From foot binding to natural childbirth; teaching women their value resides in their pain

Lady in her garden, from Chinese ornaments 1883

The history of foot binding is a history of women’s pain.

According to Amanda Foreman, writing for Smithsonian Magazine:

A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, represented the height of female refinement. For families with marriageable daughters, foot size translated into its own form of currency and a means of achieving upward mobility. The most desirable bride possessed a three-inch foot, known as a “golden lotus.” It was respectable to have four-inch feet—a silver lotus—but feet five inches or longer were dismissed as iron lotuses. The marriage prospects for such a girl were dim indeed.

Descriptions of the practice make for chilling reading.

Elite women in industrialized countries no longer believe that their value lie in the pain of foot binding. Instead they believe that their value lies in the pain of childbirth.

Beginning when a girl was between 5 and 6 years old:

…[T]he feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring ten feet long and two inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every two days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot. Sometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. The girls were forced to walk long distances in order to hasten the breaking of their arches. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together…

Despite the appalling pain, millions of Chinese women perpetuated the tradition for a thousand years. They believed a woman’s worth was in the pain she was willing to endure to achieve tiny feet. Or to put a modern spin on in, Chinese women were “empowered” by foot binding. Using today’s language, they might have claimed that the choice of foot binding, undertaken solely at the discretion of and under the control of women, was a feminist choice.

Consider the story of Wang Lifen.

Footbinding was first banned in 1912, but some continued binding their feet in secret…

Wang Lifen was just 7 years old when her mother started binding her feet: breaking her toes and binding them underneath the sole of the foot with bandages. After her mother died, Wang carried on, breaking the arch of her own foot to force her toes and heel ever closer…

“Because I bound my own feet, I could manipulate them more gently until the bones were broken. Young bones are soft, and break more easily,” she says.

At that time, bound feet were a status symbol, the only way for a woman to marry into money.

But we know better, right? We understand that the practice of foot binding was a way to subjugate women, forcing them to endure excruciating pain in the short term and appalling disability for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, elite women in industrialized countries no longer believe that their value resides in the pain of foot binding. Instead they believe that their value resides in the pain of childbirth. Indeed, they claim to be “empowered” by the pain and some even insist that the choice to endure excruciating pain in labor is a feminist choice.

I imagine that any natural childbirth advocates who have read this far are incensed by the comparison, but what’s the difference?

The philosophy of natural childbirth, promulgated by obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read in the 1930s, was expressly created to subjugate women. He was trying to convince middle and upper class women that childbirth pain is in their minds, thereby encouraging them to have more children. Read’s central claim was that “primitive” women do not have pain in childbirth. In contrast, women of the upper classes were “overcivilized” and had been socialized to believe that childbirth is painful.

He famously said:

The mother is the factory, and by education and care she can be made more efficient in the art of motherhood.

Grantly Dick-Read’s theory of natural childbirth grew out of his belief in eugenics. He was concerned that “inferior” people were having more children than their “betters” portending “race suicide” of the white middle and upper classes. Read believed that women’s emancipation led them away from the natural profession of motherhood toward totally unsuitable activities. Since their fear of pain in childbirth might also be discouraging them, so they must be taught that the pain was due to their false cultural beliefs. In this way, women could be educated to have more children.

According to Read:

Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfil her biological purposes.

Dick-Read would be delighted that his philosophy — women are meant to suffer and are improved by suffering — has been embraced as empowering and a feminist choice.

But wait! Unmedicated childbirth is natural while foot binding is unnatural. That may be true, but the meaning ascribed to each is entirely cultural. There are many different types of natural pain that we do not consider empowering and many types of unnatural pain (think marathons and mountain climbing) that elicit admiration. The insistence that the pain of childbirth is empowering and the decision to refuse pain relief or standard medical care is a feminist choice are cultural beliefs.

