Pajiba Dirty Talk: A Fascination with Feet
One thing that has always struck me as strange about the fairy tale "Cinderella," is its almost fetishistic focus on her feet. Not only are they so small that no other woman could possibly fit her foot into Cinderella's shoe, but of all the garments she wears to the ball, it is that shoe that is the focus -- particularly in Perrault's version, with it's slipper made of glass (the better to display those tiny feet while also most likely restricting her movements because of its delicate nature, two common themes of foot fetishism). I've been thinking about this lately because of the claim that foot fetishism derives from an evolutionary desire for a woman with high estrogen levels (and therefore small feet). This evolutionary psychology interpretation of foot fetishism, like so many evo psych claims, is blatant in its disregard for both the nuances of human desires and the path of history.
First of all, "foot fetish," is really a blanket term for a wide range of behaviors and desires, all of which have different motivations behind them. For some foot fetishists, their interest lies in the erotic potential of the foot as a sensory organ. The nerves on the bottom of the feet are some of the densest in the human body, making them an ideal location for sexual stimulation for many. On the other hand, feet are seen in many cultures as dirty as disgusting, and there will always be people who's need for debasement causes them to react to such perceptions with desire. Foot fetishes can also be an aspect of dominance and submission. In our culture and many others, to kiss someone's feet is to make clear that you are completely subservient to them. Paying particular attention to one's partner's feet, therefore, can be a sign of extreme submissiveness. For others still, it is about the visual shape of the feet, particularly when they are encased in high heels. Heels can serve both as restraints on the foot (and entire movement of a person, depending on how high they are) but also as weapons (see the popularity of stomping videos). These desires are all complicated and individual and saying that each and every one of them simply boils down to an innate bias towards more fertile women (and what about men's feet?) is ridiculous.
Nor does the history of the fetish imply any relation to this evo psych interpretation. There have been various times and places in history where foot fetishism was common and openly acknowledged. There are written references to it from the 12th century in Europe, and it appears to have been popular in the 16th and 19th centuries as well. There is some speculation that these spikes in foot fetishism were in response to outbreaks of STIs (particularly gonorrhea and syphilis), since there's little chance of getting a sexually transmitted disease from someone's feet. These episodes, however, also occurred during periods where women had relatively more freedom, and therefore the rise of the fetish might have to do with shifts in the sexual dynamic between men to women.
Anyway, this is a decidedly western view of foot fetishism. The Cinderella story is as old as time, but the earliest written version, the one that first makes particular mention of the delicate size of the heroine's feet, comes not from Europe but from 9th century China. Small feet were already a sign of beauty in China at this time, but in another hundred years, the national fascination with them would take a disturbing turn. Beginning in the 900s, the aristocracy of China would bind the feet of young girls in order to make them more physically appealing and to restrict their freedom to move. The practice gradually extended to the lower classes and was common well into the 20th century. Sometime between the ages of 3 and 11 girls feet were washed in a bath of warm water and then their four smallest toes were broken and folded back under the ball of the foot. In some cases the arch of the foot was also broken in order to make it possible for the foot to be compressed even more, and then it was tightly bound. The bindings were regularly changed and each time the new bandages were wound more tightly, to prevent proper healing and force the foot to grow into the "lotus" shape. The ultimate goal was a golden lotus, a foot measuring only 3 inches long. This practice, not surprisingly, caused girls a great deal of pain and made walking difficult, yet it was considered to be necessary if they were to attract a husband. And while the initial rationale behind foot binding may have had as much to do with controlling women's behavior as it did physical beauty, bound feet came to be seen as highly erotic. Many Chinese writings from this time express an erotic obsession with bound feet and there are pornographic paintings from the same period that depict sexual acts focusing on the feet.
Small feet may be a sign of high estrogen production, but nobody would look at the results of foot binding and assume that such feet belonged to a healthy, fertile, woman. The more natural reaction, really, is horror. And yet for over a century they were the height of beauty and eroticism for an entire culture. The example of foot binding demonstrates rather powerfully that what we see as sexually desirable as highly dependent on cultural pressures as it is on evolutionary ones. There may be some evolutionary wiring buried deep in the complex forces that lead some people to be sexually attracted to feet, but it's reductive in the extreme to say that evolution explains foot fetishism. What leads any given person to a fascination with feet will be highly individual. You can't draw conclusions about an entire species based on the sexual habits of one segment of the population or even an entire population at one moment in time. Human sexuality is much too fluid and diverse for such interpretations.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.