By Nadia Chiesa
Shoe fetishes are nothing new. Think sky-high stilettos, spiked heels and leather laces. A millennium ago in China, tiny feet resembling the “golden lotus” were all the rage. The shoe may have changed, but the ideas behind footwear hasn’t and shoes have always been a significant symbol in society.
In ancient China, to achieve the conception of the ideal foot (three to four inches in length) the foot binding process would begin when a girl was just a few years old. A cloth bandage would be wrapped tightly around the foot, forcing the small toes to curl under the instep, and creating a foot both smaller and narrower. The bandage would be tightened every day as the girl was put into smaller and smaller shoes. Her feet had to be washed and manicured daily to prevent her toenails from cutting into the instep of her foot and causing infection. Hot and cold compresses were applied to encourage circulation. Corns would grow on her toes and were removed by slicing them off with a knife. Circulation was obviously impeded when the feet were bound and so pieces of flesh would rot and toes would often ooze pus. Circulation could be cut off entirely, resulting in gangrene and blood poisoning, if the bandages were too tight.
On the surface, women bound their feet in order to conform to social standards of beauty. On a cultural level, Chinese-bound feet evoked ideas of femininity, ethnicity and socio-economic status.
Once her feet were bound, a woman’s mobility was severely limited. Her physical condition confined her mainly to her home. Bound feet became a symbol of chastity. The idea of femininity extended to include notions of sexuality. Bound feet were seen as erotic and it was thought that the vagina was strengthened and made narrower by the way bound feet made a woman walk, thus enhancing her husbands pleasure. It was believed that the nerve endings became more concentrated so bound feet were also considered an erogenous zone.
Originally, bound feet were considered a symbol of ethnicity since it was only Han women who bound heir feet. Later, the tradition of binding feet became a luxury among the rich. Women with high positions in society didn’t work so they could afford to be dependent on others. Women of the lower classes imitated the tradition in the effort to marry men from a higher class.
Today, across all classes, the heel is considered the ultimate in feminine female footwear. But think back to history class: it was the men in those funny wigs who sported the look. It was only in the 1730’s did men abandon the heel to their wives. Heels were out during the French Revolution and by the 1780s were considered to be for women only. After the Revolution, the heel made its debut among middle-class women. The irony is that because their husbands, mercantile men, wanted nothing to do with the reign of Louis 14th but had no qualms about their wives dressing like ladies of the court. Around this time, the stiletto emerged.
The shoe, as with fashion, is closely related to cultural and historical change. When women were fighting for the cote in the ‘20s, a significant barrier was that voting was a masculine practice and that if women got the vote, they would lost their femininity. So, the suffragettes wore heels to emphasize their femininity, proving that they could do a “man’s job” but still be the women their men wanted them to be.
Metal manufactures during World War II was ideal for creating a shoe with a tall, thin heel; that could support a significant amount of weight. The stiletto emerged in the ‘50s as a popular shoe design, marking an important cultural change. During the war, the ideal woman was strong, independent and responsible, doing her all to help the boys overseas. She was a no-nonsense woman with no time for frivolities. When the men came home, women were sent back to the kitchen, pregnant but certainly not barefoot.
The stiletto realigns the body, emphasizing the sexual qualities of a woman. However, this realignment is not ergonomically correct. You may cringe when you look back at Chinese foot binding but has anything really changed? Wearing heels thrusts the spine into an unnatural position and damages the back, joints and feet. Heels are also the cause of disgusting and painful foot ailments like bunions, calluses, corns and hammertoes.
High heels are thought to be sexy and in our society, sex can equal power. Hence, the heel appears to equal power. Everyday women sacrifice comfort for looks — in this case a look perceived by society to be both sexy and powerful.
Chinese women who had bound feet could barely walk and were constantly in pain. The patriarchal society in which they lived established that tiny feet were an admirable and necessary attribute for women, to the point where women whose feet were not bound were not considered eligible for marriage. These women did not have a choice.
Nowadays, women do have a choice. In choosing to wear high heels and stilettos, one jeopardizes both health and comfort. “I’ve twisted my ankles a few times,” said first-year student Deborah Egan.
“I wear a lot of heels that are about four inches high. I’ve also fallen in them, but it’s worth it.”
Egan says that heels make her look taller and make her legs look better.
“Heels add a nice finish to your body.”
This kind of shoe almost enslaves women. Try to run for your bus in heels! However, wearing heels can inspire a sense of liberation because of the ideas of sex appeal and glamour associated with them.
Shoe fashions today are nowhere as tortuous as they were in footbinding times, but shoes on the market tend to prioritize appearance over function. Look at Gucci’s Fall 2002 shoe collection; every shoe has a high spiked heel.
Shoes, like fashion, have cultural relevance and relativism. History and culture have associated so many conceptions and ideas of sex, beauty and power with the shoe that a simple high heel becomes a paradox: women submit themselves to physical pain so they can project an image (created by a patriarchal society) of power and beauty and, in turn, feel liberated by their perceived power.