But wait! Anything that woman chooses deliberately must be a feminist choice, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately women are often the most enthusiastic enforcers of patriarchal values. Consider female genital mutilation. It is a practice designed by men, for men, to preserve men’s privileges, but it is performed exclusively by older women on female children in order to make their bodies “respectable” for men.

But wait! Foot binding left women with permanent disabilities while natural childbirth does not. Really? The disabilities caused naturally by childbirth — incontinence, prolapse, sexual dysfunction — are less visible than the tottering walk of women whose feet were bound, but every bit as life limiting if not more so.

The bottom line is that foot binding, female genital mutilation and natural childbirth are forms of social currency. Within the societies that promote them, bound feet were considered “beautiful,” mutilated female genitals are considered “clean” and unmedicated vaginal birth is touted as empowering. That doesn’t change the fact that all reflect the belief that a woman’s value resides in her suffering.

Just as there is nothing feminist or empowering about foot binding or genital mutilation, there is nothing feminist or empowering about unmedicated vaginal birth — regardless of how many women insist there is, promote it or choose it for themselves.

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  • rational thinker

    I always thought it was reddiculous how some women compete over who had a more painful birth or bigger baby. Do they have no other accomplishments or talents in their life to be proud of ? I had a friend once that told me she wished she had a birth story like mine (so she could brag about it). I was disgusted to hear her say that. I told her my birth story is not something to brag about there is nothing about fourth degree tears from a baby being too large to brag about, and I dont think anyone would brag about suffering incontinence and hating sex cause it is too uncomfortable. If anything I use my birth story to warn other women about the dangers of a late baby (2 weeks) being too big for a vaginal birth and suffering injuries caused by it.

  • Who?

    Breastfeeding promotion is really just woo by another name.

    It’s nacheral (normal, even) but you need all our things to bring it to the peak of success.

    Not having success? You must have used our things wrong. Or have missed telling us about some critical piece of information we didn’t ask about. Or done something else along the way that caused it to fail. Here, have more things, which if you use them properly, will be the very thing you need.

    It’s ridiculous how formulaic (pardon the pun) it is.

  • alongpursuit

    I was never able to even come close to exclusively breastfeeding my first baby. I don’t think my milk ever came in.

    No one could really pinpoint where things went wrong (and several LCs I saw blamed me for “mismanaging” it – which was like a dagger in my heart because I tried *so* hard).

    Some of the LCs claimed that the epidural I had probably set the breastfeeding off to a bad start (which I interpret as them saying I wasn’t “woman enough” to bear the pain to give my baby the best chances at breastfeeding). Even Jack Newman states “Researchers looking at epidural anesthesia’s effect on the baby’s breastfeeding skills clearly showed that medication during birth did negatively affect a baby’s ability to suckle normally during the first 12 hours and that combining medications increased the effect” (https://www.dropbox.com/s/07eqb96iruicrs1/1-Starting%20out%20right.pdf?dl=0). He’s of the opinion that medications should be minimized.

    I was also given IV fluids during labour because my water broke before labour and I was induced soon after. Newman doesn’t approve of this either, stating “We also know that when mothers are given intravenous fluids
    during labor (as they are, for example, when an epidural is given), they may
    experience edema of the breast tissue (and particularly the areola) which
    can interact with the fullness caused by the milk increasing in quantity.”

    I don’t know what to make of all this. The pain was severe and unbearable, so I asked for an epidural. I had to be induced (and given IV fluids) because my water broke – should I have insisted against this? It seems like people think that breastfeeding can’t just fail for no reason – that it must be something the mother did to “mismanage” it.

    • fiftyfifty1

      Yeah it’s total bullshit. Multiple well designed studies prove that epidurals don’t affect the baby’s ability to suck. (Old poorly designed studies may show a correlation because at one time epidurals were rare and given only for the most prolonged, dysfunctional labors. Normal labors did not receive them. Can you guess which baby would have a harder time feeding, one after a normal labor or one after an extreme prolonged labor?) Likewise with this IV fluids bullshit. If you have normal kidneys, an IV will not make you (or your fetus) get edema. Does drinking a liter of fluid make your breasts puffy? No? Then neither will a liter of IV. And seriously, make your BREASTS puffy? Huh?! Let’s say somehow a person DOES have abnormal kidneys and develops edema. This edema accumulates according to gravity. So if you are sitting or standing, it goes to your feet and ankles, or if you are bed bound it goes into your butt and the back of your legs and thighs. How the hell would it end up in your areolas?

