Cultural Standards of Beauty throughout History

Enduring pain to look beautiful has been a common theme for women throughout history, with cultural practices including feet binding and corseting.

Different perceptions of beauty have existed across different cultures throughout the times, with people adhering their looks to meet society’s standards of attractiveness. While these standards of beauty have affected both men and women, it’s probably fair to say that it has impacted significantly more on women, with some of these ideals of beauty involving extremely painful procedures ranging from wearing very tight corsets in the Victorian times, foot binding in China during the Ching dysnasty, wearing numerous neck rings in subcultures in Asia and Africa, head binding among ancient Egyptians, Australian Aborigines, North American native peoples and some Germanic tribes, and lip stretching among select groups around the Amazon River in South America and Africa.


Although corseting first made its appearance in the 1500’s, it did not reach its peak until the 19th and early 20th centuries. Corseting gave emphasis to the female curves by reducing waist size by 7-10 inches with extremists going as far as having their lower ribs surgically removed to make corseting easier. The pressure put on the ribs was so great however that it would sometimes result in cracked ribs, displaced organs, and respiratory problems. Miscarriages and deaths during labour were also very common for women whose bodies had been overly modified through excessive corseting practices. Needless to say, corseting greatly restricted the mobility of women so that many were able to do little else than languish around in the drawing room. Options other than marriage were sparse for women during those times, and so there was little choice but to take up these practices in order to increase their sexual desirability. Corseting was so ingrained in the Victorian culture that it was also connected to moral values so that a woman without a corset was considered nothing more than a harlot. Girls as young as 3 were placed in loose corsets while older girls corseted tighter as they grew.

Foot Binding

The Chinese traditional practice of foot binding first started among the elite in the wealthiest parts of China during the Song dynasty (960-1297), before becoming widespread among most of the Chinese population during the Ming (1368-1644) and Ching (1644-1911) dynasties resulting in approximately one billion women having their feet bound over the course of about 1000 years. The process of having bound feet was very painful, first requiring the toes of a child to be bent towards the sole of the feet to the extent that they broke which subsequently resulted in deformed feet. While the tradition first began among the rich who could afford not to move about too much due to the restrictions imposed by having small feet, as it became more widespread, it became a prerequisite for marriage so that even those families who could not afford to have their daughters not work out in the fields also took up the practice in the hopes that their daughters would ‘marry up’ into the middle class. A foot that was roughly three inches was the “ideal” size, and not unlike the motivation for wearing corsets, having bound feet increased a woman’s sexual desirability, through women taking small, cautious steps and swaying in an alluring ‘lotus gait,’ when walking. With the feet being so small, it was thought that the nerves were more concentrated there and that it was an important erogenous zone, increasing it’s association with sexuality. Bound feet was also a symbol of chastity as the movement of women who had bound feet was restricted and they could not venture far from their homes without an escort.

Lip Stretching

The practice of lip stretching is again associated with ideals of beauty though some historical sources also link it with social and economic class. Unlike the above two forms of practice which no longer take place in such extremity however, the practice of lip stretching still takes place in select tribal cultures today. While some cultures only stretch the lower lip, others such as the Sara people, also stretch the upper lip. The lip ornament used to stretch the lip is called ‘a labaret,’ and 2-4 lower front need to be excised before the pierced lip ornament can be placed. Because human skin, particularly the skin of a younger person, has an natural ability to stretch itself to a large extent, the act of using labrets to lengthen a lip piercing is relatively easy as long as it is done slowly. However, the weight of large ornaments can still be intense even if they are made from light weight types of wood. Nowadays, people only wear these adornments during festive occasions, letting the lip hang loose the rest of the time.

The above practices highlight gender imbalances of the past, with women having little choice but to conform to social standards due to their status in society. With the rise of feminism and progressiveness in society as a whole, such practices have largely been abandoned, providing a fertile ground for fashion to develop. As well as highlighting gender issues, the pain that people put themselves through to appear attractive also emphasises the importance that we as humans place on visual aesthetics, and even today, we continue to see a reflection of this in practices such as cosmetic surgery and extreme forms of dieting. In the climate of today, the emphasis that social media place on lean and slim figures, puts a lot of pressure on both men and women to conform to these standards, highlighting the power of social and cultural influence.

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