The Straight Dope

In your column on Chinese foot-binding [October 22], you mentioned that small feet have been prized in many cultures, using as an example "Cinderella's tiny glass slipper." While your point is well taken, you missed a chance to mention the story behind Cinderella's unusual footwear. In the original folktale, Cinderella wore (in French) une pantoufle en vair (a fur slipper). Because the word vair was uncommon, the 17th-century French translator thought it was verre (glass). Cinderella has been wearing glass slippers ever since.

-- Foot Fetishist, via the Internet

Great story. It appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica at one time, and the French writer Balzac believed it. But the consensus among folklorists is that it's well, folklore.

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The Cinderella story we know today was published in 1697 by the French author Charles Perrault in his book Les Contes de Ma Mere L'Oye (Tales of My Mother Goose). Perrault based the story on an oral fairy tale that, interestingly, seems to have originated in ninth-century China. Perrault made many changes to the crude peasant original to sanitize it for a bourgeois audience. For example, in some early versions Cinderella's sisters cut off their heels and toes in order to fit into the glass slipper.

But Perrault didn't invent the glass slipper, and it probably didn't arise from vair/ verre confusion either. As the French folklorist Paul Delarue pointed out in a 1951 essay, "one can also find [glass shoes in Cinderella stories] in other countries where there is no homonym which permits the confusion." For example, glass shoes appear in an old Scottish version of the Cinderella tale as well as in several stories in Irish folk literature.

As for the argument that glass slippers must be a mistake because they aren't realistic... no shit, Sherlock. Why do you think they call these things fairy tales? But glass footwear does suggest that its wearer is a creature of elegance and delicacy, which of course was the point.

So today's breast fetish can't compare with the old Chinese foot fetish, complete with foot binding? What about all the American women who now mutilate their own breasts, paying big sums for surgical enlargement? Sure, they do it voluntarily, but mostly because of American culture. It can affect the rest of us too, as when Dow Corning was bankrupted by a class-action settlement of $3.2 billion to compensate women "injured" by their silicone-filled breast implants, despite a lack of scientific evidence of any link.

-- S. Lee

You make my point for me. Women today get breast implants voluntarily, as adults. Foot-binding was imposed on unwilling and often traumatized Chinese girls while they were still children -- a huge difference. One guy chided me for not considering the historical context and blah blah blah. Screw the historical context. Just because the Chinese thought the ritual mutilation of women was cool for a thousand years doesn't mean it didn't suck.

In your column about Chinese foot-binding, you placed the Victorian corset as the number-three cruelest fashion practice. Isn't there a culture (Indonesian, maybe?) that used to put metal rings around girls' necks to lengthen the neck? The neck ultimately became so long and weak that the girl could not hold her own head up. Removal of the rings would be fatal. The corset can at least be taken off occasionally.

-- John Cholod, via the Internet

If I described every bizarre thing done to women in the name of beauty, I'd be writing a book, not a column. You're talking about the Padaung, also known as the Kayan, who live in Thailand and Myanmar. Some women (traditionally only those born on a Wednesday when the moon is full) wear up to five kilograms of brass rings that extend their necks to the size of a baby giraffe's -- as long as ten inches. The process begins before puberty and compresses the rib cage and collarbones. For a photo, see www.britainburma.demon.co.uk/Showcase/LongNeck.htm. For a recent news account, see www.seattle-pi.com/pi/getaways/040998/neck09.html.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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