      • alongpursuit

        Thanks for your comments! It just goes to show that this push for breastfeeding (and mother blaming) is not based in science. I just wish this misogynistic BS would go away, but I’m not holding my breath.

        • Casual Verbosity

          If you would like support (both emotional and practical) without the breast-is-best BS, the Fed Is Best Foundation have a private infant-feeding support group on Facebook. You have access to help and advice from IBCLCs who embrace a fed-is-best philosophy, as well as other mothers who have experienced feeding difficulties. They support all feeding methods that are safe for both mother and baby. They have a screening process to ensure they keep the group free of lactivism. If you can’t find them on Facebook you can pop me a message and I’ll send you a link. Even if you’re not interested in the group, the Fed Is Best Foundation have a wealth of helpful, evidence-based information on infant feeding on their website.

          • alongpursuit

            Yes – Fed is Best is so refreshing in their objectivity. I have a therapist too who is helping me work through this.

    • Heidi

      I don’t know why people think breast feeding can’t fail just because. I’m pretty sure it failed before safe, nutritionally complete alternatives came about. Baby might have managed to survive on homemade concoctions, another nursing mom may have fed the baby or the baby died, and maybe next time breastfeeding worked out or the baby otherwise survived. It’s not like evolution needs perfection. So many people die in the process. And now that we have formula and clean water, if course that trait isn’t so important in many parts of the world. My mother was formula fed, I was formula fed, and I tried to breastfeed and couldn’t make enough to exclusively breast feed but for generations in my family there’s been no absolute need to breastfeed. Oh well! After having a healthy pregnancy free of toxemia and going fullterm with no hemorrhaging, I’m fine with it. One grandmother lost two babies to toxemia, the other had to have an emergency hysterectomy, and my mother lost two babies to an incompetent cervix.

      • Sarah

        Yes but before formula it only failed because of witchcraft.

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      Everything in your body can “fail” for no reason. Some people don’t go into labor at all and have to be induced, some people have pancreases that fail to produce insulin starting when they are children, some people have heart muscle that doesn’t work right, Why should breasts and breastmilk be any different?

      And I have to ask: who is Jack Newman? What are his credentials?
      Does he not realize that the amount of epidural anesthesia that gets to the baby is extremely minute? Also from his description of edema he sounds like his knowledge of medicine is nonexistent…that is not how edema works…

      https://www.asahq.org/about-asa/newsroom/news-releases/2014/06/epidural-myth

      • alongpursuit

        Dr. Jack Newman is a Canadian pediatrician who runs a breastfeeding clinic in Toronto (https://ibconline.ca/). He’s published books about breastfeeding too. I was given photocopies from his book at the hospital where I had my baby. I’ve read basically everything on his website over the last year and a half trying to figure out where things went wrong. I’m finding if I dig deep enough into the breastfeeding literature I come to a point where unless it’s IGT or breast surgery, it must be the mom’s fault for mismanaging the feedings/latching. I’m expecting again this summer and trying my best to be more prepared this time for breastfeeding, but when I find resources (books, LCs, websites) it’s just been so upsetting to engage with them. No one seems to want to admit that it might not work for no reason in particular. Everyone seems to have a “hot tip” for me. I’m dreading going out in public with baby formula again – the comments and looks I got last time were just awful.

        • Sassafras

          Crap like this is why I don’t have a child because I would end up with an assault charge for slapping breast nazis who touch me or spew insults!

