A Maori recommendation advises a mother as follows: “Massage the legs of your daughter, that she may have a good appearance when standing before the fire on the beach”. Young Maori women, it is explained, used to dive to catch lobsters and afterwards they dried themselves in front of the fire before getting dressed, a good opportunity for them to proudly show their beautifully shaped legs before interested suitors.

As with shoulders and arms, there are very few proverbs about knees, and again they seem to have little in common.

A Dutch saying deals jokingly with two perspectives on a woman’s pair of knees: ‘”Cover them, cover them,” said the man to his wife. “Why should I, I did not steal them”, said she, and sat with her skirt above her knees”.

The husband jealously wants to protect his wife’s knees from the eager gaze of other men, while the wife claims that she has nothing to hide. If the appearances are against you, a popular Yoruba proverb advises, it may take more time and energy to prove your innocence than to accept the blame: “A woman who admits guilt will not spend time on her knees”.

One proverb about knees is quoted in the context of work: “Resting does not graze the knees”. A hardworking woman thus criticises a lazy one: in the Berber culture, women work mostly on their knees when they are busy with laundering, cleaning, and even kneading dough.

Finally, feet are associated with old or young, beautiful or ugly women. To express that no conclusion is justified before one has finished, or to exhort those who lack perseverance, some African proverbs use the image of old women’s feet to comment critically on those who are full of enthusiasm in the beginning, but whose activities soon fizzle out. The Rundi say, for example: “Old women’s footsteps start firmly but don’t last”. A woman who behaves as if her age does not count but who is unable to really manage is made fun of in a Frisian joke: “Skating makes thirsty,” said the old woman, and she stood with one foot on the ice”.

There are some strange beliefs about feet, such as the idea that a broom sweeping a woman’s feet brings bad luck: “She who has her feet swept, will marry an old man” is a Cuban belief, whereas the Quecha Indians in Ecuador advise against foot-binding for women who want to be pregnant: “Do not tie up your feet; you will not [be able to] give birth”.

One may wonder whether those who do tie their feet up could practice this as a method of anti-conception. And how would such a relation between tied feet and sterility have been found out about? Why would Quecha women have tied up their feet anyway? Was it for beauty’s sake, as in China? Such questions need to be answered by Quecha specialists.

A small woman usually has small feet; both small women and small feet seem to be considered more attractive. In ancient China, many women’s feet were bound from toe to heel, to make them more seductive. Larger female feet are not only literally regarded as a sexual turn-off but, when referred to in proverbs, they usually stand for something else. Metaphorically women’s small feet indicate “the right measure” in marital relationships. In general, women that look vulnerable seem to have more sex appeal to men than strong-looking females, as female vulnerability confirms the established gender hierarchy. The “right measure” presented in proverbs equates with a relationship on an unequal footing. The Sena who live in Malawi and Mozambique warn against the danger of big female feet, in a proverb with several variants:

“Never marry a woman with bigger feet than your own.
Don’t marry the one with the big feet, because she is your fellow male.
Look for someone who has short feet, because one who has long feet is your fellow male.”

No doubt such a relationship would complicate a husband’s life and should therefore be prevented from happening. The Sena explanation furnished as “Bantu Wisdom” is that “man is superior to woman”; therefore, when looking for a wife, he must choose one over whom he can exercise his authority. Recently, I quoted the Sena proverb that inspired the title of this book in Beijing in a discussion with two proverb researchers of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. One colleague smiled and said that in Chinese a similar proverb exists: “The woman with the long feet ends up alone in a room”. Ending up alone in a room is considered to be the fate of a talented woman, as she will not succeed in finding a husband. In Chinese culture, long feet in females are not only pejorative figuratively; in the past the feet have also physically been shortened for reasons of beautifying.

There are many other references associating the size of feet (and shoes) with competence, for example, in India there is a Telugu saying in which older women warn young ones not to develop their feet spectacularly: “If a girl develops long feet, she will be in trouble after marriage”.

And the Hebrew saying “I do not desire a shoe that is larger than my feet” means: I do not desire to marry a wife who is from a higher class than my own. Bigger feet do not only metaphorically refer to her belonging to a higher social class, but also to other matters threatening the status quo. The apparent male aversion to women with bigger feet reflects a deep-seated fear of losing control. Given the fact that women usually have shorter feet than men, proverbs use the image as a convincing metaphor of how things ought to be arranged in gender relationships. That women have an impact in spite of all the messages trying to prevent this from happening, is also expressed in a European proverb: “Without touching with her feet, woman leaves footmarks” (Portuguese and German).

A woman’s feet, and especially her heels, are a standard for her beauty in some cultures, among the Ethiopian Oromo, for example, “A girl’s beauty can be recognised by her heels”, referring to a woman’s perfect heels as an indication of beauty. It is linked to the tradition of veiling the face. In that context, looking at a woman’s naked feet is the only way to find out whether she is old or young. As my Kenyan friend Zera, born in Mombasa on the Islamised Swahili coast, told me: before she was married, her mother wanted her to veil herself, because that was what a virtuous woman ought to do. However, covering herself and wearing the veil did not protect her from men pinching her behind. “But how,” I asked her, “did they know that you were not an old woman? Or did they just take that risk?” Her answer was that men guess your age by your feet, so that they always first look at your feet before deciding whether a pinch is worthwhile.

This comment may help to explain the meaning of some proverbs from North Africa where the covering of the face and the beauty of the feet are related: “A woman with beautiful feet does not need to cover her face” is an example from the Maghreb, reasoning that if they find her feet beautiful, men immediately know that her face will be beautiful as well. This is indeed a matter of consideration in another proverb, applying to a woman who, in order to look more attractive, has beautified her feet with henna in the Arab tradition.

However, the harsh critique is that this effort is totally useless: “Cover your feet, you silly woman there is no beauty other than the one you were born with”.

The climate may play a role in proverbs about naked feet: I found references to uncovered feet only in the Maghreb and in Ethiopia, where women’s feet may be the only part of the body that is not hidden. In such a context a woman’s naked feet, at the utmost shod in slippers or sandals, evidently attract more male attention than in colder places where such parts of the body are usually hidden in stockings and shoes.

The next part of my friend Zera’s story is illuminating as well. After she had become a nurse and went to work in a hospital, she had to wear a uniform without a veil, to the despair of her mother who was afraid that her daughter’s “honour” would be at stake now. According to Zera however, it turned out to be very different: “As soon as I started wearing my uniform, I have never ever been pinched against my own will!” In different times and cultural contexts, modesty has been attached to a variety of parts of the female body, from hair to breasts, from buttocks to feet. Shifting erogenous zones have been associated with shifting norms of modesty, considering now this, then that part of the body as more (or less) provocative than other parts. Thus in proverbs from (at least some parts of ) orthodox Islamic culture, men do not seem to have a problem with nude female feet, but with nude female faces, whereas, for example, in ancient China and in Western Victorian times, it was immodest for women to exhibit their feet. Most of the underlying standards for such practices have been projected on to the female body as measures of control.

Excerpted with permission from Never Marry A Woman With Big Feet: Women In Proverbs From Around The World, Mineke Schipper, Speaking Tiger.