Yesterday I finished reading Saving Fish from Drowning, by Amy Tan, a fascinating account of eleven tourists’ fictional disappearance in Burma. Narrated by a ghost, Fish is a clever tale that has the added (and clearly intentional) benefit of educating people on the plight of the country now officially known as Myanmar.

During the book, my imagination was caught by a mention of the Padaung women of Burma, who put metal rings around their necks from an early age. In my attempt to discover more about these women, I came across this page comparing various bodily alterations women have undertaken in the name of beauty. The neck rings were one of them, but also discussed were Chinese foot-binding and corsets. My initial reaction was horror, primarily that any woman would choose to do this kind of thing to her body, but also that the society these women lived in deemed these mutilations both beautiful and expected.

However, it later occurred to me that perhaps we are not so far removed. Take for example the tradition of foot binding. At first, the pictures appear grotesque, and it is impossible for us to view them as the symbols of beauty and wealth that they were. But then I thought of a woman we saw in the airport just before the wedding, who was wearing black stiletto boots so high that she literally must have been resting her entire weight on her toes. The ideal Chinese “lotus feet” were supposed to be no more than three inches long. This woman’s feet were squeezed into a space only slightly larger than that.

What’s most interesting is the deeper symbolism behind the bound feet:

Bound feet also became a symbol of chastity, for once a woman’s feet were properly bound, she would never be able to walk again on her own. If she wasn’t carried, then the woman would have to resort to crawling on her hands and knees.

The inability to walk signaled complete dependency on another, namely her husband, ensuring that no infidelity was physically possible. While this woman in the airport could at least walk, or rather totter, she was not much better off. Ironic though that the bound feet were a symbol of chastity, whereas I am sure that those boots were intended to give a message in quite the opposite direction.

Next we have the corset, which gave the appearance of hyper-fertility by making women’s hips appear wide and curvaceous while concealing misshapen organs and multiple health issues (including, ironically, complications during childbirth). You just gotta love concepts of beauty. At first glance, this seems revolting and painfully outdated, especially when you see the diagram of how the internal organs were displaced by long-term use.

Again though, a modern day equivalent does spring to mind: the recent discovery that tight, ultra-low hip huggers can lead to nerve damage and even complete numbness in the upper thigh. Permanent nerve damage and paralysis, all in the name of a so-called beauty trend… sounds all too familiar.

Then we come to the neck rings, which started my quest down this road in the first place. Really, I could think of no modern equivalent, mainly because it’s still practiced to a much larger extent than either of the first two “alterations.” But really, this tradition belongs in its own category. It is quite simply amazing.

These three are only a few of the bodily alterations that have been and still are practiced by women around the world. It is easy to judge the more obscure practices, but for each and every one, there is something just as odd and often painful in our own society. Perhaps some day people will look at our stiletto boots and hip huggers and wonder how we could possibly wear such things, much less find them beautiful.