In February, I signed with Urbane Publications to bring out the book of Bound Feet Blues: The Stories behind the Story. Here is the historic moment – I am with Matthew Smith of Urbane, signing the contract on the 5th floor balcony of the Royal Festival Hall.
One of my female friends asked me, “Who is that handsome man you are with?”
Hmm. Regular readers of this blog will know that I grapple with the issue of women being objectified for their beauty and in particular, in ancient China for their tiny bound feet. So as a feminist and a humanist, I am in a quandary. Does that comment objectify Matthew?
Another female friend commented on Facebook about me in this photo: “looking f***ing hot”. Was she objectifying me?
I would say that neither comment is an objectification. I am all for appreciating someone’s looks, whether they are male or female – so long as Continue reading
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.
L to R: Jee Oh, Yang-May Ooi, Sally Gloyne, Edna Fernandes
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 Continue reading
It is almost as if the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month was designed just for Bound Feet Blues!
March is Women’s History Month and this year’s theme is Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives. The website of the National Women’s History Project (US) says of this theme:
“Accounts of the lives of individual women are critically important because they reveal exceptionally strong role models who share a more expansive vision of what a woman can do. The stories of women’s lives, and the choices they made, encourage girls and young women to think larger and bolder, and give boys and men a fuller understanding of the female experience. Knowing women’s achievements challenges stereotypes and upends social assumptions about who women are and what women can accomplish today.”
In my show – and the book – Bound Feet Blues, I tell personal stories from the lives of the women in my family and weave those threads with my own coming out journey. But the themes go beyond the stories of one woman and one family to touch on the universal questions of female desirability, identity and empowerment. In ancient China, women were objectified as decorative objects through their tiny, crippled bound feet. My great-grandmother broke free from tradition to run away from her cruel husband despite her crippled feet. What cultural traditions still bind us to a standard of beauty that denies us our essential powerful identities? How can we break Continue reading
Bound Feet Blues explores female beauty in the context of Ancient China and the practice of footbinding that was meant to make a woman more beautiful. My work on this project has led me to reflect on modern concepts of beauty in the modern West. Now, I have just seen this article on the BBC website by historian Bethany Hughes looking at the beauty in the world of the Ancient Greeks – and it points to a rather different view of beauty from what we are used to.
The article says “In ancient Greece the rules of beauty were all important. Things were good for men who were buff and glossy. And for women, fuller-figured redheads were in favour – but they had to contend with an ominous undercurrent”
In Greek mythology, the first woman to be created was …” “the beautiful-evil thing”. She was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. Being a good-looking man was fundamentally good news. Being a handsome woman, by definition, spelt trouble.”
This point of view contrasts with most notions of beauty which ellide goodness of character with good looks. In Ancient China, for example, an Exemplary Woman was one who was obedient and dutiful – and who was also beautiful, where her beauty was entirely defined by the tiny size of her feet. In modern times, heroines in movies and books tend to be beautiful, too, rather than plain or ugly unless their plainness is part of the plot device/ reason for the story.
However, this Greek notion of female beauty as evil does live on today in the modern trope of the evil seductress whose beauty is Continue reading
Looking Western seems to be an ideal of beauty for some Chinese women, according to an article in the Daily Mail. They are getting cosmetic surgery on their faces to remove their Chinese features – making their eyes bigger, sharpening their noses and reshaping their faces to seem longer. Is looking Chinese really so awful for these women that they feel they have to destroy their own faces to look more Western and therefore in their minds more beautiful?
Looking at the photos in the article, I am reminded of depictions of women in anime comics, which originated in Japan – with large saucer like eyes and heart shaped faces, mapping Western features onto Eastern female faces. The skin tones also seem to have been altered to look paler and pinker. There, too, in those comic books, Western features are idolized.
Bound Feet Blues explores why women in ancient China were prepared to do violence to themselves and their daughters in the context of footbinding, which mutilated a girl’s feet beyond repair. That brutal cultural practice died out about 70 years ago. But it looks like it has returned but in another form.
The underlying message of both bound feet and this Westernizing cosmetic surgery seems to me to be that Continue reading
It’s difficult for us in the modern world to imagine how small bound feet were. Whenever I say to people that some of the smallest bound feet were only 3 inches long, they register that that is small but it’s only when they see exactly how small 3 inches is, that the horror of it hits them.
In order to illustrate how tiny bound feet were for “Breaking Tradition”, my award-winning talk inspired by the stories in Bound Feet Blues, I went online to order a pair of baby shoes. I searched and searched for baby shoes that were 3 inches long but the smallest size that I could find came to just over 4 inches.
The photo above shows me holding those 4+ inch baby shoes during Continue reading
In the Cinderella fairy tale, when the Prince finds the glass slipper dropped by Cinderella, he travels around the kingdom trying to find the woman whose foot is the perfect fit for the shoe. Many women long to marry the Prince, including Cinderella’s ugly sisters but their feet are too big – so they resort to chopping off their toes and their heels to make their feet fit into that single perfect glass slipper.
You think this is a fairy tale.
Well, think again.
It seems that women today are having foot surgery so that their feet fit more easily into high heel shoes or sandals, according to an article on Shape magazine on Cinderella Foot Surgery.
They are asking for toe shortenings… nail re-sizing, “foot facelifts,” “toe tucks,” and foot narrowing… [and] “toebesity” surgery [liposuction on fat toes]
Having spent so much time researching the brutal Continue reading
This is a fascinating article about Chinese photographer Ji Yeo and her project to photograph women in the recovery room just after cosmetic surgery – See http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2014/mar/18/ji-yeo-cosmetic-surgery-frontline
According to the Guardian, she hated her body when she was younger – which was tied into her low self esteem – and looked into having cosmetic surgery.
She didn’t have the surgery but started the Beauty Recovery Room photography project instead, taking photos of women just after cosmetic surgery.
As I’ve been thinking about bound feet and why women in China did that to themselves for my story performance Bound Feet Blues, I’ve been so much more aware of issues around women and their self esteem, body image, the role of fashion as power and body mutilation/ modification.
This project is particularly striking for me because it involves Chinese and East Asian women – symbolically making Continue reading