Foot-binding is one phenomenon in the long history of societies controlling women’s physical movement—along with their rights as citizens and their legal status as human beings—as a tenet of civilized existence. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit details laws and practices going back centuries that limited women’s free movement. In certain periods in France, for example, women were arrested if they were found walking on certain streets at certain times.
But women have been bent in more literal ways too. Foot-binding was one. Corsets were another; only rarely do we remember that Victorian women’s hourglass shape came at the expense of their lungs and rib cages. In Japan, most workplaces still require women to wear high heels, even while they’re job hunting. In response to a petition for that requirement to be abolished, Japan’s minister of health and welfare defended it as “occupationally necessary,” despite the strain that high heels put on backs, knees, and foot bones, as well as the risk of vertebral slippage.
Like recent research that makes visible the long-lasting brain damage inflicted by childhood abuse or PTSD, examining the medical consequences of corsets, high heels, and foot-binding in detail forces us to look their effects in the face. Brain scans that show the effects of trauma, or peer-reviewed research on the epigenetic effects of living through a war or genocide, are evidence that survivors’ accounts of abiding damage aren’t imagined. The restrictions of foot-binding and other physical constraints imposed on girls and women are obvious; the damage is real. “A male counterpart,” Cummings said of foot-binding, “is impossible to imagine—both because impairment of male function of any sort was not imaginable and because, had anything like that occurred, it would have been written about at the time, probably with outrage.”
With the unavoidable conclusions provided by modern, in-depth medical research, societies now have the knowledge necessary to avoid the mistakes they made in the past. Whether they have the will, though, is less certain. Foot-binding, as a practice, is extinct, but as Cummings pointed out repeatedly, what it says about how we are willing to treat women, and the damage we will inflict and accept to maintain control over their movement and their freedom, is anything but settled.
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