You probably know that in 1912 China banned the practice of foot binding. Until then, for a millennium, many thousands of young girls were subjected to a culturally supported but dangerous practice wherein the foot was broken, twisted, and bound, so as to give it a more aristocratic appearance. It lead to disability and life-long pain. Why then was it considered aristocratic? Well, frankly, it’s only if you’re wealthy you can afford to have useless feet.
All cultures have such practices. The Western sociologist Thorstein Veblen famously wrote of ‘conspicuous consumption’ — the spending of money on luxury goods and services merely as a display of economic power. A BMW might get you around more reliably than a 50cc scooter, but the difference between a BMW and a Rolls Royce is mostly in the status it affords you in the eyes of envious onlookers.
Conspicuous consumption isn’t limited to shiny toys. Ever thought about why there are ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’ workers? White shirts are not a great idea if your job involves coming anywhere near anything that might be dirty.
In the words of Bertrand Russell:
“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.”
The second kind is more conducive to the wearing of a garment that is impractically difficult to keep clean. Therefore, goes the twisted cultural logic, the fancier your clothes, the higher your status. (If you’re into formal logic, see if you can spot how this is affirming the consequent. There are also a load of tenuous auxiliary assumptions.)
One problem with such practices, is that we mostly think we’re immune to such silliness. Other people’s memories are terrible, but I always remember what people say to me. Other people have lapses in judgement whilst driving, but I’m a very good driver. Other people make ridiculous clothing choices based on conspicuous consumption, but I am above such silliness.
Let’s go back to feet. The following has been reproduced in a handful of places across the web in recent months.
Now look at your poshest shoes. How often do your feet uncomfortably constricted in them? I wonder why.
It is very easy for us to dismiss the practices of another culture as foolish, even barbaric, but it’s much harder for us to dismiss the practices of our own culture in such a way. We need a corrective.
The inimitable Oscar Wilde said,
“Everything popular is wrong.”
Of course he exaggerated. But, given the pressure we’re all under to conform, even when conforming means stress, pain, and disability, perhaps Oscar’s assumption isn’t such a bad place to start. Perhaps it’s a much needed corrective.
Say it after me: Everything popular is wrong.