Editor's Note
Dr. Elizabeth Graham
Foot-Binding Heels
Stacie Zollen
The Perfect Body
Esther Baum
Female Body Modification
Aynsley Hyndman
Females in Children's Lit
Teya Cherland
Body Image & Well-Being
Jennifer Oakes
Young Girls and Body Image
Susan Burns
Unachievable Standards
Melissa Mason
Objectification and Well-being
Heather Tornblom
Intimate Partner Violence
Celeste Taylor
Sex Trade - The Case of Thailand
Courtney Wielenga
Foot-Binding Heels
Stacie Zollen

Personal Statement

I have a small infatuation with shoes of all types. This infatuation has been kept in check, somewhat, by rationality. It can be excruciatingly painful to wear a gorgeous pair of high-heels; gorgeous by themselves, complimentary to an outfit, the added height the give, the way calves look longer and more slender because of them, and miraculously because they make me feel so damn sexy. Not only is this fashion accessory unbelievable painful, it can be dangerous and eventually it could have a detrimental affect on a woman's bodily health.

Striving to have fashionable feet in societies today and in the past has taken its toll one women's bodies. The issue is related to body image because women tend wear these torturous devices to feel good about themselves; to feel better about their bodies. Given much thought and rationalizing has not led me to stop wearing high-heel shoes - I have a love/hate relationship with them. However, examining the extremes that women are going to, and the long run ramifications the body endures as a result of these miserably beautiful accessories, has changed my view of them: hopefully it may make you think twice also.


In this research paper, I explore how high-heeled shoes in American society parallel the once-practiced methods of foot-binding in China. Although Chinese foot-binding practices have been halted due to cruelty towards women, women in American societies still subject themselves to the cruelties of the high-heeled shoe. For our purposes, there are four areas that link the two concepts together: the reasons for the practices, how they subject women to pain and suffering, the effects of practicing foot-binding or wearing high-heels, and resistance movements to each practice.

Women in past Chinese societies were forced to conform to societal pressures, whereas in American society today women choose to conform to societal "beauty" standards. In China, women's feet were bound at an early age in order to meet the ideals of small sized feet with little concern for their bodily well-being. In American society, women begin wearing high-heels when the pressures to fit societal beauty standards mount against them. In both practices, women have suffered foot, leg, and back ailment -- some of which have permanent effects on their bodies. The movement against the cruel practice of foot-binding in China resulted in its eventual abolishment. Nevertheless, in American societies there has been little action to devalue high-heels: the fashion accessory continues to be popular with women despite the pains induced.

This research draws attention to the irrationality that drives the pursuit of societal standards of beauty. By stating the effects of each practice, I show the extremes that are sometimes taken to achieve these unrealistic standards. Physical health issues, as well as safety issues, increase as women are subjected to foot-binding or subject themselves to wearing high-heels. It is rational to avoid these practices in order to live healthy and safe lives.

Rational thinking, human reasoning, and equality are emphasized in the philosophy of liberal feminism (Anderson, 1993, p. 291). This is the perspective I use in studying foot-binding practices and the implications of high-heeled shoes. Human rationality should value the absence of physical pain over the pursuit of unrealistic standards; especially when the bodily ramifications may be permanently debilitating. Reasoning demands that these beauty standards are unrealistic because they do not allow for functionality.

Literature Review

The reasons for wearing high-heeled shoes are comparable to those given for foot-binding in China. Both change the presentation and appearance of women. High-heels are said to "accentuate the 'female' -- elongating the legs, elevating and making more prominent the buttocks, and causing the hips to sway pronouncedly" (Sugiyama, 1999, p.10). Foot-binding practices in China also recognize a posture change in women with a shift in their pelvic areas that causes them to sway gracefully as they walk ("Foot Binding," 2005).

Fashion is a main attraction for women who have their feet bound and for those who choose to wear high-heels. Special shoes were designed for bound feet that were called "lotus shoes" which encased the women's small feet (Ross, 2001, p. 311). Beautiful lotus shoes and the tiny feet that fit into them were a source of great pride for bound women (Ko, 2003, p. 434). Elite women in society had more time and money to take "great care in crafting their own shoes" (Broadwin, 1997, p. 428). Beautiful shoes were not only a sign of social class; they also were a showcase of artistic ability and the nimbleness of girls' fingers (Ross, 2001, p. 313). Because of their importance, girls and women spent much time embroidering and personalizing their own lotus shoes (Chang, 1991, p.25). Today the beauty of these shoes is still valued as collectors search for well- embroidered originals.

