'Snow Flower': Foot Binding, High Heels And The Cost Of Beauty

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" deftly weaves the stories of two pairs of female companions. Snow Flower and Lily experience the torturous process of foot binding together as seven-year-olds in the Hunan province of China during the 19th century. And in present-day Shanghai, finance whiz Nina and free-spirited Sophia’s troubled friendship reveals the challenges by which today’s women are bound. While the striking images of Snow Flower and Lily’s bloody, bandaged feet are hard to stomach, their contemporary counterparts also endure a sometimes-painful custom, albeit one practiced at their own free will: They’re both seen wearing vertiginous designer pumps.

The parallel between foot binding and modern-day high heels struck fashion historian Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, when she presented an exhibit on the former and observed that many of the female visitors who were desperate to learn the cultural factors surrounding such an inhumane practice walked away in sky-high heels. “I thought about this form of footwear, which is so ubiquitous. When we see someone in a fabulous pair of shoes, we comment, “Wow, those are spectacular,” but at the same time we’re completely blind to how radically impractical they are. We don’t ask ourselves, why do we actually wear them? And where do they come from?”

Semmelhack said one of her biggest concerns is equating high heels with power. “I question that a great deal because the power that high heels seems to convey is very sexualized power. And very sexualized power is false power, because in order to be sexy someone has to find you sexy, and so the power actually is in the beholder.”

“I often say that men have a uniform of authority: the suit,” Semmelhack continued. “You go to a wedding and the ring bearer looks adorable. You go to a business meeting and a man in a suit looks responsible. And you go to a funeral and a widower looks presentable. Now take a pair of very high heels. The flower girl walking down the aisle would seem oversexualized. A businesswoman might look powerful, but it also brings issues of, ‘I wonder how she got to that position.’ And then you put it on the 90-year-old widow and people say she looks pathetic.”

Though the high heel’s origin was much earlier, the stiletto came into vogue in the early 1950s. Semmelhack said that designer Roger Vivier, credited with its invention, had designed “an exceptionally attenuated heel” in the 1930s -- and fashion caught up two decades later thanks to new technologies developed during World War II, notably the extrusion of metal steel rods. Though fashion had previously imagined a very thin heel, she points out the fact that most, if not all, women’s heels were made of wood at that point and therefore would likely be unable to support a woman’s weight.

“The postwar period was a period of saying women belong back in the domestic realm, and in some ways it began to introduce a hypersexualization into women’s fashion,” Semmelhack observed, noting that a reconsideration of women’s societal roles occurred following the war effort that required millions of women to fill jobs previously reserved for men. And she noted that the stiletto’s association with pornography has remained a constant throughout fickle fashion trends -- though she questioned why. “People will say it’s because it elongates the body and that’s what we appreciate, but almost always the women in pornography are not standing up.”

The stiletto “epitomizes erotic femininity in shoes,” said Valerie Steele, director of the museum at FIT. “And men seem to respond with Pavlovian ardor to stilettos in a way that they don’t with other kinds of shoes.”

Steele said the allure of stilettos for women is partly their ability to flatter the figure. “If you put on a pair of high heels, it changes your whole body,” she said. “You’re taller. But also you’re lifted up so your tummy is pushed back, which means that your bosom is pushed forward and your rear end sticks out. Once you start to move you get a distinctive kind of wiggling motion with high heels. And you get a lot of tension in your legs. So you look taller, thinner and curvier all at once. “

But the beautifying benefits of heels come at a price. Dr. Alison Garten, co-vice president of the American Association for Women Podiatrists, said she sees a wide range of conditions caused by high heels.

“The list begins in the toe area, from hammertoes to bunions to blisters and corns, and working our way up the body we see a lot of additional problems,” she said. “If someone is wearing high heels for an excessive period of years, the Achilles tendon tends to get shortened and tighter. We have a lot of studies that show that women tend to get osteoarthritis in the knee more than men, and we’re attributing that to high-heeled shoes.”

And wearing the wrong footwear can necessitate invasive procedures that might otherwise be avoided. “If someone has a hammertoe, the toes are curled up as a result of wearing high-heeled shoes,” Garten said. “You make an incision on the skin and literally remove part of the bone and shorten the toe. It puts people at risk for infection.”

Garten advises patients to purchase heels that are two inches or lower (she presumably would not recommend this eight-inch pair recently produced by Christian Louboutin). “Stilettos are the No. 1 high heel that causes problems, more than any other high-heeled shoes,” she said.

Dr. Suzanne Levine, a New York based podiatrist, said that burning soles are the top concern for her pump-loving patients. To remedy this, she trademarked a procedure called “Pillows for Your Feet,” which involves injections of polylactic acid to combat the loss of cushioning on the balls of the feet. Levine, who co-chairs an organization called the International Aesthetic Foot Society, also offers cosmetic services, such as a 45-minute “foot facial." And for women whose uneven toes make it difficult to wear snug-fitting stilettos, Dr. Levine said that Botox may be used to straighten the big toe. “When you have the abductor tendon moving the big toe toward the second toe, you can use Botox to weaken that muscle,” she explained.

“There are some people who say, ‘As long as I’m able to wear my high-heeled shoes, I’ll do anything,” Levine said. “There is a status that’s involved with the kind of shoe you’re wearing, more so than clothing.”

Li Bing Bing, who plays the roles of Nina and Lily in "Snow Flower" -- and who chose the ultra-high pair of Christian Louboutins she wears in the film -- appreciates high heels for their artistry, yet acknowledges that they can be a double-edged sword. “When I wear high heel shoes I am taller and have more confidence. They make you feel elegant and you can stand up straight ... but not for the whole day, because it’s painful,” she said. “You hate it but you like it -- it’s like a drug.”

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