Body Positivity

What Diet Culture And Chinese Foot-Binding Have In Common


Image: sommersby via Adobe Stock

It may sound like a preposterous connection to make: Diet Culture and the ancient practice of Chinese foot-binding!? Really? Surely they are poles apart??? After all, Chinese foot binding involved small girls, under the age of 9, having the bones in their feet repeatedly broken and then tightly bound in cloth, to control their shape: to make them as tiny as possible. The 'perfect' most coveted size, was 3 inches. Three inches!!!! That was called the 'golden lotus.' The four inch 'silver lotus' was still considered respectable but anything over 5 inches was dismissed as an 'iron lotus.'

This was a painful, dangerous process. Apart from the pain, the most common problem was infection - either from ingrown toenails (which made it necessary to sometimes remove the toenails altogether); or from foreign bodies intentionally inserted into the bindings (like shards of glass or broken tiles) to induce infection. With infection, came the possibility that the toes might actually fall off -- making a smaller foot easier to create. With infection, also came the increased possibility of disease. It is thought that around 10% of girls died from these complications. And if they didn't die as girls, the infections compromised the woman's immune system and made her more vulnerable to disease later in life. Older women were prone to frequent falls and broken hips due to their increased unsteadiness as they aged, and other complications included muscular dystrophy and even paralysis.

As many as two billion Chinese females were subjected to foot binding.

Why foot binding?

The origins of foot binding aren't clear, but it was widely practiced in China across social classes for around a thousand years. What was it all for? Let's first look at what it meant for girls and women:

  • It was difficult for them to walk much further than the environs of their homes unassisted.
  • It therefore made women a lot more dependent on men.
  • It made them more or less housebound.
  • It made them vulnerable - literally unsteady on their feet, and more prone to illness - delicate, you could say.
  • The smaller the foot, the higher a woman's marriageability.
  • Women with bound feet were considered more dainty and beautiful.
  • Some considered bound feet intensely erotic - in fact in Qing Dynasty sex manuals, 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet, are listed.
  • The smaller the feet, the higher the woman's 'social capital'.
  • It has been said that women therefore were less able to engage in public life.

Perhaps then, foot binding was a way to keep women under control?

About Diet Culture

Diet Culture is a system of practices and behaviours humans have created based on the ideology that being thin is morally good, and being fat is morally bad. It impresses upon the population the idea that if you're fat, it's a personal failing on your part, that you don't care about yourself, you're unhealthy and lazy, whereas if you're slender, you're self-disciplined, organised, trustworthy, reliable, fit and healthy.

Some of these behaviours are:

  • Dieting (obviously!) to lose weight and control your shape. This extends from restricting intake to the more drastic measures of lap-band or gastric bypass surgeries. In the last 5-10 years though, the desire for thinness has somewhat been replaced by the desire for health. The trouble is that thinness and health have been enmeshed, such that healthy is still viewed as being thin, and unhealthy is viewed as being fat. Obsession with healthy eating can easily tip into a new eating disorder called 'orthorexia.'
  • Exercising in an extreme way to sculpt one's body into a more acceptable shape.
  • Exercising as punishment/compensation for eating more than you think you should have.
  • Wearing body shaping clothing to flatten your tummy, smoothe out bulges, push up/out your boobs, etc.
  • Products to artificially make you look younger or more attractive (whatever the current fashion may be): potions and lotions, Botox, fillers, permanent make up, hair transplants etc.
  • And then there are the more drastic measures taken: tummy tucks, face lifts, lip enhancements, eyebrow lifts, hair transplants, liposuction, augmentation of buttocks, cheeks, breasts... the list goes on.

These behaviours are all in the service of appearing different, so as to meet current beauty standards.

The trouble is that the sands of external validation and approval are always shifting, making it difficult if not impossible to maintain one's footing.

