Binding the female body is a tradition that has existed across a number of cultures and has been around for centuries. What is this obsession with forcing female bodies into a more aesthetically pleasing shape at any cost? As someone who will suffer through an evening of wearing 4-inch stilettos because I like how they make my legs look, I can hardly get on my high horse about the issue. In fact, my fascination with binding the body is perhaps even tinged with a bit of awe at just how far women will go in order to appear more beautiful. Binding, however has a special connotation. It implies – even demands – restriction. And it is inherently oppressive. Right?
Foot binding started in the 10th or 11th century in China. It involves applying painfully tight binding to the feet in order to prevent further growth. Bound feet were known as “Lotus Feet” and were considered not only beautiful but a sign of wealth and status in Chinese culture. The foot binding process started early - between the ages of two and five. Young girls toes were broken and bent back, then bound. The average foot length for bound feet was 3 inches. It was not until 1912 that foot binding was outlawed in China, under pressure from Christian feminists. Thank God. I don’t think we have to debate whether or not foot binding had any merits. Beautiful or not, it was a cruel punishment to the young girls who suffered from the practice. Corsets are another form of binding that became popular in Europe in the 16th century and reached their peak in the Victorian era. The corset was thought to highlight and accentuate the beauty of the female form. Corsets, like foot binding, also posed health risks to women, yet in spite of doctors’ warnings their popularity continued to thrive until World War I. Today corsets have seen a resurgence in fashion in both sexual fetishism and in high-end couture designers like Peter Soronen. Corsets today are far kinder than the ones of yesteryear. While I would never want to be forced to wear one continuously, I love putting one on for an evening. The effects on the silhouette can be dramatic and to me they feel deeply feminine and extremely erotic. Because of their connection today to both binding the female body and sexual fetishism, corsets have a sexual charge to them. They are lingerie and shapewear at the same time. They highlight the female form. And yet, they are cumbersome and restrictive. It is difficult to bend in them much less dance. And so they have their limitations, quite literally.
I hate to do away completely with binding. As a woman who occasionally likes being tied up and who understands the various pleasures of restriction, I think the bound female body has its place in our culture not as a symbol of oppression but as a living paradox. The binding of the female body, when initiated freely by the woman being bound, represents submission and exhibitionism at the same time. That’s an intoxicating combination. Am I advocating that we return to corsets and foot binding, or, worse yet, condone visual representations of women being violently restricted against their will? Absolutely not. But I am suggesting that a sensory exploration of body binding, done in a safe, sane and consensual manner could actually be pleasurable for some women. And who knows, you might actually become a little less restricted.