to make points about oppressive Puritanism in US culture.) *But*, I don’t think that usefulness can be the whole of the analysis, where there may be downsides to it as well. And even though women in this culture might have a lot to gain by exploiting mainstream revulsion at foot-binding to make points about how oppression works, I do think there is a political and racial significance to doing so.

    Consider–how might racial and colonial attitudes play into the very salience of foot-binding imagery that makes it so useful as a rhetorical tactic? Yes, foot-binding was a terribly damaging thing to do to women, but I suspect our strong reaction to it rests not only on the damage it did, but on its Otherness. Otherwise, why aren’t the damaging ways that western society has treated women just as salient to us, and just as useful as “extreme metaphors”? And if the salience does depend on Otherizing, then I would say that using Otherizing to make a point–however valuable the point–risks reinforcing the Otherizing.

    I do think that’s less problematic here than in the burqa context, for a couple of reasons. Most of us recognize that foot-binding is part of China’s past but not its present, after all. And besides, our society is not presently (and is unlikely in the near future to be) engaged in active physical aggression toward Chinese society. But I would argue that our attitudes toward China’s history are hardly irrelevant to our perceptions of contemporary China. And I’d also argue that even absent present physical aggression, there are still relevant global power dynamics that reflect colonialist history and the continuing influence of the colonialist mindset on western attitudes.

    So I’m not saying one absolutely shouldn’t use the foot-binding analogy in this sort of context, but with BfP’s critique of Pandagon’s burqa analogy still fresh in my mind, the ways that this might be similarly troublesome did jump out at me.

  6. Laura,

    Lynne Murray clearly understands why we did this blog and why we chose an extreme example. In general I agreed with your analysis of cultural appropriation and issues of colonialization. But sometimes it takes an image outside of one’s culture to give one the shock it takes to see ones own more clearly. Given our society’s overwhelming obsessions with thinness at any cost this seemed like an appropriate choice .Foot binding, unlike the burqa, no longer exists and has no cultural support in China or for that matter any where else.

    I was responding to a different Pandagon blog than the one I now realize you referred to. I thought you were referring to Amanda’s comments that condemning the burqa should not blame the woman who is wearing it . A statement that we, of course, agree with but didn’t think was central to our post. Although obviously the same thing was true in China when foot binding existed.

    So you were correct in thinking that, although we hadn’t read her comparison of the burqa and American Puritanism when we wrote the foot binding post, it seems like Amanda and BI were making some of the same analogies.

  7. actually, there are still women alive who have their feet bound–foot binding was looked down upon after the revolution in china, but there was no way for many women who had already committed to foot binding to comfortably or saftly undo their bindings.

    The problem that I see with using images outside of our own cultures to make a point is that we don’t really exist in a vacuum–one woman doing it for her own purposes is really no different than another woman doing it for her own purposes. and it’s troubling to me that whenever western women want to make a point, they move to the cultures of women of color rather than drawing on their own extensive histories of abuse and violations at the hands of violent power structures. Why are women of color always used to shock and terrify?

  8. Some of our thinking about cultural appropriation can be found in the comment thread above.

    We agree with you about the risks of using images outside of our own cultures to make a point. In the 18 months that we’ve been writing Body Impolitic, we’ve used lots of shocking and terrifying examples from white Western culture, and we expect to continue to do so. This post is one of the very few examples we’ve used from cultures of women of color.

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