The Impacts of Diet Culture

This is certainly not an exhaustive list or a sociological study of the impacts of Diet Culture. My guess is that those will continue to become known, the longer we allow it to continue. Here are some:

  • Engaging in Diet Culture takes us further and further away from the body wisdom we're born with - where we feed ourselves according to hunger and fullness, likes and dislikes; and exercise according to what makes us feel good, energised and strong! Instead, Diet Culture encourages us to go hungry, eat things we don't enjoy and to feel guilty for eating what we do enjoy.
  • Diet Culture encourages us to physically push ourselves unreasonably to get 'to the next level' - often ignoring warning signs - such that people become exhausted, with elevated cortisol levels, injuries and amenorrhea. In Diet Culture, eating and movement for pure enjoyment and genuine health is rarely the case.
  • It perpetuates a sense of shame rather than appreciation and rejoice of our miraculous bodies. Women and increasingly men, reject their own bodies! They want to cut slices off, reshape and renew them using many of the methods above.
  • With so much focus on the physical, people are often highly anxious in social situations; fearing how others will judge them on first glance. Do they measure up?
  • Being engaged in Diet Culture takes up so much time, money and energy, it's more or less a full time job! It leaves little time, money or energy for other pursuits.
  • It's affecting children - apparently around 80% of 10-year old girls in America have dieted at least once in their short lives. 53% of 13-year old girls have issues with their body appearance, and this rises to 78% of 17-year old girls. Does that not take your breath away? These are American statistics - but it's probably very similar in the UK - and increasingly so in other countries.
  • Diet Culture encourages us to place our self-worth in the hands of body size and shape, instead of the qualities we possess as human beings, like kindness, generosity, compassion, thoughtfulness, creativity, participation in the world around us, helping our fellow-humans - etc.

Threads That Tie Chinese Foot-Binding and Diet Culture

  • The involvement of children. Both Diet Culture and Chinese foot-binding happen(ed) in the home, from a young age. The culture is usually perpetuated by mothers, but with the sanction of fathers. Parents commenting on their own and others' bodies is absorbed by children - even if it isn't about them, they take it in and very easily make it about them. Parents judging, controlling, punishing or rewarding with food, all contribute to this dysfunction. Increasing exposure to media with unrealistic images of bodies, exposure to the 'war on obesity' in school (and via the media), having their BMI assessed - all affect our kids - whether we as parents engage in it ourselves or not.
  • Perpetuation of the myth that beauty has a standard, and that you need to meet it to find and then keep a partner. It may seem ludicrous to us now that a bride could be chosen based on foot size - but - look a little closer. Is dress size really any different? In our culture, it's very common that both men and women have physical 'standards' for potential partners - standards they will not reconsider, even if they find someone's nature very attractive. Some are unwilling to get to know a person who doesn't meet those standards.
  • Pre-occupation with the physical. Feet needed to be unbound, washed, have necrotic flesh removed and rebound - often - for some, daily (with additional bone breaking from time to time...). Added to this were the physical impediments of slowness of movement and pain. The practice required a lot of attention. Diet Culture is all about activities to control the physical shape of one's body - and as mentioned above, it takes a lot of time, energy and money.
  • Pain and suffering. When you believe you're not good enough as you are, it causes pain and suffering - whether it's physical or emotional - the suffering is real.
  • Distraction from other pursuits. When so much time, energy and focus is put on one aspect of our lives, it will leave little if any energy for other pursuits. Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth says, 'A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.' Perhaps Diet Culture disempowers women (and increasingly, men), dumbs us down, molds us into compliant consumers of products that will never ever give us the approval we're looking for. Perhaps its very purpose is to keep us endlessly pursuing the unattainable, while endlessly profiting from our dissatisfaction with ourselves.
  • Illness. I have described in detail the illness suffered by many Chinese girls and women due to foot binding. Diet Culture also promotes illness: mental and physical. Not all people who engage in Diet Culture get eating disorders, but it certainly can be a precursor: 35% of occasional dieters become disordered eaters and as many as 25% advance to full-blown eating disorders. Did you know that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses? Someone dies as a direct result of an eating disorder in the US, every 62 minutes! Engaging in Diet Culture has its physical costs too: I've had clients who've lost their period (amenorrhea), broken out in acne, experienced mineral and vitamin deficiencies as a result of restrictions and have fainted from hunger. There is evidence to suggest that repeated crash-dieting increases your risk of heart disease, can damage your blood vessels, and mess with both blood pressure and sodium levels.

As I write, it's the UN's International Day of the Girl. There is much work to be done in the world to increase equality and justice - shocking things are still happening to girls all over the world, it breaks my heart: Female Genital Mutilation, child marriage, sex slavery - to name but three.

This may seem like a 'First World problem' in comparison - however Diet Culture is sapping our kids (and indeed adults) of their energy, creativity, power, vision, empathy and resilience.

They are the leaders of the future.

We need them to be awake, aware, engaged, informed, energetic and creative.

Chinese foot-binding was practiced for a thousand years. Let's make sure Diet Culture dies out - this decade!

What will your part be in this endeavour?