Are we preconditioned to judge by appearance?

This is more like an add-on to the post from yesterday. So if you haven’t read that check it out here, or you can ignore this and pretend like you’ve been here all along and know what’s going on.

So yesterday I gave some background on foot binding in China. I also promised you that I did take some information out so that you wouldn’t scroll past my post thinking you didn’t have time for it. Now, I give you two remaining tidbits of thought from the subject of Chinese foot binding.

1) In the Shanxi province of China Chinese women would actually compete for the smallest feet. Like a beauty pageant, but for feet.  There were lots of smaller contests for feet throughout the country, but the one in the Shanxi province was like the Miss America pageant of today.

I’m telling you this because of this quote from Bosch and Mancoff (link to their book): “The urge to judge and be judged on the basis of appearance seems nearly universal.” This quote hit me hard.  No one ever teaches us to judge others on appearance, it’s something innate within us.  We never have to be taught how to be selfish or how to lie, just like we don’t have to be taught to judge others based on appearance.

It’s not just America and China that judge others based on appearance either.  All cultures across time and space have always been drawn toward beauty and away from ugly, or unattractive if you want a softer word. What is this thing within us that draws us toward beauty? And how do we all automatically know that the character Cinderella is prettier than her step sisters?  I know people say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that’s not exactly true.  We all admire facial symmetry, big eyes, clear skin, full lips, and straight teeth.  Who gave us this preconceived notion of beauty?  Feel free to sound off your opinion in the comments.

2) Here is the second, rather lengthy quote that hit me hard from this book: “All cultures pursue ideals of beauty that run counter to the natural appearance of the human body. . . standards of beauty are culturally specific, and what symbolizes perfection in one society embodies the grotesque in another.  However, the true tyranny of beauty lies not in the desire for a leaner silhouette, fuller breasts, or turned-up nose, but in the belief that such changes in appearance will transform a woman’s life and redefine her identity” (pg. 221).

Wow.  Oh wait, did you skip over that quote because it was long? Oh okay, well I will try to explain it through my commentary.  First, why do all cultures choose to try to change something about their bodies?  Bending feet, cracking ribs, starving, what is this? Why can’t we just be okay with being normal, unbent women? I think some of the most naturally beautiful women that I have seen are the ones who do just that: nothing. They just eat healthy, take walks, laugh, go outside, love others, and love God. But that’s just too simple isn’t that.

Second, let’s talk about that last sentence (Bazinga!) because commentary on beauty in society just doesn’t get better than that. The real tragedy is not in starving ourselves or wrapping our feet, it’s this mindset that this well someone change everything for us. This might get personal but I have often thought that if I had just been born looking like Rachel McAdams or Adriana Lima, that my life would be so much better. I daydream about how much easier life would be if I were beautiful.  I sometimes even use it as an excuse saying well, if I was pretty I would be more outgoing but since I’m not, I’ll just stay in my little corner. That is not good! Not good at all you say. Well, that is very forward of you, but if you must know I am working on it.

1 Samuel 16:7 “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

This verse reminds me of something important. If I woke up tomorrow looking like Rachel McAdams, God would not see my any differently. Absolutely nothing would change. NOTHING. I cannot emphasize that enough.  He does not look at our outward appearance. And His opinion is all that matters. Really, it is.

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Beauty Across Time and Space: Foot Binding in China

*Note: all information and quotations are taken from “Icons of Beauty: Art, Culture, and the Image of Women” by Lindsay J. Bosch and Debra N. Mancoff, pgs 227-240. The book is available on amazon at this link.

Brief Background on Footbinding in China:

When did foot binding start?

The elite women of China first began to bind their feet in the late 10th to 12th centuries, which gradually penetrated the admiring women of the middle and lower classes. The girl’s feet were first encased like a cocoon when she was just six years old. From that point on, the bindings were replaced every two weeks with clean, tighter bindings. As time passed, bones would be broken, toes would turn under, and the normal flat foot would give way to the perfect high-arched form known as the “golden lilly” or the “lotus foot.” The bindings would not be permanently taken off until her later adolescent years.  Although the pain would eventually dissipate, their feet would never bloom like the cherished lotus flower. They would be maimed for the rest of their lives.

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Why did foot binding start?

Many theories have arisen as to why foot binding seeped through Chinese society without any noticeable objections. While modern America does not hold tightly to any myths, much of the old world based their traditions on specific myths. China was no different.

