In the classic 1972 film Pakeezah, Salim Ahmed Khan (Raaj Kumar) boards a train at night and turns his gaze onto a sleeping Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari). Sahibjaan turns in her sleep. Her anklets tinkle. Khan reads a Ghalib couplet from the book by her side – and steals her bookmark - and stares at her feet. In the morning, she finds this letter:
“Muaaf kijiyega, ittefaqan aap ke compartment mai chala aya tha. Aap ke paon dekhe, bohat haseen hain. Inhein zameen par mat utariyega - maile hojayeinge.” - Aap ka aik humsafar
“My apologies, I came into your compartment by chance. I saw your feet, they are very beautiful. Do not let them touch the ground – they will be soiled.” - Your fellow traveler
Khan complimenting Sahibjaan’s feet is a plot hook because Sahibjaan, who plays a courtesan, is used to being admired for her looks and mannerisms and ability to dance, and she’s taken in by this mysterious admirer who has only chosen to comment on her feet. Of course, because they are a courtesan’s feet, Sahibjaan is marked for condescension and judgement, including (spoiler alert) by Khan. Sahibjaan sings of chance meetings and journeys, but her dreams and nightmares are haunted by the whistle of a train and this passenger. Of course, he breaks her heart and spirit, and she flees from him - on foot. And in her final moments, she proves a point by dancing on shards of broken glass, showing off her bloodied feet and tormented soul.
But there’s obviously some kind of lasting quality to the basic element of this dialogue, which is perhaps why searching for ‘Pakeezah feet’ online turns up image after image of Kumari’s henna-patterned feet. Over 40 years after the release of Pakeezah, Meena Kumari’s feet are immortalized on the Internet – along with those of thousands of other women.
Welcome to the world of desi feetfies on Instagram.
I found #desifeet by chance: I was checking out a pair of shoes online, and clicked on the hashtag in the caption. #desifeet led me to a seemingly unending stream of photos of feet – bare, patterned with henna, in heels and kolapuris - belonging to desi women.
I checked today. There are over 15,000 photos hashtagged with #desifeet on Instagram.
Why is this a thing?
Why isn’t this a thing?
In her fantastic essay on #selfies, Rachel Syme points out:
“We are living in times of peak-selfie, and therefore, peak selfie-hatred. When a phenomenon leaks so completely and quickly into the cultural water supply, people are bound to get freaked out. Sure, men and women have been taking pictures of themselves for years, and they were painting themselves before that, and they were carving their faces onto rocks before that. But the selfie, a photograph of oneself with an immediate and distinct social component built into the process, that is something very new.”
“Nothing destabilizes power more than an individual that knows his or her own worth, and the campaign against selfies is ultimately a crusade against widespread self-esteem.”
But what of the feetfie?
Is it safer to take a photo of your feet than your face? Is there less judgement? Is there a photo of your feet circulating on the internet? Who is looking at your feet? Why did you take a photo of your feet? And how has this dialogue from Pakeezah – and the fascination with South Asian feet – endured?
Mock it, deny it, criticize it, and pretend you don't have a photo of your feet on your phone, but the obsession with women’s feet – their size, colour, shape – looms large in South Asia. Feet are mentioned in poetry and songs, including the impossibly addictive dance song Double Addi. The chorus: Tera lak na kithey tut jave, ni addi hun holi maar ve warns women not to stamp their heel too strongly for fear they’ll break something. Children are told that the sign of a dayan – a banshee/witch – is her outturned, ugly feet. Women used to (and perhaps still?) judge prospective daughters-in-law by the state of their feet. (The formula: delicate feet – docile daughter-in-law, large feet – aggressive hussy. The counter to this is the myth told to girls that if your second toe is longer than the big toe, you’ll rule over your mother-in-law. Cue frantic toe pulling.)