          • StephanieJR

            I would love to be hired to come to your hospital room after the birth with the sole purpose of slapping any LC or any other asshole that’s starting shit. You don’t even need to pay me; some chocolate and job satisfaction is all I need.

          • alongpursuit

            Haha! That would be amazing. 🙂

          • Sassafras

            Thank you! I would legit tell an LC that I work the pharmaceutical industry, and would trust a product that has gone through rigorous testing, frequent quality checks, and has nutrients accurately measured. I think the crunchy crowd would classify me as a “BIG PHARMA SHILL”!

        • fiftyfifty1

          Jack Newman has staked his career on breastfeeding promotion. He is far from an unbiased source! You can study the info in his website and book 10x over but that’s not going to magically make it turn it true.

          Here’s the bottom line: You were betrayed by so-called experts who can’t be trusted. Their lies ruined your first postpartum experience. Now you have to decide what to do. Are you going to follow these so-called experts down another rabbit hole, or are you going to fight back? It’s not easy to fight back especially because our society in general has latched onto their false claims. Our own brains can latch onto their false claims in an almost OCD way! Don’t let this happen. Find a supportive community (us online, but also in real life if you can.) Also find a supportive therapist.

        • fiftyfifty1

          “if I dig deep enough into the breastfeeding literature I come to a point where unless it’s IGT or breast surgery, it must be the mom’s fault for mismanaging the feedings/latching”

          Yeah, well that’s why the breastfeeding literature is a piece of shit. IGT or breast surgery the only physical causes of low supply otherwise it’s due to mismanagement? Hell no. This is why it’s a joy to have animal experts like Mel (dairy farmer) and also veterinarians posting on this site. They can tell you that lactation sometimes just doesn’t work. This is in heifers with normal udders, who have never had “boob job” surgery, who are owned by excellent farmers who do everything right. Lactation. sometimes. just. doesn’t. work. Anyone who says otherwise has an axe to grind.

          • kilda

            nah, those cows just didn’t get enough support.

          • mabelcruet

            Those cows should have got themselves a doula for support. A moo-la.

          • Who?

            lol

          • MaineJen

            OMG

            We can all go home. Mabelcruet has won the internet for today.

        • AnnaPDE

          What fiftyfifty said: Finding a supportive community is so helpful. Do you know Fed is Best’s support group (not just the page one can follow) on Facebook? I found it extremely helpful to be able to ask questions when something isn’t quite working, and receive actually competent advice, along with a perspective check and genuine support, and feel taken seriously, instead of the usual “keep boobing, low supply is only in your head, now but my overpriced cookies” mantra.

        • MaineJen

          Eff that. If I were you? I’d shut out all the “advice.” Seriously. You don’t need to do more than see how you’re feeling after the birth, try breastfeeding again if you want to, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If that baby is getting fed, you’re doing it right. It doesn’t matter if the food is coming from you or from a bottle.

          Side note: I just can’t believe that anyone has the gall to attack a mom for giving her baby a bottle. Just…WHY? Why would you do that?

          • momofone

            This. No one is entitled to an explanation. You’re the parent, and you’ve made the decision. This is what you’re doing because you said so. 🙂

          • Sarah

            Because they’re a dickpiece.

        • AnnaPDE

          In the classic sleep-deprived, desperate-to-breastfeed state that we all know, his site content can look very similar to actual advice.
          Outside of that ditch, it’s assholery with very shonky claims about how bodies supposedly work. Ignore him please, it is better for both you and your baby.