High-heels are regarded as attractive and fashionable by mainstream American society. Expensive designer shoes are purchased by many women, and some women admit to having an obsession with shoes. Advertisements and media portray women with this addiction as fashionable; for example, Sex in the City's main character spends entire pay checks on shoes (Ko, 2003, p. 438). The value of beautiful shoes is even taught to young children: Cinderella's happily-ever-after rests on a glass-slipper (Sugiyama, 1999, p. 19). Although their design may fluctuate, high-heels have never gone out of style in mainstream American society. The message to women is that high-heels are an integral part of being fashionable.

In the pursuit of fashion, women have been subject to pain and suffering by both binding their feet and wearing high-heels. Wearing high-heels for an extended period of time causes levels of discomfort that can be unbearable. Seeking comfort and fashion, some women have taken the situation to further extremes; they have sought surgery as a way to end their self-inflicted discomforts. Delicate and expensive cosmetic surgeries that alter the feet are now performed by doctors to repair damages from wearing high heel-shoes, or to make wearing these shoes more comfortable ("Shoe Won't Fit," 2003).

However, reconstruction of feet in American society is still a less extreme version of the foot-altering procedures once practiced in China where women used cloth and training shoes to bind the feet (Ko, 2003, p. 433). The goal of the binding process was to bring the toes as close to the heel as possible (Broadwin, 1997, p. 428). Some researchers have stated that as early as age two (Chang, 1991, p. 24), mothers would begin binding their daughters to retard the growth of their feet by decreasing the length (Sugiyama, 2003, p. 12). Small deformed feet, the ideal length of three inches (Ross, 2001, p. 315), were covered and protected within the beautiful lotus shoes that women embroidered themselves (Ko, 2003, p. 434).

Beauty on the outside of lotus shoes and high-heels does not allow for the feet inside to be healthy and beautiful. The effects of foot-binding practices are excruciatingly painful and cause a lifetime of agony. Also, women who wear high-heels, or pursue surgery to fit into their shoes, are not free from consequential damages. Not only are women physically harmed by both practices, their safety is also at risk.

The pain of having one's feet bound and constantly compressed is heightened when standing or walking and supporting the entire weight of the body. The "graceful" appearance of a woman walking in bound feet or high-heels can also be credited with making them more unstable (Sugiyama, 1999, p.12.). Such pressure and pain makes it virtually impossible for the women to run, which renders them extremely vulnerable. The same is true for women wearing high-heeled shoes, which are difficult to walk in even under good weather conditions ("Pretty Shoes," 2003). When weather fluctuates, women wearing heels become even more susceptible to accidents, such as twisted ankles, sprains, slipping, and falling.

Instability and pain is directly related to the lengths taken to achieve foot fashion. Damages incurred by women who wear high-heels include tendon shortening as a result of the heel-up and toe-down combination (Stefanyshyn, Nigg, Fisher, Offline, & Liu, 2000, p. 315). This combination compresses the Achilles tendon and causes many difficulties for the body. Other ailments that plague these women include corns, blisters, bunions, calluses, hammertoes, ingrown toe-nails, ankle damage, and knee-arthritis ("High-heels," 2002, p. 10). The redistribution of weight, and the inherent posture and foot problems associated, affect women's ability to perform everyday activities. With their feet squeezed and compressed into fashionable shoes, women are unable to walk long distances or for extended periods of time without experiencing discomfort ("Pretty Shoes," 2003).

Some women have taken the pursuit of foot-fashion to further extremes through surgeries to shorten toes and add collegen to the balls of their feet so they can fit and walk in the high-heel shoes more comfortably ("Shoe Won't Fit," 2003). This, too, is not without its consequences as doctors warn of nerve damage, numbness, and life-long foot, leg, and back problems ("Shoe Won't Fit," 2003). Inside the sought-after fashion essential, the wearer is likely to be marked by ailments or surgeries from the effects of these tortuous encasings.

