Story by David Husa
While the elder knows the next step will be excruciating, she also knows it will have to be done eventually. Now is the easiest time; the girl's bones are still soft and the cold of winter will dull the pain.
The elder breaks each of the girl's four small toes and wraps the soaked silk bandages tightly around each foot, forcing the toes into the sole of the foot. When the bandages finally dry and constrict, the girl will have to walk around in them to ensure the process was done properly.
The goal of this ancient, painful ritual was to develop dainty and concave feet, which were a standard of feminine beauty at the time - the finest women's shoes could only be worn by those with feet bound by this process.
Across the world and a century later, women still squeeze their feet into shoes, high heels in particular, that are narrower than their actual feet, painfully constrict their toes and raise their heels into unnatural positions, says Dr. Timothy Messmer, a podiatrist based out of Anacortes.
Pain and deformities result from frequent wearing of shoes with those characteristics, and Messmer says he treats at least one woman every day with problems arising from her shoes, including bunions, a deformity of the bones and joint at the base of the big toe; hammertoe, a permanent bend of the toes; and neuroma, swelling of the nerves. These problems can necessitate costly surgery or therapy to repair and can lead to disability in extreme cases.
Shoes can also cause problems beyond the feet says Dr. Chad Booth, a Fairhaven-based chiropractor. Shoes that tilt or turn the feet unnaturally can affect the spine, lower back, knees and neck, Booth says.
Back in high school, Western student Megan Murray-Wagner says she wore high heels five days a week, until she started having problems with her knees. Her doctor advised her to stop wearing high heels altogether, but since then Murray-Wagner says she still wears high heels about twice a week. "If you take an aspect of the body and make its mechanics work in a way it's not supposed to it causes a problem," Booth says.
Since 2006 Western Men Against Violence has held a yearly event known as "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" to raise awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence and to raise money for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County. In this event, men don women's shoes and march from Western's campus to Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro.
Joshua O'Donnell, who is organizing this year's march in mid-April, says he could hardly conceive getting used to wearing shoes like the 4-inch stilettos he wore in last year's march. The first thing O'Donnell says he and other men notice when putting on high heels is the lack of balance and the shocking level of discomfort.
"After one mile, we were groaning in pain, [thinking] these are the most ridiculous things ever," O'Donnell says.
Jody Finnegan, owner of 12th Street Shoes in Fairhaven, says many women simply feel better about themselves when wearing high heels, which accentuate a woman's legs and make them look taller. Finnegan says most of the women who patronize her store are over 35 and are generally more conscious of their orthopedic health than younger women since many of them already have developed bunions or other issues. As a result, Finnegan says her store sells shoes on the more comfortable end of the spectrum.
The problem, Finnegan says, is that the most comfortable types of women's shoes do not fit the current fashion trends.
"Usually, the really comfortable shoes-they're not really cute," says Western student Trisha Lydon. "They're generally not very appealing." Lydon says women wear uncomfortable, fashionable shoes because they are often apathetic or uncertain about the consequences the shoes will have on their body.
"People probably aren't thinking, 'When I'm 40 I'm going to need orthotics,'" she says. "But that's probably the reality."
It is not just high heels that create problems, flip-flops, which have become increasingly popular on college and high school campuses as an alternative to normal shoes, can cause serious problems too, Messmer says. Flip-flops and similar sandals are generally too flat to provide support for the foot's natural arch. Wearing shoes with no arch support can cause a person's arches to collapse giving them flatfeet, which often causes compound fractures and pain in the feet and legs.
Lydon says she got into the habit of wearing flip-flips to campus mostly out of convenience for doing Yoga, and she says she has already noticed that her arches have lowered. As a result, she feels slight pain when wearing running shoes since her foot no longer fits the orthopedic insoles in the shoes, she says.
Injuries caused by undersized shoes, high heels and flip-flops come from regular use, meaning they can be worn occasionally without causing serious injuries, Messmer says. Athletic running and walking shoes or shoes with prescribed orthopedic insoles are generally the safest and provide the best support. Shoes that are billed as orthopedic alternatives such as "Crocs" are also safe to wear regularly if the wearer has no existing foot problems, Messmer says.
However, Booth says even wearing the "best" orthopedic shoe every day may not be ideal either. Booth recommends wearing a variety of shoes with different support for the feet in order to keep the foot adaptable.
"Health isn't just things like pain and BMI (body mass index)," Booth says. "One of the keys to health is how well the body can adapt."
Long ago, before shoes were even invented, humans had to walk across the wilderness barefoot. In every step, the foot took a different shape. However, when wearing shoes every step has the same mechanics, it degrades the foot's adaptability, Booth says.
By keeping the body from getting stuck on one concept, we maintain and improve our body's ability to adapt and stay healthy, Booth says.
High heeled shoes, while an order of magnitude less extreme than the excruciating pain, gangrene, blood poisoning and sometimes death caused by Chinese foot binding, still cause some pain, blisters, deformities and nerve damage.
The practice and standard of beauty that encouraged foot binding persisted for centuries and only came to an end when the practice was declared illegal and punishable by death in 1911, but everyday women of the 21st century still suffer the consequences of choosing fashion over comfort.