A portrait of young Chinese woman in the 1880s whose tiny feet are the result of the tradition of foot binding.

© Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS

Foot Binding: Lotus Shoes and Foot Fetishes

Once tiny feet and daintily decorated shoes became the focal point of a woman's body, they became highly sensual and erotic. A woman could be ugly or have a terrible figure, but men wouldn't care a bit if her feet were very small, perfectly curved and clad in beautiful shoes [source: Holman].

Ancient manuals instructed men in how to sensually fondle bound feet in innumerable ways, and use them to enhance sexual encounters. The Chinese also believed women with bound feet developed extra strong vaginal muscles because of the mincing steps they took, thus making sexual intercourse more pleasurable. Further, many women kept their feet bound throughout sexual encounters, enhancing their mystique while covering their grotesqueness. But some men liked to see the bare foot -- they would smell it, caress it, even put it in their mouth. Bizarre foot fetishes developed, such as drinking the water a woman had used to wash her feet, or placing nuts between her deformed toes, then eating them [sources: Holman, Evans].

The women's special lotus shoes got their name from the shape of the bound foot, which was said to resemble a lotus petal. Since they were considered intimate apparel and part of the sexual attraction, women carefully sewed their shoes with fine silk uppers, then added beautiful embroidery that reflected the women's personality and region of the country [source: Footwear History].

Lotus shoes were so important that a woman had to own at least four pairs if she wanted to get married, and ideally 16 -- four pairs per season. One pair -- the wedding shoes -- were always red and the most ornate. Since women weren't allowed to sleep solely in their bindings, a pair of sleeping slippers was also part of the trousseau. The slippers typically featured erotic embroidery on the inside, which the couple looked at together on their wedding night [source: Footwear History].

For many of us, it seems unbelievable that foot binding could have existed, especially for 1,000 years. Yet others note humans still do some pretty unusual things to their bodies, all in the name of beauty, such as plastic surgery, tattoos and piercings. And really, how much have we advanced if women are still cramming their feet into narrow, 5-inch high heel shoes and tottering around?