Preserving Femininity

Taken by William Charles White, called "Bounded Foot (Unbound)," (not dated).

Taken by William Charles White, called “Bounded Foot (Unbound),” (1873-1960).

This photo shows a woman with her bounded foot exposed. She is being taken care of by two other women, who could be her maids. She is clearly looking straight at the camera, knowing the picture is being taken of her exposed feet. Foot binding was a practice common in China for centuries. The earliest piece of evidence found from this practice is dated from around the twelfth or thirteenth century. It was an indication of civility, grace, and ethnic superiority for Chinese women, practiced from a young age. It was a desirable trait to have one’s feet bound because it was attractive in society and elevated one’s status. Foot binding was widespread, and often had a mysterious reputation that caused fetishization. Women kept their feet bound in finely decorated shoes, and did not allow men to see the naked shapes of their feet. This was a tradition between mothers and daughters. Due to this mysterious female secret, it is assumed that this also caused erotic imagination. I believe that this was a picture taken during the later years of the foot binding practice, perhaps when it was about to end, because this woman would not have allowed this picture to be taken otherwise. Her embodiment of the image of her bound foot indicates her acceptance or compliance of revealing her feminine secret.

The history of foot binding has largely been lost, but it was a tradition that lasted many years and dynasties. European and other Western civilizations observed Chinese culture and misunderstood their fashion and traditional practices, which often lead to devaluing their societies as a whole. In fact, the practice became unpopular in China because of outside influence claiming it was “shameful.” Foreigners invaded their space in order to criticize and expose the critical part of foot binding– the concealment. Chinese women allowed the exposure of their deep secret in order to gain a pension from the curious Europeans who wanted to take pictures of the unfamiliar practice.

find a focus and make an argument

analysis could begin from here: The woman in the picture is looking straight at the camera, focused and prepared for the photograph. Only one foot is exposed, but the audience is able to see the entire bend of the bound foot. Underneath the bench is her other foot, still in its intricate shoe. She is a well-dressed woman who is clearly wealthy enough to have other women tend to her feet. Due to these signs, I believe I can assume that this was probably one of the women who was paid to show her bound foot. She may or may not have had the choice in doing so, but we may never know because this practice was only historically recorded by men. The women are outside, perhaps cleaning the exposed bound foot, which seems to be unlikely at a time when the binding was still supposed to be concealed. The photographer has a Western name, which could further indicate that a foreigner photographed this revealing scene.

In conclusion, I believe that this woman exposed her bound foot unwillingly. (make the claim at the beginning of the entry) Based on the time period of when the world saw photos of the practice and discredited the tradition, I can imagine that the foot binding practice was on its decline in prevalence in society. The photograph exposes an integral issue in Chinese history of maintaining civility, feminine elegance, and high standards of beauty for women.

how about the significance of the unknown photographer as the subject and the woman with bound feet the object of being photographed?


Dorothy Ko, “Bondage in Time: Footbinding and Fashion Theory,” Fashion Theory Volume 1, Issue 1, 1997: 3-28.

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): 8-27.