women with bound feet getting foot cleaned

A 105-year-old woman with bound feet, has her toenails cut by her daughter in central China's Hubei province June 28, 2006. Note the broken instep and the toes curved under the sole.

© STRINGER/CHINA/Reuters/Corbis

Foot Binding: Physiologically Speaking

The foot binding process was long, excruciatingly painful and pretty gross. It generally began when girls were 4 to 7 years old, because at that age the bones in their feet were still fairly soft and pliable, and thus easier to reshape [source: Footwear History].

First, the feet were softened in hot water. After a few hours, any dead skin was scrubbed off, toenails were clipped as short as possible and alum was sprinkled between the toes to stop perspiration. Next came the actual binding. Cotton bandages, generally 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide by 10 feet (3 meters) long, were soaked in hot water so they'd shrink as they dried. Then the binder -- sometimes the girl's mother, other times an experienced woman in the village -- folded the girl's four small toes under her feet and began wrapping each foot with the bandages in a figure-eight pattern. The goal was to leave the big toe and ball of the foot largely intact, but keep the other four toes under the foot and bring the heel forward, towards the front of the foot. The bones in the arch and foot would break during the process. To ensure a tight bind and prevent the little girl from ripping off the bandages, the bandages were sewn together at several points. Once the binding was finished, a small pair of shoes was placed on the girl's feet and she was forced to walk around. The initial steps taken when feet were bound were incredibly painful [source: Footwear History].

Every day or two, the girl's feet were unbound, bathed and rebound. Slowly, the bindings became tighter and the shoes smaller, until her feet reached the coveted 3-inch crescent moon shape, a process that took about two years [source: Minnesota-China Connection].

During this lengthy process, many things could go wrong. If a girl's toenails hadn't been trimmed enough, they could cut into the bottom of her feet and cause an infection. Gangrene was also a worry; it could quickly set in if the bindings were too tight [source: Evans]. Even when everything had been properly done, it was common for bound feet to become swollen and pus-filled, then break open, causing even more pain, plus a terrible odor [source: Holman].

Perhaps the most unpleasant thing about foot binding was that it was never over. Even after a girl's feet were successfully bound, she had to meticulously tend to them for the rest of her life -- regularly bathing them to avoid infection, and always rebinding quickly after a washing. If her feet weren't rebound, they'd begin to lose their form, which some Chinese women said was as painful as the original binding [source: Holman].