First, there was the myth of  the nimble dancer, Yaoniang, who danced for the royal Li Yu. The sovereign, enamored with her beauty and grace, ordered a giant golden lotus to be constructed, complete with carvings, ribbons, and jewels. He then demanded that she wrap her feet to further enhance their dainty arch.  When she came out of the lotus and danced, her Thumbelina-like feet seemed to float across the stage

Then there was the myth of Pan, another fairy-like dancer in the court of the duke of donghun, who ordered her to step across lotus petals made of brittle gold leaf. As she danced across each petal, they barely bent as if they were springing like a miniature trampoline under her light steps, and the duke appropriately exclaimed “every step a lotus.”

Finally, let’s not forget the most famous story of all: Ye Xian, also known as Cinderella in the western half of the world. Ye Xian, an orphan, lovingly cared for a fish until her malicious stepmother devours it. Ye Xian is heartbroken until a spirit appears out of the magical fish remains, and Ye wishes for a silk coat and golden slippers. When she appears at the spring festival, everyone, including her stepmother, admires her beauty. However, once she catches sight of her stepmother, she runs away, leaving one golden slipper behind. The King marvels at the tiny size of this lost slipper and searches the kingdom until he finds it’s true owner, Ye, and he marries her.

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But foot binding represented more than just outward beauty to the Chinese. Women were taught to be compliant and obedient, even unto death. More specifically, women were taught to obey the “Four Virtues” listed out in The Book of Rites: 

1. “Womanly virtue encompassed moral responsibility and wisdom.”

2. ” Womanly deportment addressed a woman’s personal appearance and behavior.”

3. “Womanly speech defined the means by which a woman expressed her thoughts and the degree of freedom she had to express them.”

4. “Womanly work encouraged a woman to excel in appropriate domestic endeavors but not to flaunt her skill”

Foot Binding pruned women into the woman described by these four virtues. “Enduring the pain tested her moral capacities and taught her to control her will. Caring for her feet and learning to walk with grace improved her deportment. She learned to silence her complaints, marking the boundaries of woman’s speech. And, by making her own shoes, she acquired skill with a needle and thread, the essential form of womanly work” (pgs 227-228).

“If you love your son, you don’t go easy on his studies. If you love your daughter, you don’t go easy on her footbinding” (old Chinese proverb). What we have to realize is that having small, arched feet went beyond aesthetic appeal. A perfectly shaped foot represented obedience, compliance, grace, good character and good rearing. Lack of a bound foot meant lack of marriage prospects.  In fact, English missionary Samuel Pollard (19th century) said, “A girl with a three inch sole and an ugly face” was more likely to marry well than a girl with an unbound foot and a “face like a madonna.”

When and why did foot binding finally stop? 

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In the middle of the 19th century the camera was first introduced, and western photographers started taking pictures of the Chinese women’s morphed feet. This was probably done against their will, as women’s feet were never supposed to be seen without their usual ornamental shoes. This brought shame on a woman.  However, as these photographs passed through the hands of the other side of the world, westerners expressed shock and horror at this civilization’s mutilating practice in the name of beauty (nevermind the fact that western women were wearing rib cracking corsets). Nevertheless, westerners first initiated the downfall of footbinding in China simply by trying to talk them out of their age old custom. The, in 1911, the Qing Dynasty collapsed, the republic was established, and the women were encouraged to “loosen or remove their bindings to demonstrate that China was ready to take it’s place in the modern world.” Although this was impossible for the older women who could not endure the pain brought on by freeing their so-long-cocooned feet, less and less of the younger girls started the process. The third and final step came in 1949 with the new Communist rule and the resulting creation of the People’s Republic of China. This new regime began an entire campaign that mocked bound feet, going so far as to call it an unwanted reminder of their past “oppression and historical decadence.” As cruel as it may seem, especially to the older women who could not simply unbend their feet, the campaign worked. The last reported foot binding was in 1957.

My Response:

I have to say that researching this topic was fascinating, as you can probably tell from my semi-extensive summary masked under the heading “brief” (I promise I cut a lot out!) I never realized that foot binding was so wide spread in China, nor that it literally determined a woman’s destiny.

448px-Woman's_corset_figured_silk_1730-1740While we always hear about the Chinese lotus feet as the ultimate example of suffering for beauty or the oppression of women, we are not so very different here in America. Women in the west used to have lower ribs surgically removed in pursuit of the O’Hara waist. Well, that was back then you say. How about this: in 2010 plastic surgeons performed 318,123 breast implants and 133,511 nose jobs. And the numbers have risen since then.

