Okay, so we can’t deny that here in America we have been known to do some pretty crazy things for the sake of beauty or fashion. Some have gone to extreme measures—toe removal for narrow, pointed shoes; bone shaving to ‘correct’ prominent foreheads; even the outrageous feed tube diet to achieve drastic weight loss. Or perhaps, the most terrifying of all, the infamous 'Cat Woman' who underwent dozens of surgeries to look like a lion to get her estranged husband back. Really ladies, we have to draw the line somewhere. As it turns out, we’re not alone in this wide world. Women around the globe share our same desire for beauty—although we differ on definition—and are willing to suffer painful, body altering practices to achieve it.
You’ve probably heard of this ancient Chinese torture practice, but wince with us as we rehash one of the most bizarre techniques in the name of beauty. Foot binding started around the 10th century continuing for a millennium until it was banned in 1911. Intended to stop the growth of podiatric bones, bandages were wrapped tightly around the foot forcing toes towards the heel. The bandages were tightened daily, creating an extreme arch and ‘smaller’ foot. And by smaller we mean three to four inches long. One billion women endured the custom, forced to start binding as early as four years old and by the end of the two-year process, well let’s just say it was like not having feet at all. Obviously, foot binding was extremely painful and dangerous not to mention repulsive. It required detailed daily care and could potentially result in life-threatening infection. Foot binding became a status symbol of the affluent and feet became a major erogenous zone of the era, with men and women alike obsessing over the tiny female foot. As crazy as it seems, achieving “three-inch golden lotuses” was the cultural ideal and the original foot fetish. If you want to see what binded feet look like without the cute little shoes, go here, but don't say we didn't warn you!
A century upon century old tradition, lip plates—a seemingly archaic practice—can still be found deep in Africa, worn by the women of Ethiopian tribes Mursi, Chai, and Tirma. The process begins at the age of 15 when a girl’s lip is pierced and gradually stretched until large (potentially up to 8 inches!) clay or wooden discs can be worn. Each woman chooses how far to stretch her lip and makes her own plate decorated with ornate art. Theories abound pondering the reason behind these extreme alterations like the size of plate represents a women’s dowry or the deliberate disfiguration was intended to discourage slave traders. Most accurately, it’s like a traditional coming of age practice, an entrance into adulthood for these tribal women. They are respected and admired within their groups, the lip plate symbolizing commitment to her culture, husband, and identity. We decided it’s not really that far fetched after all, we saw three oversized earlobes at the coffee shop this morning.
The Asian tribe of Kayan people resides in the mountainous region between Burma and Thailand. Their claim to “beauty is pain” fame is the traditional neck rings worn by the Kayan women. Similar practice of stretching to alter and achieve beauty, neck rings actually merely create an illusion of an elongated neck by pressing against the clavicle and ribcage. Beginning at five years old, a brass coil is worn from the collar to the chin, replaced with longer coils as she grows, eventually reaching up to 25 coils weighing about 11 pounds. Neck rings, which are truly a single, continuous coil, are worn almost constantly as the process of the adornment takes effort (to say the least). Folklore credits the coils as protection from tiger bites or the resemblance of a dragon, but both are myths. The giraffe-like appearance is a symbol of beauty and unique to the tribe’s identity. Kayan women embrace the custom with the mindset "At first there is some discomfort, but it is worth it for it is beautiful."
While this is not a custom by any means, this Korean woman was so obsessed with plastic surgery she injected her face with cooking oil, disfiguring her beyond recognition. The quest for beauty in the modern world is only getting increasingly extreme as more technology is introduced and women feel they are expected to never age. Suddenly these "extreme" age-old practices seem much less terrifying than a cooking oil face or feed tube diet! So what's next, and more importantly where do we draw the line?