Foot-binding practices rendered feet unimaginably deformed and damaged beyond repair. Political philosopher John Locke, in 1692, stated that the "China shoes" had injurious effects because "free circulation of the blood is hindered, and the growth and health of the whole body suffers" (Ross, 2001, p. 324). Tiny mishapen feet were hidden away within beautifully crafted shoes; however, the reality inside the beautiful shoes was that of a festering deformed foot: ingrown toenails wrapped under the soles of the feet caused infections and rotting odours that had to be treated with washes of vinegar and water on a regular basis (Broadwin, 1997, p. 424).

The pain literally brought women to their knees while doing fieldwork (Jaschok & Miers, 1994, p. 29). One young woman stated, "my feet hurt so much for two years I had to crawl on my hands and knees. Sometimes at night they hurt so much I could not sleep" (Broadwin, 1997, p. 428). Women with bound feet could not walk far distances or walk quickly (Broadwin, 1997, p. 425). Even if a woman were to discontinue binding her feet, she would suffer immense pains because her feet had been denied growth from a young age.

Despite the anguish experienced, the appeal of having fashionably little feet was often prided by women themselves (Broadwin, 1997, p. 430).The same appreciation for trendy high heel shoes has left little room for their banishment from mainstream society. The opposite is true for the practices of foot-binding, regardless of its historic popularity. In the 20th century anti-foot binding societies began to acknowledge women's binding practices as damaging to the nation because it slowed the overall productivity of physical labour and was viewed by other nations as cruel and contrary to human rights (Broadwin, 1997, p. 418). Unbound women were seen as more productive because they could do fieldwork on their feet (Jaschok & Miers, 1994, p. 29). It was also suggested that women with unbound feet could be of more value to parents and in-laws; for example, they would be able to fetch medicine in in half the time because they could walk faster than bound women (Broadwin, 1997, p. 425).

Foot-binding is no long practiced in Chinese societies because of successful resistance movements that educated eradicating "the number one cause of women's suffering" (Broadwin, 1997, p. 422). The popularity of high-heels in American societies could very well make it a silent number one cause to women's suffering as an underlying pain below all other suffering they may endure. Nevertheless, there has been no mainstream resistance movement against wearing high-heels because of the suffering they inflict upon women. Fortunately, research studies, scholarly contributions, and newspaper articles attest to the implications of wearing high-heels for women; unfortunately, these articles may be disregarded by some in the pursuit of fashionable footwear. American society still values fashion above health -- at least when it comes to women.


The liberal feminist perspective is an ideal theoretical perspective for the analysis of this topic because it places value on human rationality and equality (Anderson, 1993, p.291). It is relevant to this issue because rational-thinking has led to women's movements, and education on inequality and oppression worldwide. In China, feminists successfully aided in abolishing foot-binding practices. It is rational thinking that could dissuade women from taking irrational actions, such as cosmetic foot surgeries. Upon weighing the physical pains associated with wearing high-heels, the conclusion I have come to is that sacrificing the body's health in the name of fashion is not rational.

The logic against the atrocities of foot-binding was evident in American societies before it was publicly addressed and scrutinized in China. Bound women experienced a form of torture; they were unable to work, walk, or sleep in comfort because they experienced unnecessary pain at all times. Women, themselves, took pride in their pain because they were able to wear their status on their feet. In my opinion, there are many more constructive and non-intrusive ways to exemplify one's status than through one's own suffering. Theoretically, people of status should be free from inflictions of pain and suffering, so how could fashion be the best display of status when pursue by inflicting pain upon oneself or one's daughters to demonstrate it? Logically, suffering cannot be the best display of status. It would unnecessarily diminish your status below that of any healthy person, thereby lowering equality.

Elite society members have historically pursued more productive leisurely activities, such as crafting, sports, musical talents, and entertainment. Granted, Chinese elite women did take time to learn instruments and take part in other activities, but by no means should their time have been spent designing beautiful torturous encasings for their feet, which they routinely bound tightly night after night to restrict their natural growth. The education of the Chinese population about the appalling realities of the bound foot brought about a difficult relearning of appropriate women's rights.

Liberal feminism "assumes that inequality of women stems both from their deprivation of equal rights and from their learned reluctance to exercise them" (Anderson, 1993, p. 291). It would follow that women with bound feet were denied equal rights by virtue of their inability to walk and move freely among the population. Not only were women reluctant to exercise their rights; they also felt extreme societal pressure to continue to repress their own rights by binding their own feet, and the feet of their daughters. Anti-foot-binding activists saw this as a violent crime committed against children (Broadwin, 1997, p. 422). It is an injustice to torture any human being, let alone a defenceless child as young as two years old. These practices were culturally learned, and thus their banishment was accomplished through re-learning that foot binding constituted a horrendous inhumanity against women.

