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Culture

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It is amazing what many people will do for the sake of their culture. After all, it is those who are most loyal to their culture that keep tradition and culture unique and alive. But how far is too far? Extreme body modification can be seen in many countries, many cultures and from many people of different walks of life. Anyone could sit on a busy street for a full day and continuously watch people and never see all the forms of body modification that are present today. Here in the United States, we starve ourselves, invest thousands of dollars in plastic surgery and spend more hours in the gym than we do with our family just so that we can fit into what our culture defines as beautiful. As big or as little as someone may think this sacrifice is, is it really that bad? Foot binding, neck rings, extreme scarring tooth filing, and ear stretching, are just a few examples of what other cultures engage in so that they can fit into their culture’s idea of beautiful. There are many different theories that attempt to explain why foot binding exists and how the idea came about. “Foot binding began late in the T'ang Dynasty (618-906) and it gradually spread through the upper class during the Song Dynasty (960-1297), lasting through the Ming period (1368-1644) and then ending in the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911)” (Seagrave). There are several legends that attempt to account for the creation of this custom. One is that the concubine of a Chinese prince named Yao Niang walked so gracefully that it seemed as if she "skimmed over the top of golden lilies. At that time the "lily footed woman" or a woman with bound feet became the model in China. A second legend says that this concubine, Yao Niang, was ordered to bind her feet so that her feet would look like new moons. A third legend suggests that women bound their feet out of sympathy for an empress with club feet. A final theory is that foot binding was made stylish by court dancers, but this seems unlikely because women with bound feet had a hard time walking let alone dancing. The origin of foot binding may not be clear, however the results or after affects are apparent. “Foot binding stopped concubines and wives of the rich from straying or running away from beatings. Confucian teachings at this time stressed the superior status of men over women as a basic element of social order and this was certainly an effective method of restraint” (Fairbank). So what exactly is foot binding? It was an attempt to stop the growth of the feet through painful bandaging, wrapped tightly around the feet. This process usually began somewhere between the ages of four and seven, although possibly later if the family was poor and needed their daughter to do work around the house or farm. A bandage, ten feet long and two inches wide was wrapped tightly around the feet, forcing the four small toes under the sole of the foot. The bandage was tightened each day and the girl was put into progressively smaller and smaller sized shoes. The entire process usually took about two years, and at the end of those two years, the feet were almost useless. The feet had to be washed and manicured on a daily basis, but if they weren't manicured properly the toe nails could cut into the instep and infection could set in. If the bindings were too tight they could cut off circulation which could lead to gangrene and blood poisoning. The pain was said to have been excruciating especially if this process was started at a later age. For a tradition that remained constant for so many years, yet caused so much pain, one cannot help but wonder what the purpose of this unique tradition was. Women did not endure through the pain to benefit themselves, but for the men in their life. It was supposed that small feet were found to be erotic. Also, with women having such small and deformed feet, the ability to walk was limited, therefore women could not wonder far from their homes. This was ideal for husbands, guaranteeing that their wives would not, and could not escape very far past their homes. Not all cultural body modifications are imposed on women. For instance, in Papua New Guinea, when males want to be seen as men in their community, they must endure an excruciating painful experience. Although there is no established age that a male must reach to participate in this tradition, until men have completed this test, they are not ready for adulthood. A very painful experience yes but, the tribe considers pain critical. Because men have experienced pain, they will remember it always and will therefore be able to endure any challenges in life ahead. “Tribes in the East Sepik province of Papa New Guinea to this day still practice an ancient initiation ceremony. A way of testing and introducing adolescents into manhood, the ceremony is a strenuous and painful process that leaves the men’s skins scarred all over; the effect resembling the crocodile scales.” (National Geographic) The meaning behind this ceremony has deeply spiritual and symbolic connotations. The event is the tribe’s celebration of the return of the ancestral crocodiles. Legend has it that when they migrated through the Sepik