The Sena tribe in Malawi and Mozambique have a proverb: ‘Never marry a wife with bigger feet than your own.’ The Chinese have an astonishingly similar message. And in Telugu, too, prospective husbands are warned away from women with long feet.
In cultures all over the globe, sex and gender issues have been expressed in proverbs—the world’s smallest literary genre. This irresistible book provides revealing insights into the female condition across centuries and continents. The hundreds of proverbs compiled here also perpetuate contrasting views of men and women—men are inexorable tyrants, as well as insecure, fearful beings or easily seduced lovers while women are lamentable victims, and yet extremely powerful. These contradictions are exposed directly and surreptitiously in the examples collated here, speaking to all of us.
Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet collates the experiences of women through proverbs from 245 languages, both culturally and physically—women’s bodies as a whole, and each body part; their beautification, ageing and death. The vivid and earthy proverbs also reflect the phases of life—from girl to bride, to wife or co-wife, from mother to mother-in-law, widow and grandmother; the joys and sorrows of love, sex and childbearing; women’s work, their talents, and their power. They delineate the feminine ideal and vilify her fear-inducing counterpart—the talented, intelligent, powerful, defiant or occult woman.
Mineke Schipper’s stylish critical anthology is an entertaining rough guide showing us how far both sexes have progressed, through the timeless yet ever-evolving nature of cultural sayings and proverbs from every corner of the world.
An African tribesman merely needs to wrap a simple string around the hips and tuck his genitalia out of sight to be correctly dressed while, at the other end of the spectrum, a devout woman is considered naked in many cultures if her head remains uncovered.
Throughout history, different cultures and religions have developed codes to control unruly nakedness, giving rise to a variety of ideas of what it means to be dressed. Now, in a time of globalization, we are confronted by a variety of perspectives on dress: not just what to wear, but who wears it, why and how. Advertisers routinely fall back on the female nude to sell anything from cars to perfume; wearing a traditional khadi kurta vs. a Western-style three-piece suit can send a powerful political message; violent protests take place against the idea of nakednesss, yet nakedness is used as a form of protest; and contemporary interpretations of religious or cultural edicts are met with bafflement, bigotry or outright bans.
Using an engaging mixture of anecdote and historical interpretation, Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World brilliantly dissects our contradictory attitudes to bodily exposure and concealment through time and across cultures. Mineke Schipper’s unerringly detailed prose is complemented by aptly chosen photographs and paintings which bring the history of revealment and concealment through clothing to life.