What proverbs about women's feet (and bodies) around the world teach us about gender norms (2023)

A Maori recommendation to the mother is this: "Massage your daughter's legs so that she looks good when she stands on the beach in front of the fire." Maori girls, it is said, used to dove for lobster and then dried themselves in front of it Fire off before they get dressed, a good chance to proudly show off her beautiful legs to interested suitors.

As with shoulders and arms, there are very few sayings about knees, and again, they seem to have little in common.

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A Dutch proverb is jokingly about two perspectives on a woman's knees: "Cover them, cover them," said the man to his wife. "Why should I, I didn't steal them," she said, sitting down with her skirt over her knees.

The jealous husband wants to protect his wife's knees from the anxious gaze of other men, while the wife claims she has nothing to hide. When the odds are against you, a popular Yoruba proverb advises, proving your innocence can take more time and energy than accepting guilt: "A woman who admits guilt will spend no time on her knees."

A saying about the knees is quoted in connection with the work: "Quiet does not hit the knees." A hardworking woman criticizes a lazy one: In Berber culture, women mostly work on their knees when busy washing, cleaning and even kneading dough.

After all, feet are associated with old or young, beautiful or ugly women. To express that no conclusions are warranted before the end, or to admonish those who lack perseverance, some African proverbs use the image of old women's feet to critically comment on those who are full of enthusiasm at the beginning, but whose activities are not soon fizzled out. The Rundi say, for example: "The steps of the old women begin firmly, but they do not stop". A woman who pretends that age doesn't matter but can't really control herself is mocked in a Frisian joke: "Skating makes you thirsty," said the old woman, and she had one foot on the ice. "

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There are some strange beliefs about feet, such as the idea that sweeping a broom over a woman's feet brings bad luck: "He who has swept feet will marry an old man" is a Cuban belief, while the Quecha Indians in Ecuador advise against changing. of the feet for women who wish to conceive: “Do not tie your feet; you will not [be able to] give birth.”

One might wonder if those who bind their feet could practice it as a contraceptive method. And how was such a connection between bound feet and infertility discovered? Why should Quecha women be tied at all? Was it for beauty, like in China? These questions must be answered by Quecha experts.

A small woman usually has small feet; Small women and small feet seem more attractive. In ancient China, many women's feet were tied from head to toe to make them more seductive. Larger female feet are not only understood literally as a sexual turnoff, but in proverbs often stand for something else. Figuratively speaking, the small feet of women in marriage indicate "the right measure". In general, women who appear vulnerable seem to have more sex appeal for men than strong-looking women, as female vulnerability validates established gender hierarchies. The "right measure" depicted in proverbs corresponds to a relationship at eye level. The Sena, who live in Malawi and Mozambique, warn of the danger of large women's feet in a proverb with several variants:

"Never marry a woman whose feet are bigger than yours.
Don't marry the one with big feet, for she is your mate.
Find someone with short feet because someone with long feet is your partner.”

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Undoubtedly, such a relationship would complicate the husband's life and should therefore be avoided. The Sena explanation as "Bantu Wisdom" is that "man is superior to woman"; Therefore, when looking for a woman, he must choose one over whom he can exercise his authority. I quoted the Sena proverb, which inspired the title of this book, in a recent discussion in Beijing with two proverb researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. A colleague smiled and said that there was a similar saying in Chinese: "A woman with long feet ends up alone in her room." Landing alone in a room is considered the destiny of a talented woman as she cannot find a husband. In Chinese culture, long feet on women are not only figuratively derogatory; In the past, the feet were also physically shortened for beautification purposes.

There are many other references linking size of feet (and shoes) to competence, for example in India there is a Telugu saying in which older women warn younger women not to develop their feet in spectacular ways: " If a girl develops long feet, she will have problems after marriage".

And the Hebrew expression "I don't want shoes bigger than my feet" means: I don't want to marry a woman of a higher class than mine. Larger feet not only metaphorically relate to your belonging to a higher social class, but also to other issues that threaten the status quo. Men's apparent dislike of women with larger feet reflects a deep-seated fear of losing control. Given that women generally have shorter feet than men, proverbs use the image as a powerful metaphor for how things should be settled in gender relations. The fact that women make a difference despite all the messages that want to prevent this is also expressed in a European proverb: “A woman leaves footprints without touching her feet” (Portuguese and German).

A woman's feet and particularly her heels are a standard of beauty in some cultures, for example among the Oromo Ethiopians "A girl's beauty can be recognized by her heels", which refers to a woman's perfect heels and beauty. It is associated with the tradition of veiling the face. In this context, looking at a woman's bare feet is the only way to tell if she is old or young. As my Kenyan friend Zera, who was born in Mombasa on the Islamized Swahili coast, told me: Before she got married, her mother wanted her to wear a veil because that is what a virtuous woman should do. However, covering and wearing the veil did not protect her from being pinched from behind by men. "But how," I asked them, "did they know you weren't an old woman? Or did they just take that risk?” Her response was that men judge their age by their feet, so they always look at their feet first before deciding if they're worth pinching.

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This commentary may help explain the meaning of some North African proverbs relating covering the face and the beauty of the feet: "A woman with beautiful feet need not cover her face" is a Maghreb example arguing that if If they find their feet beautiful, the men know immediately that their face will be beautiful too. This is really a matter of reflection in another proverb applied to a woman who, in order to appear more attractive, has her feet embellished with henna according to Arabic tradition.

However, according to the harsh criticism, this effort is completely useless: "Cover your feet, you stupid girl, there is no beauty but the one you were born with".

Climate may play a role in proverbs about barefoot: I've only found evidence of barefoot in the Maghreb and Ethiopia, where women's feet may be the only part of the body that is not hidden. A woman's bare feet, possibly clad in slippers or sandals, obviously attract more male attention than in colder places, where these body parts are usually hidden in socks and shoes.

The next part of my friend Zera's story is also revealing. After becoming a nurse and working in a hospital, she was forced to wear a uniform without a veil, much to the dismay of her mother, who feared her daughter's "honor" was now at stake. However, according to Zera, things turned out very differently: "Once I started wearing my uniform, I was never pinched against my will!" Across different times and cultural contexts, modesty has been associated with a variety of parts of the female body, from hair to the breasts, from the buttocks to the feet. Changing erogenous zones have been linked to changing norms of modesty, with one part of the body seen as more (or less) provocative than other parts. Thus, in proverbs (at least in parts of) orthodox Islamic culture, men seem to have no problem with bare female feet, but with bare female faces, whereas in ancient China and the western Victorian period, for example, it was immodest towards women showing their feet . Most of the patterns underlying such practices were projected onto the female body as a control measure.

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What proverbs about women's feet (and bodies) around the world teach us about gender norms (1)

Excerpt courtesy ofNever Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs Around the World, Mineke Schipper, Falando-Tiger.

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