"It resonated with me, as we all seem to be obsessed with our flaws and do not celebrate our individuality," photographer Jo Farrell tells PEOPLE

By Jacqueline Andriakos
Updated June 17, 2015 05:00 PM
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Jo Farrell

The painful beauty practice of binding girls’ feet in China may seem like a tradition long gone – after all, it’s been more than a century since the Chinese government banned it. But a British photographer has tracked down women in rural areas of China who remain forever marked by the ancient custom.

Jo Farrell, a professional photographer based in Hong Kong, has been documenting Chinese women with bound feet for years through a photo project titled Living History: Bound Feet Women of China, which aims to celebrate the lives of these remaining women.

“[Other cultures’] immediate reaction to foot binding was that it was a barbaric tradition without even thinking about the cultural significance and societal context,” Farrell, 49, tells PEOPLE.

“Standards of beauty vary from culture to culture,” she explains. “We may look at other societies and not agree with their ways of doing things. But it is also what makes us different. We should embrace and celebrate the differences.”

Until she began the photo series, Farrell admits she didn’t fully comprehend how a foot was actually bound. She learned that the tradition involved applying painfully tight wrapping around the foot to prevent further growth and to capture the “lotus” style, which was considered a mark of beauty. “It was originally banned in 1911,” Farrell adds.

However, the practice continued in rural regions until around 1949 when women with bound feet had the bindings forcibly removed by government decree, she explains.

“I, like most people, had preconceptions about what foot binding was, looked like, why it was done,” she says. “I now have a far greater understanding, which has lead to more research about how and why women alter their bodies to be more attractive.”

Farrell also realized that the historical trend isn’t so far off from the culture of extreme plastic and cosmetic surgeries that women face today.

“It resonated with me, as we all seem to be obsessed with our flaws and do not celebrate our individuality. More value has been put on the way someone looks, rather than the actual substance of a person,” she says.

While researching the stories of roughly 50 subjects, Farrell met women from remote areas and farmlands, who were “extremely generous and charming.”

“I have spent long hours with them and try to visit each of them every year,” Farrell says. “I am treated to delicious meals of homemade dumplings and Mantou bread. At their age – most are between 80 and 100 years old – they have become almost invisible. Village life goes on around them so they enjoy being part of the spotlight and telling their stories.”

Farrell assembled her photographs in a coffee table book and hopes to continue spreading the women’s tales.

“I want people to get to know the personal stories of these last remaining women before it is too late,” Farrell says, “so people look beyond the feet.”