Feet are painted with henna for weddings, they are polished and buffed, they are broken and bruised from work, they are shoved into every manner of shoe, and they are swathed in thick socks to follow religious dictates or to protect them from the sun. Or both. They are stared at and stamped on. They are meant to make some kind of statement. And they are on Instagram: all 15,000 of them and counting.
And who is counting them? @desifeetgram, which has over three thousand photos of desi women’s feet, compiled over the last two years. @desifeetgram is run by a 26-year-old British-Pakistani who lives in the UK. He says he has a foot fetish. He prefers to stay anonymous. He describes himself as “mature and cheeky.” He is looking for photos of your feet.
I interviewed him over Kik:
“My page can also help desi girls who are not confident about other body parts like their feet become more confident and make them post pictures,” he says. “When people comment and say nice things it makes them confident and also they never knew that their feet could excite others before so it's always a positive.”
So what was the idea behind the account? Why focus on feet?
There's a lot of feet pages on Instagram and a lot of people with foot fetishes. I’m desi and I have a foot fetish. I used to come across a lot of desi girls on Instagram with nice feet or feet pictures so I thought let's make a shoutout page so others can see beauty and also others that enjoy desi feet or have a foot fetish can see it too.
How are the photos submitted? Do you get photos sent to you or do you search for feet photos?
I sometimes search for photos, whether its hashtags or sometimes I just come across profiles and see pictures and I also get them via DM or Kik as some girls find my profile.
Do girls object if they see their photos on your page?
I always ask for permission to repost. Some say yes, some say no. I won’t post it if they say no.
Why desi feet? What is so special about desi feet?
It's only because I’m Pakistani myself and I thought I'd be different as there was no other desi feet shoutout pages at that time and I like being unique. Now there's a lot of desi feet pages and people like to copy and also some desi girls made separate profiles dedicated to their feet.
And do desi women pay more attention to their feet than other women?
I think it's all the same. Desi girls might have their feet out more as it is very warm in most desi countries so they usually wear sandals more often. But I think a lot of girls love attention nowadays - any type of attention - so if they get attention to their feet I have noticed they upload more pictures of their feet.
What are the most common kind of foot photos women post? Is it usually with new shoes or for a special occasion or just an everyday photo?
Sometimes I find profiles where a girl has randomly uploaded one picture of her feet and as soon as I give her a shoutout and she notices the attention, she starts uploading more pictures and more profiles. I have seen this with so many girls and some go to the extent of making profiles just for their feet. It's mainly new footwear, even special occasions, and then once they enjoy the attention some do it every day or every few days. They can also get asked by me to take more pictures, even of their soles, and they’re willing to do so for a shoutout.
And who are the people who like and comment on the photos? Is it men or women or both?
It's mainly men who comment or like the pictures but I get women followers too and even other girls that I have given shoutouts to previously. And it's more real as I’m finding pictures of normal, real girls which makes it more interesting and realistic. It's turned into a hobby. It is now part of my lifestyle where I upload pictures every day.
Can I ask why it's anonymous?
I am anonymous because on the profile I am just a shoutout page, I am not a real person. Foot fetishes are very common but people are not upfront about them and I don't advertise I have a foot fetish unless I get to know someone properly. I have my own personal profile. But every girl is tagged so if you click the image her profile will show. Some girls are new to it and they like it. Some dislike it and sometimes ask to get the pictures removed even after agreeing to post them. Some girls are used to it because their ex or current partner has a foot fetish so they understand it.
Why do girls like showing off their feet? Is it less personal than a selfie?
It could be each girl is different, some girls take pictures of their feet because they had a brand new pedicure or like the footwear or even the nail varnish or just the look of the feet. Some girls like the scenery behind them and some girls do it because they know guys will like it and they like the attention, every girl has different intentions.
Do you have a favourite desi celebrity who has nice feet?
There's a lot of desi celebrities that have nice feet but I don't have any favourites as I don't always keep an eye out for them.
Do you have a personal favourite kind of photo?
I personally like when the girl’s whole face and body is in the picture including her feet and it's obvious she is showing her feet.