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.