Most people have heard the old saying that “Beauty is Pain.” All over the globe people are striving to be beautiful every minute of every day because of the fact that humans tend to be very visual creatures and will always first observe the look of a person before finding out what is held in the other person’s heart. Many find this idea shallow and preach against it, but it does not mean that they don’t do the same thing when they first judge someone harming their natural bodies for beauty. Looking at a person from the outside and then getting to know them is just easier since we can’t read each others minds from a distance. What a particular culture designates as beautiful can vary though. When was the last time you saw an American woman following the ancient Chinese tradition of bound feet? Yet, these extreme cultural practices for beauty are a constant throughout history and geography. Let’s take a look at some extreme appearance practices from the past and present to see the bodily mutilation committed in the name of ideal beauty.
1. Foot Binding
The Chinese tradition of binding the feet of women who could afford the procedure and then afford not having to actually stand for more than a few minutes at a time started in the 10th century and was still practiced until the early 20th century by all classes of women whose husbands greatly enjoyed these tiny lotus-shaped feet. During the Qing dynasty, it was even common practice to involve bound feet in sexual acts, adding to the desire of men wanting women with bound feet. Before the arch of the foot was fully formed (before the age of 14), a young girl would have almost every bone of her foot broken before an extremely tight binding was wrapped around the now squished foot to have the bones repair themselves in this new, smaller form. A foot that was roughly three inches was the “ideal” size. The problem of this act, not only the restrictions of movement, was infection. While the wealthy could afford to have fresh daily bindings and inspections, the poor were restricted if they were binding their feet and would subsequently have more problems with infection. Toe nails were cut as short as possible before binding and routinely checked but in-grown toe nails happened anyway. Sometimes later in life a woman could have her feet unbound, but severe deformities would still prevail.
2. Neck Rings
Having a long, graceful neck is seen as beautiful in many cultures. The longest natural necks are generally seen in the women of the professional Russian ballet who start training early enough to lengthen their necks naturally through exercises that require holding one’s neck in a stretched position over and over. However, some subcultures in Asia and Africa take the idea to extremes by having women wear multiple brass coil rings around the neck to stretch it out. Usually, it begins with only a few rings as a young child and the number increases with age, meaning older women will have longer necks. This act of beauty is mostly an illusion though. The pressure of the rings causes the collar bones and upper ribs to be pushed down at a steep angle to make the neck look longer when the actual vertebrae are not elongated. Coils can be removed but the neck muscles are generally atrophied by that point, making the simple act of holding one’s head up without the assistance of the coils extremely difficult.
3. Lip Discs
The idea of piercing one’s lip isn’t necessarily a new one. Yet, taking this practice to the extreme by stretching out one’s lip (either upper or lower) with a plate or plug tends to be acted out by only a few select groups. The term “labret” is applied to any of these pierced-lip ornaments. The process of stretching a lip piercing is thought to be independently invented six times in the ancient world even though today it is only maintained by select groups around the Amazon River in South America and Africa. Because human skin, particularly the skin of a younger person, has an innate flexibility and ability to stretch itself the act of using labrets to lengthen a lip piercing is relatively easy as long as it is done slowly. Yet, the weight of large ornaments can be intense even if they are made from light weight types of wood. A young person (women generally do this in Africa while it is tied to men in most parts of Amazonia) will generally only wear them during ceremonies and special occasions once they have achieved the size they want, choosing to let the stretched lip hang on its own during everyday chores.