In ancient China, women were treated as decorative objects – beautiful to look at, unable to leave the house because of their crippled bound feet, silent and submissive. That was the argument I made in my talk for the International Women’s Day panel discussion on Body Image hosted by the Pan Asian Women’s Association (PAWA) last week at the Nehru Centre in London.
And that attitude to women underlies the way that women are viewed and treated today – even in our modern Western society. Of course, great strides have been made in liberal democracies for women’s rights and equality as well as for diversity. But there is still much work to be done in unbinding us from deep rooted cultural traditions that shame us for being “bossy”, old, ugly and dressed unconventionally – ie for being undecorative and for trying to be more than eye candy.
I feel passionately that the past can offer us a way in to exploring current issues in our present culture. We may look at the brutal tradition of bound feet and think that it was a weird practice that has nothing to do with us. But for the women of that time, this practice lasted for a thousand years and was done to little girls by their mothers and grandmothers. They believed that it was the right and only thing to do to guarantee happiness and a good life for their daugthers. If they had that blindspot, what is our cultural blindspot?
Where we are forced to conform to one universal ideal of beauty – whether it was bound feet in China or having to look thin, young, conventionally pretty and dressed in high heels today – all that we can be becomes limited to that standard. There are so many ways to be beautiful and we need to encourage – champion – each other in our individual beauty so that we can stride through our lives full of confidence and vigour and get on with being doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, presidents, entrepreneurs and all manner of other active roles beyond just being pretty.
This blog post is part of Women’s History Month
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Photo: from my album