Last week I traveled to China and was able to participate in one of my favorite activities – people watching. I was struck by the differences in women’s dress, depending on the part of the world that they represented, and the sameness of men’s dress. Fashion for women is much more changeable than men and often dictated by what is considered “sexual” or, in some cases, trying to distance females from sexual beings.China has a history of binding women’s feet to make them appear much smaller, usually less than 4 inches in length. Historically, the shape of the bound foot was compared to a lotus blossom and considered erotic as was the mincing, unsteady gait that resulted when women were forced to walk on only the heel of the foot. Bound feet were also a symbol of wealth as it prevented women from participating in daily homemaking activities due to the inability to walk or stand for prolonged periods. The process of binding the feet of a young girl to create a woman who would have improved marriage prospects was a painful, disfiguring process. At the age of 4-7 , toes were bent under the sole of the foot and bound in place. This produced multiple fractures of the foot that, when healed, created the high arch and small foot that was desired.
Today we consider footbinding backwards and disfiguring. However, western culture has an equivalent – the 4 inch heel. Stiletto heels are considered sexual and prevent women from participating in normal household chores, in a very similar fashion to the lotus blossom feet. Daily wearing of high heels has been found to increase the risk of bunions, ingrown toenails, back and leg pain. Although a woman’s walk may be considered more sultry with heels, we know that she is not on her way to do the laundry and has the luxury to spend time on herself.
In some cultures women are considered sexual by simply being women and the purpose of clothing is to hide the woman’s figure. During my recent wait in line with immigration, I witnessed a woman, presumably from a Middle Eastern country, walking thru the airport with her husband and three children. The two older children, a girl and boy around 3 and 4 years of age, were cavorting in the hallway under the watchful eye of their father, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. The mother was following at a distance carrying an infant in outstretched arms. Her gait was limited by her full length dress and a veil that only exposed her eyes. Observing the twirling and jumping of her daughter, I was saddened at the contrast between childhood and adulthood.
Western culture has it’s own version of the two extremes between making a female more or less sexual. In the US, Amish woman can easily be identified by their dress, plain but practical. Hair is covered with a bonnet and legs with long skirts. At the other extreme is the child beauty pagent competitions, with young girls dressed and made up as mini adult women.
Beyond fashion and dress are the ways in which we disfigure our bodies to make them more pleasing to society and men. Luckily, the tide has turned in Sub Sahara Africa and female genital mutilation is being banned in many countries. This practice of removing part or all of the labia at a young age is not only disfiguring but can lead to lifelong complications of chronic bladder infections and obstructed labor. But can the practice of labiaplasty (surgical reshaping of the labia) currently popular in the US be considered any less barbaric. It may be done under more hygienic conditions, but I consider the practice almost more horrendous as women are choosing to have their bodies disfigured and paying an out of pocket cost. The majority of women electing for this surgery cite partner satisfaction as the driving force.
History has many more examples of the ideal female body figure and clothing, choices that are driven by both men and women. There are far fewer examples of body disfigurement or restrictive clothing for men. I hope that sometime in the near future we can see men and women as having different but equal body types.