The gnarled, deformed toes you see before you may not look like symbols of unsurpassed beauty.
The last bound feet in China
But once upon a time in China, that's exactly what they were.
From the age of seven, in 1940, Su Xirong’s grandmother began binding her feet in bandages, tucking her toes under each sole to make them look smaller.
Over time, her bones bent and broke. Her tiny feet made her the most beautiful woman in the village.
For centuries, thousands of Chinese women bound their feet. The practice was generally favored by elite, urban women who did not have to work.
In 1912, a government ban brought foot binding to an end. Or so many thought.
The truth is that in certain rural areas, foot binding was still practiced beyond the 1950s. Many women continued to bind their feet in secret, and most were not elite.
Some of these women with bound feet – known as “lotus feet” – are still alive, and Hong Kong-based photographer Jo Farrell first set out to meet them 2006.
One such woman was Huo Guanyu.
“She still bound her feet up until about three years ago, when she became bedridden” Farrell explains. “She gave up because, she said, ‘No one can bind them like I can’.”
Huo died in 2017 at age 96.
Unlike their urban counterparts, these women worked in the fields, Farrell says.
“They walked on their heels.”
Almost all of Farrell’s subjects had arranged marriages, as foot binding was a way to secure a favorable husband.
“Su Xirong was known as the most beautiful woman in her village because of the shape of her foot,” Farrell says.
But the privileged status of women with bound feet was short-lived. “They were also shamed in their lifetime,” Farrell explains.
Born after foot binding had been banned, the women Farrell photographed lived in a society where their feet went from being a mark of success to a mark of shame.
“I believe they are proud of what they did,” Farrell explains. She says her subjects often told her that their feet used to be even smaller when they were younger.
The photographs were published in her book Living History: Bound Feet Women of China in 2014.
“This project is not just about bound feet,” she says. “It is about how society is changing in China.”
Farrell’s project is ongoing. She met four new subjects in China last year – most of whom were in their 90s.
Her next visit to see them is in April. This time, she’ll be accompanying two of her subjects on their first ever trip to the Great Wall.