The Lotus Feet
"The Lotus Feet" is my second work where I use exotic phenomena and refer them to our cultural context (i). This time I examine beauty standards and the consequently intentionally induced mutilations of the body. On one hand I am interested in their motivation, social meaning and the instability of beauty standards themselves, and on the other in the individual's possibilities to deal with them.
"The Lotus Feet" are iconographically based on the symbol of the Chinese "three-inch gold-like Lotus" (ii), a beauty standard of bound and re-shaped feminine feet in effect for approximately one thousand years. I also make geographical assignations to every work and incorporate images of frogs (in am modern interpretation of "papier collé"), as symbol for transformation, but also sexuality.
Iconography I: Lotus Feet
"By the time a girl turned three years old, all her toes but the first were broken, and her feet were bound tightly with cloth strips to keep her feet from growing larger than 10 cm, about 3.9 inches. The practice would cause the soles of feet to bend in extreme concavity." (iii)
The practice of the "foot binding" began at the end of the Tang dynasty (about 900 years after Christ) and was officially forbidden in the new Chinese Republic in 1911. In remote areas however, "foot binding" was practiced as late as the 1930's and 1940's. According to a study of 193 women in Beijing (93 of whom were 80 years old plus; 100 between 70 and 79 years old) 18% of the women between 70 and 79 years old and 38% of those over 80 years old had feet deformed by "foot binding". (iv)
Within the traditional (which is: pre-revolutionary) Chinese context "Lotus Feet" have been a beauty standard for a long time, but always also were a status symbol. To have a daughter with tiny "Lotus Feet" meant that the family was rich enough to renounce to her work force. Also, "Lotus Feet" soon developed into a symbol for chastity: because a girl with bound feet was practically unable to run, her activities were restricted to the house and her pre-martial virginity thus almost guaranteed.
At about here it becomes obvious to me that beauty standards - definitely the one of "Lotus Feet", but maybe even others, ones that are more familiar to us - have to be seen in close context with conservation and deepening of disciplinary power structures in society: Beauty standards are "external inscriptions of power" (see following citation), because the one holding power establishes them and the weak is manipulated into following them. By doing that he/she thus weakens him/herself even more and the result is a power gap that opens wider and wider.
In this context I would like to cite an interesting essay that deals with the practice of "Lotus Feet", with disciplinary power structures and the theses of Foucault:
One of the most important aspects of foot binding is that the disciplinary power that inscribes femininity is everywhere and nowhere. The disciplinarian is everyone and yet no one in particular. Foucault's relationship of power to the body is that the external inscriptions of power become internalized and lived. It does not reside in any particular institution and it is unbound. And this "absence of formal institutional structur" [v 1] makes it seem that the production of femininity is natural and voluntary. Actually these disciplines can be voluntary and involuntary at the same time. Nevertheless, they "must be understood as aspects of a far larger discipline, an oppressive and inegalitarian system of sexual subordination. [v 2]. Even though there are no formal sanctions or disciplinarians, a woman who refuses to follow these disciplines will stop being a woman. She will find herself facing the most significant rejection of all in a patriarchal society that is the refusal of male patronage. (v)
Beauty and Disciplinary Power Structures
Whoever subjects him/herself - be it voluntarily or involuntarily (with the individuals consciousness making the difference) - to modifications that serve beauty standards, inevitably becomes a victim: he or she sacrifices her/his intact body on the operation table, following an ideal that in most cases stems from unknown sources.
Where do these ideals come from? Foucault's observations on internalized disciplinary power structures in the above citation are referred to "Foot binding" and with this very extreme example his thesis is easy to follow. However, basically his observations refer to our own culture: a society that sees itself as so much more open and tolerant (than the traditional Chinese one). The questions I would like to ask are the following: in our society are there also internalized disciplinary power structures alive which we are unaware of, and how can we deal with them?
On a daily basis an ocean of images becomes spread through the media, all luring us into a perfect world. How do we deal with this phenomena, are we still aware, that it is a purely virtual world, of - in most cases - an origin that is unknown to us? Or do we take this media-reality already for a material reality in which we feel a need to integrate?
Without a doubt we also have beauty standards without an "institution that defines them", with no official authority or defining group behind them. How immense is the power of the anonymous censor that lives within us, and, unless we become aware of it, do we have any possibility to resist it?
Only if we submerge ourselves as strangers into a foreign culture such as for example the exotic world of "Lotus Feet", we may be able to recognize internalized power structures and then, in a second step, develop alternative strategies to deal with them.
In the following some "facts and figures" on beauty standards.
Beauty I: Surgery goes Mainstream
Personally, I find it quite frightening at what pace beauty surgery goes mainstream lately. Ten years ago a few beauty surgeons offered their services very low-key in magazines, showing "before" and "after" photos. Now "total makeovers" have become the topic of prime time TV entertainment. Obviously this new duty to bodily optimization is a symptom of our post-industrial, technically oriented working environment. With work places that hardly require bodily effort, physical appearance now gains importance for the staging and stylization of the self, for representation, for displaying social status.