        • Heidi

          I went through a similar situation but with the La Leche League website instead. I didn’t even believe that all women could breastfeed or that formula was subpar/toxic or that breast milk was a magical elixir yet I still found myself falling down the rabbithole. I wasted money on several different size pump parts, fenugreek, mother’s tea, brewer’s yeast (oh it’s horrifyingly disgusting) and I tried insane pump routines. I tried putting a baby who preferred actually getting food rather than expending his energy sucking for almost no food to the breast, believing just maybe his saliva would make my boobs work. I didn’t actually believe it would work but I did it anyway. Then I got mad when he wouldn’t feed. Then I felt both guilty for getting mad but also for not breastfeeding. I just kept reading it’s so rare not to make enough, you have to have IGT or PCOS, etc. not to produce enough. And then I’d be here to feel supported and sane, only to have to read gaslighting assholes like Nikki Lee (an anti-vax, pseudoscience-loving lactation nurse who used to frequent here, I believe hoping to get publicity to shill her shitty books and baby twisting services to desperate white women with disposable income). I hope you can, like me, eventually emerge out of the situation okay. I did. No one starved. I wasted some time and money, but thankfully I had this to keep me from really getting hurt or accidentally harming my baby.

          • alongpursuit

            Thanks for sharing your story. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone, but also sad we were put through all that crap. Why would we need men to oppress women when some women are very happy to oppress women? I’m very grateful I have this site to empower me with Dr. Amy’s articles and the supportive community leaving comments. I wish I could host a crazy dinner party for all of us!

        • Sarah

          Would you like us to help you prepare some suitable responses?

          • alongpursuit

            I’d love to hear your ideas! Here are some responses I thought of. Top of the list responses are for mean people; bottom for nice people who are just ignorant.

            – “F@*& off”
            – Loud sigh + eye roll
            – “Mind your business.”
            – “Please leave us alone. You’re being rude.”
            – “No one asked your opinion/ advice.”
            – “Everything is under control; your involvement isn’t needed.”
            – “I know you mean well, but your comments are NOT helpful.”
            – “You don’t know what we’ve been through and I’m not interested in explaining. I don’t want to talk about this with you.”

          • Sarah

            To that, I would also add:

            – I’m a sex addict and I can’t face the reduction in libido
            – I felt it was more important to return to my ketamine habit
            – Why are you so interested in my baby, you fucking weirdo?
            – I decided to use all my breastmilk to start a thriving eye ointment business for fuckwits instead
            – I’m a boob double for (insert famous Hollywood actress here) and need to get back to work
            – It isn’t formula, it’s a White Russian

      • Sassafras

        On my mom’s side of the family our immune systems are so “great” that petting a cat can cause anaphylaxis! Then my dad’s side has eyes that declare mutiny, and make seeing difficult.

        • KQ Not Signed In

          “Your heart is a complete idiot. I smart heart is like this: ‘Ba-boom. Ba-Boom.’ Your heart is all like, ‘uhhh! euhhh! uuhh!’ Stupid. Heart.

          And your liver’s a slut.”

          -Dan Cummins

      • mabelcruet

        Given his age (70+), I suspect he qualified in the late 60s/early 70s. Back then, epidurals were far less common and usually done in labours that were complex and problematic. It certainly wasn’t done as routinely as it is these days. The technique has changed and improved hugely over time, but I think its likely he’s got it fixed in his brain still stuck as the less reliable and more risky 1960s version and he hasn’t bothered looking at the newer standards.

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3417963/

    • Julia Childress

      Doctors are scientists. They believe in science. I have known many doctors over the years who simply cannot accept the fact that bodily systems don’t always function perfectly. If it doesn’t work, you, the patient must be doing something wrong. Anecdotal, I know, but I had three epidurals, and three babies who had absolutely no problem latching or feeding. It’s a shame that you had this experience and it’s made worse by the fact that you’re still doubting yourself. You have done nothing wrong, and I hope you can make peace with it.

      • Sue

        Surely doctors are perfectly positioned to understand that “bodily systems don’t always function perfectly” – that’s the whole point of our work. I suspect this attitude is much more common in lactation professionals than medical practitioners.

        Those of us who understand physiology and intravenous fluids also understand that pregnancy itself involves a large expansion of intravenous fluid volume, which is gradually excreted post-partum, without apparently causing impairment to nipple function.

