Footbinding: Perceptions of Femininity

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.39 PMPhoto: From Peabody & Essex Museum in Salem, MA [from presentation]

Courtney Gallagher

ASNS 2076: Fashion and Gender in China

Prof Shu-chin Tsui


In this photograph, the photographer presents four young, ordinary women performing needle work, with bound feet visible beneath the work bench. During the Song Dynasty in China, women with bound feet were part of a socially and culturally defined gender norm. The bound foot was a sign of femininity, sexuality, attractiveness, civility, and higher social status. The women in this picture do not exhibit any of the socially and culturally defined gender norms, yet interestingly their feet are bound.

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From a strictly visual point of view, the women shown in the photograph are clearly of the working, or lower, class. They have their hair pulled up, wearing clothes of basic material, without embellishment. These women are in a group, appearing in exactly the same attire, doing the exact same work, and apparently lack any type of individuality. Yet, despite this lower working class appearance, their feet are bound, which is emblematic of non-working, courtesan women. The typical courtesan would dress in the finest silk, wear embroidered attire, and have very small, beautiful shoes. Small, embroidered shoes and tiny feet created an aesthetic of subdued feminine elegance. The photographed women are not wearing any of the typical attire associated with the courtesan. Their shoes are plain and black, and their clothing is made of, what seems to be, a inexpensive material.   Other than the bound feet, all other indications suggest strongly that these women are of the lower working class.

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It becomes clear that these women bound their feet because it has cultural significance; in particular, relating to defined a gender norm. Smaller feet meant that the women were more civil, more attractive, more delicate and fragile—which defined feminine beauty. This “ideal image” of beauty [the ideal size of the foot] was a direct sign of the “ideal status.” Smaller the feet also meant a woman was more likely to marry into a higher status. Thus, the women in this photograph show the ideal impulse of women to overcome their bodies in an attempt to overcome status. It is a mother’s hope, especially when their child is of a lower class, that their bound feet would help them marry someone of a higher class. Although footbinding was originally exclusive to the upper class, it trickled down to the lower classes because of its correlation with high social status. However, it was especially difficult for working women to endure footbinding because it made their jobs more difficult, as the foot restriction inhibited their ability to perform manual labor. The fact that lower-class Chinese women would bind their feet, despite the difficulty it might cause while doing manual labor, shows the amount of socio-cultural significance placed on having a bound foot.

Although this photograph, at first glance, speaks to these women’s ordinary, working class social status, they have bound feet because of its ability to shape how others saw them. The bound foot was a way to show a women’s femininity by a very obvious physical indicator. Dorothy Ko makes the claim in her article, “The Body as Attire,” that the bound foot was a “mark of womanhood . . . it was the most natural enactment of a woman’s gendered identity.”[1] Thus, this picture confirms Ko’s thesis that the perception of the body in China during this time was not seen as an isolated entity—it was seen as the “social body”—linking, cosmologically, “…human growth and development with creative processes…”[2] Viewing the physical body as the “social body,” especially the bodily appearance [clothing, shoes, foot size] was directly linked to society’s social, moral, and ethnic norms. This is why these lower-class women in the photograph are trying, through footbinding, to change others perception of them and comport themselves with the social, moral, and ethnic norms of the time.

paragraph organization with the structure of denotation-connotation?: ordinary women but bound feet; group photo and same dress ….

[1] Dorothy Ko. “The Body as Attire: the Shifting Meaning of Foot binding in Seventeenth-Century China,” Journal of Women’s History 8-4 (Winter 1997): 21.

[2] Ko 18.