One of the most controversial body art practices that has ever existed is the custom of foot binding. This practice was mainly found in China, although there have been mixed reports of surrounding Asian cultures briefly instigating the practice as well. Depending on who you talk to, it was body art taken to an extreme or outright mutilation.
There is no one clear historical account of how this practice first began, but evidence shows it may have started as early as the twelfth century B.C. Stories become vague about just how it got started. One story relates that there was an empress who had a clubfoot and ordered all other court women bind their feet. Another is that women began binding their feet to imitate a an empress whose feet just happened to be very small. Some people suspect the custom was begun by men, to better be able to control their wives. Whatever the reason, this practice went in and out of different degrees of practice until the early 20th century.
Essentially, starting at the age of four or five, the young girl would have her feet tightly bound with cloth wrappings. Done continuously, this would change the shape of the foot and impede growth. There are even stories that some girls had their foot bones broken to allow a greater reduction in size. The wrapping worked to not only greatly narrow the toe portion of the foot, but to foreshorten the distance from heel to toe.
Historical accounts include statements from women who were proud of their foot binding as well as those who felt it the worst injustice in the world. Medical notes record that many women had severe problems due to lack of circulation, or that some lost toes due to the severity of the binding. Some girls developed fatal infections.
And yet, this practice continued over the course of hundreds of years, supposedly under the overall aesthetic that a smaller foot was more attractive than a regular-sized one. There are poems in ode to the "Lotus Foot" and notes that the perfect foot could be cradled by a man in the palm of one hand.
Enough of this custom continued over time so that early photography was able to capture the sight of some unwrapped lotus feet and there are even some X-ray records of just how the foot bone structures were changed by these practices. Full contact with Western culture in the 20th century finally brought enough attention and contrary opinion that the custom of foot binding finally died out.