Deforming the Female Body

Published on: Author: thehunterianblog Leave a comment

A student post by Matilda Eriksson, Belén Hernáez Martín, Miyuki Sakai and Charlotte Swindell, History of Art postgraduate students at the University of Glasgow.

History of Art postgraduate students at the University of Glasgow have the opportunity to work with The Hunterian to develop proposals for the Object in Focus exhibition space in the Hunterian Museum. These proposals are prepared as part of the PGT course Object Biographies led by Dr Minna Törmä. In this post, students Matilda Eriksson, Belén Hernáez Martín, Miyuki Sakai and Charlotte Swindell write about their proposal.

Our proposal for the Object in Focus exhibition was given the working title Deforming the Female Body, andaimed to look at how different objects throughout history have been used to contort, impair, or deform the female body. The idea was to focus on objects that worked to alter the female body physically while also highlighting connections to cultural or societal pressures and standards that women had to navigate historically and today. The proposal was based on the ambition to explore multiple historical and contemporary aspects, such as cultural significance, political connections, and societal zeitgeist, in order to bring the different facets connected to the objects to life.

This concept originated from the idea and aspiration to activate chosen objects by connecting them to contemporary and relevant topics. The original theme was based upon several pairs of shoes for bound feet from The Hunterian’s Asian collection and the book Cinderella’s sisters: a revisionist history of footbinding, by Dorothy Y Ko. We then began to explore additional physical and digital objects of bodily distortion, from other parts of the world and different cultures.

One of the most well-known examples were the Kayan women, in Thailand, who wear brass coils around their necks in order to elongate it. The aspirational long neck as a beauty signifier also appears in other cultures to a lesser extent, like the Ndebele or the Masai, in East and South Africa. Equally restricting was corsetry during the 19th century in many western countries: compressing the abdominal organs could cause poor digestion and, over time, the back muscles could atrophy.

Deforming the female body can be found in different cultures, places, and periods, and it was not considered a ‘barbaric’ practice, but quite the opposite. And this is something that even continues to the present day. For example, can we compare the use of shoes for bound feet, in a way, with high heels? In Japan, dress codes require women to use this footwear in their workplace, which is being fought by the #KuToo movement. The hashtag plays on the words shoes kutsu and pain kutsuu, while also referencing the #MeToo movement. Other similarities can be drawn between the use of corsets and waist-cinching. These items of clothing, along with filters that distort one’s facial features and the wide-spread use of plastic surgery, continue to create unobtainable body images which multiply through use of social media.

Fashion will sometimes harm the human body, working to emphasise a person’s beauty by making an artificial body line. These foot-binding shoes (pictured below) from The Hunterian collection, donated by the Queen Margaret College in 1935, are called jin lian, or ‘golden lotus’ shoes. They distinguished women of Han ethnicity in imperial China, and were essential signifiers of female beauty, Confucian modesty, and social status. They were beautifully decorated with embroidery and used bright colours, but were also extremely small. It can only be imagined how much pain the woman would experience by the manipulation of her feet.

This second pair of shoes for bound feet, transferred from The Andersonian Museum in 1889, were meant to be used by a child, in order to begin the binding process from an early age. This process would normally start from around the age of three and would be adjusted gradually smaller until twelve years old.

During the 1890s in the United Kingdom, it was fashionable to have a full bosom and hips, contrasted by a small waist.

The neck rings (pictured above) held by Hunterian museum are from Kenya, East Africa, and were originally worn by the Maasai women, along with bangles, heavy earrings, and other jewellery. These rings offered information about the woman wearing them: her marital status, number and age of her children, and social status. They were donated by Professor William B. Stevenson in 1936. Although they can cause muscle atrophy, their impact on the female body is not even close to that of the coils worn by the Kayan women. We can find examples of the latter in the Pitt Rivers Museum for example. They are worn from a very young age and serve different purposes, being considered a trait of beauty. They do not elongate the woman’s neck but instead deform her jaw and collarbone.

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London has an example of a rib cage from the late 19th century, showing damage caused to the bones of the thorax of an elderly woman, by the tight lacing of her corset over her lifetime.

Corsetry is still popular today despite the negative connotations of the past, as it can be worn quite safely as long as the lacing is not too tight.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an example of a corset from the same period. When laced as tight as it will go the waist measures just under 19 inches. For comparison, the average UK waist size today is around 36 inches.

Here are some examples of objects belonging to other museums:

Victoria and Albert Museum, Lotus shoes. Accessed May 14, 2021.
Textile Research Centre Leiden, Lotus shoes. Accessed May 14, 2021.
Science Museum Group, Lotus shoes. Accessed May 14, 2021.
Pitt Rivers Museum, Brass Neck-Rings. Accessed May 14, 2021.
The Hunterian Museum [Royal College of Surgeons of England], Ribcage deformed by tight-lacing. Accessed May 14, 2021.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Corset c.1890. Accessed May 14, 2021.
Eleri Lynn, author of the V&A book ‘Underwear: Fashion in Detail‘, tells the story of shape-wear. Accessed May 14, 2021.

If you are interested in this subject, here you have a short bibliography that discusses some of the issues mentioned:

Banks, Libby. ‘Is it the end for high heels?‘. BBC, 15 May, 2019. Accessed May 14, 2021.
Ko, Dorothy. Cinderella’s sisters: a revisionist history of footbinding. Berkley: University of California Press, 2005.
Liu, Lydia H., Karl, Rebecca E. & Ko, Dorothy eds. The birth of Chinese feminism: essential texts in transnational theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to please: a history of the Victorian corset. Oxford: Berg, 2001.
Theurer, Jessica. ‘Trapped in Their Own Rings: Padaung Women and Their Fight for Traditional Freedom‘. International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies December, Vol. 2, No. 4, (2014): 51-67. “Thousands back Japan high heels campaign”. BBC, June 3, 2019. Accessed May 14, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.