Unrealistic beauty standards aren’t exclusive to modern society, or to western culture. Documentary photographer and cultural anthropologist Jo Farrell captures one of the oldest barbaric “beauty” rituals in her photography project, Living History: Bound Feet Women Of China.

The project chronicles and celebrates the lives of the last remaining women in China with bound feet, a tradition that started in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Young women would bind their feet, preventing them from growing larger than three or four inches long, because it was considered a symbol of beauty and social status.

According to Farrell, match-makers and mother-in-laws required their son’s betrothed to have bound feet as a sign that she would be a good wife (i.e subservient and without complaint).

The tradition was banned in 1911, but continued in rural areas until around 1939 at which point women with bound feet had the bindings forcibly removed by government decree. Over the past several years, Farrell has photographed over 50 women between the ages of 80-100 years old. She is feverishly capturing as many of their stories as possible “before it’s too late.”


“In every culture there are forms of body modification that adhere to that cultures’ perception of beauty. Modern women aren’t so different, judging by our love of botox, breast augmentation, scarring and tattooing, to rib removals, toe tucks and piercings.”

While we may see foot binding as barbaric, at the time it was considered typical. It has us wondering what future generations will think about the extreme beauty treatments people undergo today.

You can check out more of Jo’s project by visiting her website.

Zhang Yun Ying

Su Xi Rong

All photos: © Jo Farrell