For a women to be fashionable in American society today one has to be able to "walk the walk" -- preferably while wearing trendy high-heels. Not only are the shoes considered fashionable and attractive, women credit heels with improving their overall appearance. For many the pain and suffering they endure because of foot-wear is merely the price they pay for fashion: the price is far too high.

Rational thought would identify high-heels to be a senseless and inefficient fashion gimmick that diminishes women's ability to physically function as well as their counterparts (other women or men). Not only are women more prone to injury while wearing heels, they also risk lifelong ramifications for choosing to wear them. Women are placing more value on having fashionable feet than on their health: this is not rational. Upon weighing the possibility of lifelong suffering against a day of fashionable feet, one's sensibility ought to support a healthy and physically comfortable life free from the effects of risky-footwear.

Women can now have toes surgically removed or shortened because they, apparently, are an "inconvenience" to having trendy feet. Balancing in a high-heel is one thing, balancing without toes is another. Toes are functional and help balance and support the body, if a shoe is not comfortable because a person has toes, logically, it is the shoe that must go. One study found that "women have more than 80 percent of all foot surgeries, primarily because their shoes are too tight" ("Shoe Won't Fit," 2003). Whether the feet are repaired from damages incurred, or reconstructed to fit into their excessively narrow shoes, these high statistics are easily avoidable: simply stop wearing high-heels.


Our modern society is one of unquestionable technology, functionality, and increased convenience; however, women are still practicing fashion that diminishes the functionality and convenience. The reasons for wearing, and effects of wearing, high-heels is comparable to once popular foot-altering practices in China; the difference lies within freedom of choice. In American society today, women are free to choose whether or not to wear high-heels and thereby diminish their physical well-being. Women in China did not allow themselves this luxury, and instigated the binding of their own daughters' feet due to immense societal pressures. Anti-foot-binding movements in China eventually led to its annihilation through education of rational thinking and human rights.

Although reasons for not wearing high-heeled shoes are evident to the many women who experience bodily pains, they still choose to sacrifice their health in the name of fashion. Like the step-sisters in the Brothers' Grimm version of "Cinderella" cut-off parts of their feet to fit into Cinderella's slipper -- women in the past and at present, have gone to extremes to wear shoes that are not made for walking (Grimm, 1997). When asked, "If your shoes hurt so much, why do you wear them?" Women will often conform, proudly and irrationally answering as if baaing in unison: "Because they make me look so-o good!"

List of References

Anderson, Margaret L. Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1993.

Broadwin, Julie. "Walking Contradictions: Chinese Women Unbound at the Turn of the Century," Journal of Historical Sociology, Col.10, No.4, (December 1997): 418- 443.

Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. New York: Random House Inc., 1991.

"Foot Binding." Wikipediia Online. (2005) [Online]. Available: [September 20, 2005)

Gardiner, Harris. (2003, December 7). "If the Shoe Won't Fit, Operate on the Foot?" The New York Times, pp.1-38.

Grimm, Brothers. "Cinderella." National Geographic Society. 1999. (23 Nov 2005).

"High Heels May Harm Knees," Consumer Reports on Health. Vol.14, No.1, (2002).

"High Heels - Wide or Skinny - Are Bad for Women's Knees," Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter. Vol.19, No.4, (2001): 2.

Jaschok, Maria and Suzanne Miers. Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude, and Escape. Hong Kong: Zed Books Ltd., 1994.

Ko, Dorothy. "Footbinding in the Museum," International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. Vol.5, No.3, (2003): 426-439.

Ross, Kaz. " '(Hand) Made in China': The Curious Return of the Footbinding Shoe," Postcolonial Studies, Vol.4, No.3, (2001):311-334.

Stefanyshyn, Darren J. et al. "The Influence of High Heeled Shoes on Kinematics, Kinetics, and Muscle EMG of Normal Female Gait," Journal of Applied Biomechanics, Vol.16, (2000): 309-319.

Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise. "Of Woman Bondage: the Eroticism of Feet in the House on Mango Street," The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 41. No.1, (1999):9-20.

"When Pretty Shoes Turn Cruel" (2003, September 20). The New York Times, pp. A12.

Wolf, Margery and Roxanne Witke. Women in Chinese Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1975.

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