Beauty surgery, seen economically, in Germany alone has a total revenue of several billion Euro. (vi)
Beauty II: Tattoo goes Mainstream
Parallel with the classical beauty surgeries, which once had been privilege of the upper classes of society, today also tattoo and BodMod (vii) develop into mass phenomena. Tattoo, once marking exotic characters, outlaws or vagabonds, later still at least a sign of "anti-social counter-culture" (viii), today has become a popular trend throughout all income groups and social classes.
Tattoo and BodMod are also phenomena of the return to a new body-awareness. Contrary to the classical beauty surgery they do have an archaic-shamanist touch: bodily pain is supposed to bring about personal empowerment, thus a strengthening of self-consciousness and individuality.
I have no doubt that in some cases this will work out, however, if the decision for a tattoo is based on current fashion or peer pressure, it will help the strengthening of individuality just as little as a beauty job from the catalog.
Beauty III: Art goes OP
It was the French artist Orlan who showed us that we can change our body according to our will when she began to remodel her own using all the means made available by modern surgery. She practically re-created it according to her own ideas and thus became sculptor of her own body. However at the same time Orlan exposes (body-) modification as a "cultural game", with the respective beauty ideals always being a cue ball to current fashion.
Beauty IV: Psychology und Philosophy
Above I asked to what extent we are aware of the internalized structures of disciplinary power that want us to make modification to our physical self. In the following I would like to present some additional thoughts on philosophical and psychological aspects of body modifications, be it surgical or in other forms.
If we take the individual's right to self-determination as a basis, then this right includes both, the right to be different but as well the right to modify the body in order to be part of a group. In this context the question for a straight "yes" or "no" regarding willful body modifications might be of less importance than the one regarding the consciousness of the individual that makes this choice. Or, putting it another way: when deciding for any form of invasive body modification, what is the individuals motivation? Is it to express his/her personality better, or does it try to extinct individual features in order to obtain uniformity (with others)?
As for myself, I personally belief that our earthly existence should bring us to become a whole/holy personality, and doubtlessly this can be only achieved through the integration of the not-loved, the shadow aspects of the self. Just to remove the not-loved - be it of bodily or spiritual nature - from the system will bring about nothing but a classical Phyrrus victory: only who integrates his/her shadow aspects will become whole/holy, whoever removes them voluntarily weakens him/herself.
Beauty V: Ideals and Time
Beauty standards are fashions and as such subject to change. Also the "Lotus Feet" once have been China's highest ideal of feminine elegance but with the Culture Revolution became stigma: bound feet, useless for running suddenly were perceived as crippled and remnants of a dark epoch. To subject oneself to beauty standards and accept the currently predominant categories of "beautiful" and "ugly" always bears the risk of being overrun by time. Beauty standards are transitory and unstable, and this is even emphasized by globalization and the mixing of cultures.
Iconography II: Frogs
The frog overcame the flaw of ugliness and self-hatred. For the Chinese it is a yin-symbol for prosperity and success. Frogs undergo a natural metamorphosis from ugliness to beauty, from tadpole to frog, sometimes even to prince. Tightly connected to the watery element they always have been associated with sexuality and ideas of sexuality.
Iconography III: Geographical Assignations
Art is multi-layered and when in the process of working an image develops, then, while that, I have had very many thoughts in my head. Nevertheless, in the following I would like to give some very brief ideas on the geographical associations with some of the Lotus-Feet paintings.
Lotus Feet_China: The "Lotus Feet" come from
feudal China. Thinking of modern China the uniformity of people come to my
mind. Huge masses of workers, all dressed alike, going to their jobs. Crippled
and not crippled at the same time (is a person with a soul that is unable
to expand not also crippled in a way, even though his/her body is completely
intact?). Uniformity is predominant. Individuality is difficult.
Lotus Feet_Hawaii: Hula and Hawaiian shamanism. A land that has and practices its own culture, and at the same time suffers very much under the Americanization of it's society. Two cultures which are quite opposite.
Lotus Feet_Brazil: The decision for a beauty surgery strongly depends of the individual's self-perception. Earlier many Brazilian women felt the flaw of black-African genes in their blood. Consequently they opted for breast reductions. Today they perceive themselves - just as Argentinean women - of European descent. And alike European women they get their breasts enlarged. Sociologists see the reason for this change in attitude in Argentinean soap operas now shown on Brazilian TV.
Lotus Feet_Australia: The only foot intact on this painting belongs to an Aborigine. Intact and healthy because it is whole before the inner eye of the person. The other feet are fragmented: because the people are fragmented: they lack cultural roots.
Lotus Feet: East_meets_West: The mixing of cultures. Traditional societies are confronted with western-European views. No judgment, I am just an observer. Who rebels against the mixing, will certainly experience it as painful. Who opens to it, may perceive it as an enrichment.