River, crocodiles established a human population. It is difficult to believe that a country half way around the world would have something in common with a large percentage of females in America. More than likely, no one would guess that women in Burma are like American women in reference to beauty pageants. While in America beauty pageants have become controversial and now often referred to as “scholarship opportunities,” women in Burma are “freak shows.” It has been known to happen, that Burmese women are loaned to Thailand officials and then taken on tours to be shown off and to be entered in beauty pageants across other countries. The reason of course, is because there are no others like them. Burmese women are so distinct that they could not likely ever be mistaken for anything else. These women are distinguished by one metal ring coiled and wrapped around their necks. “Only girls born on auspicious days of the week and while the moon is waxing are entitled to wear them. These girls start wearing rings from the age of five, when the neck is circled only a few times. As they get older more rings are added." And added, and added, eventually forming a shining tower of polished metal.” (Mirante) There are multiple theories explaining why women have in the past and still now wear these rings. One explanation for the neck-rings is that they were intended to make the women of the Kayan tribe distinctive, so they might be returned from captivity in times of inter-tribal warfare. Some claim that the practice was meant to protect women from tigers, which are known to seize their prey by the scruff of the neck. In any case, Burmese women are set apart from the rest and no matter why this tradition was started, it still now is admired by many. Less than 100 years ago, women were not allowed to vote, but eventually they triumphed over many obstacles to obtain equality. Although women now are equal to men, they continue to be held at higher standards in reference to physical attributes. It is all too unfortunate that America now has women as CEOs, doctors, lawyers, and even frontline presidential candidates, but still are often seen as just another pretty face, or a man’s object of desire. The pressure to be thin, attractive and youthful starts at an early age in America. It is a cruel realization that instead of teenage girls asking for a new car for their sweet 16, they ask for breast implants. Breast implant surgery is seen as a minor procedure, when in actuality it is anything but. According to statistics released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), more than 8.7 million procedures were performed on people to change their appearance by choosing cosmetic plastic surgery in 2003; up 32 percent from nearly 6.6 million in 2002. American culture views the above mentioned body modifications “crazy” or even “unethical” but what would those countries think about Americans? Every day, women literally risk their lives so that they can have a bigger cup size, a smaller, cutter nose, a flatter stomach, or even slimmer thighs. Patients are put under anesthesia, sliced open and have a foreign object shoved into their bodies. Even though it is an everyday occurrence, it is a much more serious ordeal than most people assume. So why do women subject themselves to this practice? The answer is nothing short of obvious. It’s all done for the sake of culture. With America being such a young country with many different races/ethnicities represented, it is often difficult to imagine one clearly accepted cultural practice. What separates America from many other cultures though, is that body modification in America is not for tradition or religious reasons, but for the sake of personal image and to relieve the pressure from society to always try to improve your attractiveness. It is amazing what many people will do for the sake of their culture. After all, it is those who are most loyal to their culture that keep tradition and culture unique and alive. The human body is not the only aspect of life sacrificed for culture, but certainly the most important. There are no two people alike, just as there are no two cultures alike. Modification of an individual’s body is an outward expression of their culture and beliefs. Everyone has cultural values as well as their own way of being dedicated to that tradition, but an outward expression such as body modification serves also as a statement to others as a display of dedication to culture. Tradition, a right of passage, or to just feel accepted, each individuals reason is their own. Whatever the reason may be, it is a strong enough devotion that comes from within to overcome and endure physical alterations, all for the sake of culture.

Published in September 2006 for Guernica Magazine. http://www.guernicamag.com/features/229/the_dragon_mothers/ The Dragon Mothers Polish their Metal Coils by Edith Mirante | September 2006

Rita Aero, Things Chinese, New York, Doubleday & Company, 1980.
John King Fairbank, The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985., New York, Harpor & Row, 1986.
Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty, New York, Harper & Roe, 1985

Crocodile Scars. National Geographic March 8, 2008.

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