      • mabelcruet

        The whole point of the medical profession is to deal with body parts, tissues and organ systems that malfunction. It’s our only purpose-we absolutely know that the human body doesn’t function perfectly in all people at all times. If body systems worked perfectly, there would be no need for doctors, so I don’t understand your comment that ‘many doctors’ don’t accept that the body doesn’t always function-it makes no sense because if we believed that, we wouldn’t be doctors. Lactation consultants and homebirth midwives, on the other hand, seem to think we are perfectly designed and if something goes wrong, it’s someone’s fault. I’m a pathologist-every day I get specimens in the lab that have been removed by surgeons because something malfunctioned-sometimes it’s a relatively simple problem, like an appendix that got inflamed, sometimes it’s more complex, like a tumour. I carry out autopsies on babies who are miscarried or stillborn. Believe me, doctors know very well that the human body fails regularly.

    • Mel

      Yeah…if epidurals and IV fluids during labor doomed breast milk production, I should never have had any production.

      I was on IV fluids for 28 hours prior to a C-section delivery which included an epidural and 24 hours postpartum to control high blood pressure. I was genuinely puffy after the C-section with swelling in my face, hands, legs and toes – but some of that was certainly due to severe pre-e. I don’t remember my breasts being unduly puffy – but I was also only 26 weeks pregnant and only had mild feelings of engorgement that were due as much to my breasts having no idea how to discharge milk. (I don’t blame my breasts; they were very new at this job, too.)

      In spite of having missed my entire third trimester worth of breast development, IV fluids for 52 hours and a stronger epidural, I ended up producing breast milk. Not a ton. Not enough to feed a newborn – but I produced enough to feed a micro preemie.

      Which means I’m the second generation to give birth to a viable-but-not-out-of -the-woods-by-a-long-shot preemie and produce some breast milk…just like my mom did 30-odd years ago with my twin and I.

      Honestly, breast milk production is one part genetics and one part luck. Anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding themselves.

      The good news is that breast milk production isn’t a critical skill to being a mother. My toddler could care less how I fed him as an infant as long as I keep the food coming now.

      • demodocus

        All the goldfish and raisins, Mommy!

        At least in my house, lol

    • rational thinker

      “It seems like people think that breastfeeding can’t just fail for no
      reason – that it must be something the mother did to “mismanage” it.”-

      Or the baby has a “tie” and its the baby’s fault. It could never be that maybe the advice they gave mom was shit. They love to reference nature in their arguments regularly, but think that the natural failure rate in nature does not also apply to breastfeeding. Also there is nothing”natural” about a breast pump, the one they tell new moms to use every 2 hours.

    • MaineJen

      My birth went exactly the way yours did…my water broke, labor didn’t start, I was induced, got IV fluids and an epidural. And guess what? Breastfeeding went fine. Great, even. My kid ate so much, his little legs were too fat to fit into the Bumbo seat. (Remember those?)

      So my story is a direct contradiction to the idea that epidurals and IV fluids interfere with breastfeeding. There is *very little we can do or not do* to affect how breastfeeding is going to go. It’s genetics, luck, phase of the moon…in the end, it doesn’t matter! It really doesn’t. If your child is fed, they will grow and thrive. If your child is fed, you’re doing a good job. 🙂

    • Sarah

      It isn’t the epidural that stopped your milk from coming in because there’s no evidence that can even happen.

      When I had a crash section with one of mine, I had a spinal and my milk still came in. I had loads. Didn’t use it because I didn’t want to, but if being anaesthetised during birth means no milk, someone forgot to tell my tits.

    • demodocus

      Yeah, Newman confused me too. Some stuff he’s correct enough about, but sometimes it sounds like he still thinks its the 60s when women were actively discouraged from breastfeeding. Mostly, he seems to be confusing anecdotes with science. I hope it’s blindness on his part, ’cause the alternative is damning.

      Anyway, my anecdote is that ivs have never caused my boobs to swell, Hell, my boobs grew to monstrous proportions before I started showing pre-e symptoms. The pre-e didn’t seem to affect them at all and that -does- cause swelling and bloating in various places.