In 1911, the Chinese government banned foot-binding, a brutal practice of body modification inflicted on young girls since the 10th century. The few remaining women, who had their feet bound as children, are now in their 80s and 90s.
British photographer Jo Farrell has taken it upon herself to document—and celebrate—the lives of these women with bound feet. Since 2006, she has photographed and interviewed 50 women in three provinces, many of whom have since passed away. Farrell is currently raising funds on Kickstarter to compile her photographs and interviews in a coffee table book, Living History: Bound Feet Women of China. These black-and-white images of "lotus feet," considered highly fashionable for centuries, are difficult to look at.
“These women are the backbone of China, having lived through famine, poverty, the cultural revolution, and having bound feet,” Farrell tells Co.Design. It’s difficult to gauge how many women with bound feet are still alive. The 1911 ban stopped foot-binding in large cities, but the practice continued illegally for more than 20 years in rural areas, until the bindings were forcibly removed by government decree.
Farrell met her first subject for this project in 2006, when a friend introduced her to Zhang Yun Ying, who lives in a village two hours from a city in Shandong Province. Farrell has visited Ying every year since 2006. Through Ying, who spent most of her life working in the fields picking cotton or harvesting corn, Farrell discovered three other women in the village who had bound feet. “At first they were reluctant to be photographed, but after I had photographs of Zhan Yun Ying published in a book, they were eager to be a part of the project. As I explained to them, this is an anthropological study that intends to celebrate their lives.”
Girls would have their feet bound between ages four and six—because by the time they get any older, their feet would have already grown too large. The procedure involved bending a girl's toes under the sole and wrapping them tightly with long ribbons. Essentially, they'd keep breaking the foot whenever it grew too large, a process that took two to three years. The feet would then stay bound for the rest of the girl's life, and cause her to develop a strange way of walking—almost as if she had hooves.
Though the foot-binding process was excruciating, Farrell says the women she spoke to didn't express anger over their past. "The women know that having bound feet was a part of normal life at the time. It was what was required of them to find a suitable marriage," she says. Often, women and their husbands took great pride in their tiny feet—the ideal length for a bound foot was three inches. In many cases, foot-binding led to permanent disabilities, but in the cases of the women Farrell photographed, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s, "they get around on their own just fine. Most of their ailments are to do with old age," Farrell says. If anything, "they feel somewhat ashamed of their feet, as it is a bygone tradition and does not represent modern ways in China. They are a generation of forgotten women."
It's easy to feel shock when looking at these photographs, but Farrell points out that our own culture's body modification practices and cultural standards of beauty might seem plenty bizarre and barbaric to outsiders. "In most cultures, women particularly will go through body modification to attract a suitable partner, whether it's breast augmentation, Botox, FGM, scarring, or tattoos," she says. Perhaps her documentation of the painful remains of one culture's insane beauty standards will help shed light on our own.
To support Farrell's Kickstarter campaign, go here.