Message in a Lotus Shoe

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on May 7, 2007.
I am the father of two daughters. A few weeks ago, as a way of honoring my Chinese-born daughters’ cultural heritage, a woman in my congregation gave my family a shoe that originally belonged to a Chinese immigrant to California whose foot had been rendered impossibly small through binding.

For a thousand years, until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, small feet were prized in China as a mark of great feminine beauty. In pursuit of this unnatural standard of beauty, parents would bind their daughters’ feet, eventually folding the balls of the feet so that they touched the heel. It was painful and crippling.

It’s hard to recognize beauty in something created to support such painful oppression, but the shoe is beautiful, and it came to us with an amazing story. The shoe’s first owner gave it to a woman whose family had provided hospitality to her and to her family in the days and weeks immediately following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

This was a remarkable bit of hospitality. The Chinese community in San Francisco was particularly hard hit in 1906, and the devastation of the quake was compounded by the hostility of white San Franciscans. Nonetheless, some folks in San Francisco were able to reach out across barriers of race to lend mutual support. The shoe that now lives with me was a token of such rare kindness.

The first recipient of the shoe kept and treasured it for many years, and when she was elderly, she gave it to a child in her neighborhood. That woman kept and treasured the shoe for more than six decades, finally giving it to my family.

The shoe—called a lotus shoe—is impossibly small, beautifully crafted, and with my fingers I can feel the imprint of the original owner’s toes and heel. And often I think about the woman with small feet who once was shod with the shoe that now resides in my home. I think about the pain she endured and about the freedom she never enjoyed, all in the pursuit of feet that would satisfy an impossible cultural ideal of beauty.

A father of daughters should be reminded of such things. Our society is rife with impossible images of feminine beauty that cause irreparable pain and leave women bereft of freedom. We don’t bind the feet of little girls, but we let them play with Barbie dolls and Disney princesses, and, as girls grow into adulthood, media images of feminine beauty encourage women to starve, nip, and tuck their way into bodies whose shapeliness is not found in nature.

Fathers like me need to care for our daughters, doing all that we can to assure them that they are beautiful as God made them, regardless of their ability to conform to narrow societal standards of beauty.

The tiny lotus shoe in my house is beautiful in its craftsmanship and it is precious as an historical artifact, but its true beauty and value are found in its story—in the gratitude and generosity of the original owner who gave it away, in the hospitality of the woman who received the gift and later passed it on, and in the thoughtfulness that caused the shoe to arrive in my home. Hospitality, gratitude and friendship took a shoe that was created for oppression and made it beautiful; such things are the source of true beauty in all God’s children as well.

This is the kind of beauty we fathers must pass on to our daughters.

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8 thoughts on “Message in a Lotus Shoe

  1. You are a good father, Ben.

    Your column reminds me of my recent visit to Disney World, Orlando. I was struck by the prominence of the message to little girls that physical beauty leads to happiness (in the form of a handsome prince). I saw many (very young) girls who had gotten “princess makeovers” complete with lip gloss, a fancy hair-do, and a low-cut fancy dress–all paid for (and a pretty penny, I’m sure) by their mothers and fathers. I wish more parents were as aware as you of the importance of developing in their daughters a sense of self, of intelligence, of choice, and of personal power (not based on physical appearance).

    Anna

  2. Wow….I’d love to see that shoe.
    I just can’t imagine the ball of the foot touching the heel…that’s literally folding the foot in half. How on EARTH did they come up with THAT as an idea of beauty????? Incredible.

    That’s a beautiful essay Ben…it certainly gave me some serious food for thought with Ella. (she has a bevvy of ‘Bratz’…the ‘in’ doll right now) I don’t actually know how much those play such a part in her self image. I reallly believe it’s more important for us, as her parents to continuously remind her that beauty and kindness & love & goodness comes in ALL shapes & sizes. I’m constantly reminding her, every time she stops me to point at someone and tell me…”Mummy, she’s FAT!”, that people who are fat can be wonderful, kind and good to you aswell as people who are skinny. It’s frightening really that at 3 years old she’s already prepared to ostracize.

    Anyway, thanks for your great thoughts Ben.

    Helen.

  3. What a beautiful story about the journey of the Lotus shoe. It would make a lovely children’s book…

  4. After contimplating the Lotus shoe, I can appreciate more my flat-footed size tens. In our family we never gave much thought to our feet, unless we stepped on something toxic, piercing or of canine origin. But the lesson of societally created beauty codes will cause me to appreciate all manner of feet this day. Beauty can be de-feeted!

  5. Thanks for the posts and for your kind words.

    Anna, the Disney Princess phenomenon is troubling on so many levels. As a fan of Carl Jung I am particularly distressed by the way the folks at Disney have taken powerful archetypal images and commercialized them, thereby robbing them of their true magic and their ability to direct the human anima toward wholeness.

    Helen, so far the Daniel house remains a Bratz-free zone. Don’t know how much longer that will last. But you’re right: the most important factor in raising healthy kids is parental involvement. Lot’s of very healthy women grew up playing with Barbie dolls and surrounded by unhealthy media images of feminine beauty.

    Even at age five, Mimi, our eldest daughter has felt insecure at school because her favorite color is blue and her favorite movie is “Cars” (Disney doesn’t get everything wrong!). Some of her fellow students have a hard time figuring that out. This is kindergarten.

    Darlene, good idea. Maybe we should find an illustrator!

    Best,

    Ben

    P.S. If your’re interested, Wikipedia has an article on foot binding with photos and an x-ray of bound feet. Our lotus shoe is less fancy than some. It is sort of an “everyday” shoe, like can be seen in the second photo down on this website from the San Francisco Virtual Muesum.

  6. Ronn,

    We were posting at the same time… I hear you. Just yesterday I was at the Podiatrist, giving thanks that my problems–inflicted by too much running– aren’t really so bad.

    Ben

  7. thank you for the story. you mentioned the freedom lost. i think it is important to point out the link with power.
    the small feet were i believe, especailly beautiful becasue of how vulnerable and powerless it made the women. no woman with feet like that was a threat to the man’s power.

    the insane thinness and clothes (our stylish shoes also incapacitate women) of women in our media also, i believe, tie into images of powerlessnes, the really thin is quite suggestive of vulnerable children, not fully human or fully adult. When women are starving themsleves, or obsessed with trying to make themselves acceptable to the man, they have given up their power and do mot threaten the man’s power.

    i hope you will think about how much the issues of power are woven into issues of beauty and the ways still…women are rendered powerless in this culture. it is more subtle and not as much…but the subtle makes it even harder to recognize and therefore claim back the power. helping women claim their own power and find self affirmation from within is a great gift from a father.
    thanks, cedar

  8. A good reminder, Cedar. And I’ve seen power work the other way too, where men, as a way of opressing women, try to strip women of sexuality. The very best thing we, as a society can do for our daughters is to empower them.

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