I am reminded of Matthew 7:5 (“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”) because we are so quick to judge other cultures simply because we don’t understand them. We didn’t grow up in China when foot binding first started, and it was associated with the elite, even with royalty. We weren’t little girls who were beaten until they succumbed to the bindings at age 6. We weren’t Chinese parents who knew that deforming their little girl’s feet was the only way that she would have a chance for a decent marriage. And we don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a culture where small feet are associated with the epitome of femininity and grace.

But I will tell you what we do know. We know what it’s like to grow up in America when being skinny means beauty and acceptance. We know what it’s like to be little girls who watch princess movies where the beautiful, skinny girls always win the prince. We know what it’s like to flip through magazines and see stick thin models in tight dresses and short skirts. And our parents know what it’s like to try to raise confidant girls in this same society. This same society that they know will ignore, exclude, or mock us if we aren’t their version of “skinny.”

Foot binding began with high class royalty, and filtered down to the common people in China, and “ultra-thin” began with high class celebrities and filtered down to us, the everyday folk in America. The Chinese wanted tiny feet, we want tiny bodies.  The Chinese mutilated their feet, we mutilate our bodies.  The Chinese thought their beautiful shoes looked best on tiny feet, we think our beautiful clothes look best on tiny bodies.

So before you laugh or criticize what the Chinese, Muslim, or American women do for beauty, remember that you only know what it’s like to grow up in your own culture.  You don’t know the pressures that others grew up with.

The Hypocrisy of “Beauty and the Beast”

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La Belle et la Bête is the classic fairytale turned Disney princess movie that boasts a lasting moral lesson on the importance of inner beauty over outer beauty.  The Beast was once a handsome Prince until he refused to care for an old lady, who unfortunately turned out to be a fairy with the ability to turn him into a hideous beast.  This curse of ugliness could only be lifted if he could find someone to love him in spite of his outer unfortunate visage.  When the beast captures an old man, his beautiful and bookish daughter Belle comes along to rescue him.  After some time, Belle chooses to love the beast in spite of his abundance of fur and set of horns.  And they of course live happily ever after.

Now that that’s done, you will have to pardon me for looking past the surface of this innocent story to the real theme: outer beauty is more important than inner beauty.  Let’s begin with this snippet from the opening prologue (note: I have printed the full prologue for your enjoyment, but I will just be focusing on the highlighted part):

| e v e l i n  s p a g e | “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle.  Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. But then, one winter’s night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold.  Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift and  turned the old woman away, but she warned him not to be deceived by  appearances, for beauty is found within. And when he dismissed her again,  the old woman’s ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress. The  prince tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart, and as punishment, she transformed him into a hideous beast, and placed a powerful spell on the castle, and all who lived there. Ashamed of his monstrous form, the beast concealed himself inside his castle, with a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world. The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his twenty-first year. If he could learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the  time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope, for who could ever learn to love a beast?”

This last highlighted part dealing with the fairy’s ultimatum to the Beast states that he “must learn to love another.”  This beast learned to “love” the first beautiful girl he saw.  She is literally so beautiful that her name means “beauty” in French, yet we say that he has learned the importance of inner beauty.  How does this follow logically?  He simply fell in love with the thing that he had always loved: beauty.  Nothing changed for him.  If, instead, Belle had been an ugly old pig of the fairy tale witch type then I would admit that the beast had indeed made a full heart transformation.  But, sadly, that is not the case.

Instead, Belle is the character who must look past outward appearances in order to fall in love with the Beast (though what she saw of inner beauty I cannot say).  Belle is beautiful both inside and out, and she is the one who successfully loves the ugly and unwanted, not the other way around.

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But before I step off my soapbox (is that someone throwing an orange peel at me?) I want to say that this small fracture in an otherwise beautiful tale reflects the way the world deals with beauty.  We say that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, but is that true?  Or, like the popular theme of Beauty and the Beast, does it just seem that way? I’d like to use this blog to explore that question further.

For me, I would say yes, it’s just a nice saying to make people feel better.  Think about it.  What’s the first thing anyone asks when someone says they’re dating?  “Is he/she cute?”  “Can I see a picture on Facebook?”  Then, once we see a picture of them, if that person is less attractive than the other half, we say “He/She could do better.”  How do you know that?  How do you know that this less-attractive person isn’t extremely smart, interesting, nice, and funny?  Maybe this less-attractive person could do better.  You cannot judge someone by their unchangeable outward appearance.  And I’d like to use this blog to try to prove that to you.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.