This is not a photo of my dead grandmother’s feet, but it matches the image I have of hers in my mind. She was a practicing podiatrist in Georgia in the 1940s — one of a handful of female physicians of any sort in that state, a feminist success story in her own way. At just under 4’11”, she wore heels every day of her adult life while treating the disfigured feet of her female patients who did the same. The irony did not escape her, as she self-castigated on this particular topic routinely within earshot.
Bunions, hammertoes, neuromas, calluses, pinched nerves, and oozing blisters were a small price to pay for height, fashion, and sex appeal, but when she could barely hobble at the end of her life, she told me, “Never wear heels. The pain isn’t worth it, and neither are the men.” How little has changed in 50 years.
Ontario recently passed the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, which bans employers from forcing female workers to wear high heels, though similar legislation failed to pass in the U.K. In these modern times, shouldn’t the mere idea that women be made to suffer in painful, harmful, dangerous, and sexist clothing simply in order to hold down a job be considered archaic? Clearly, the idea that women are to-be-seen above all else remains powerfully central in our culture.
I remember being a little girl and asking my grandmother why her toes crossed over each other and wouldn’t uncross, and she said, “Never try to wedge your feet into shoes that are too small. It’s vanity.” She tried surgery, but surgery could not undo the damage she’d done to herself anymore than it could fix the ravages of Chinese foot binding.
Digressing from the topic of my grandmother for a moment, I can’t help but recall a comment made by my first husband while on vacation in Italy. We were eating lunch at an outdoor café on the Piazza del Campo in Siena, people-watching as businesswomen out for their lunch breaks teetered in stilettos across the cobblestones. “One of them is going to twist an ankle any second now. That looks incredibly painful,” I said.
My then-husband, sipping his espresso, mumbled something about fashion and how I didn’t understand it.
In retrospect, was that a turning point in my marriage? Maybe. It definitely turned my GI tract into a seething lava flow with the ensuing futility of trying to explain to him where certain “fashions” come from in patriarchal cultures.
I’ve never worn heels, mostly because my threshold for pain is even lower than my threshold for gender oppression. I stroll through life in flats on the icy, uneven brick sidewalks of my small New England town and watch my step as if I were in Jimmy Choo slingbacks. No death wish here. No death wish in Italy or anywhere else for that matter.
I know a lot of women love their heels. They love them the way they love underwire bras that leave angry red welts but make their breasts look fantastic. They love them the way they love pubic hair waxing that provides baby-softness and baby-optics at the price of brief but searing agony. Fashion! It’s not for the pleasure of men. Nope, not at all.
Heels are sexy and sexiness is empowerment and worth any amount of money or pain in the world and anyway they really aren’t that painful and this has nothing to do with men or patriarchy and is merely self-expression and is definitely not conformity so don’t tell women not to be feminine and don’t tell us what to do because this is why we’re not feminists since we make our own choices and will wear whatever we like even if it deforms our bones because we look better a few inches taller with our asses thrust upward so who are you to tell us otherwise since it’s fun for us and we just love shoes!
Pop icons teach us to view the absurd as feminine triumph. Lady Gaga wears heels on the beach. Kate Upton volleys in hers on the tennis court. Rap sensation Cardi B loves her red soled Louboutins so much she provided the designer an unsolicited 217 per cent sales boost with her song “Bodak Yellow.” He doesn’t even know who she is.
Before rap and hip hop, before Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, before social media, and before the Internet of Things, women took their cues from fashion magazines and television. My grandmother with gnarled feet was like a dentist with rotten teeth. Think about that. What must it take to spend so much money and so many years gaining an education that you yourself cannot embrace because society is more influential than everything you have learned to be true? “I do it for myself” is a powerful potion. Drink me.
I am perhaps most piqued by the assertion that media and marketing might affect others, but not oneself. So many people believe they are uniquely inoculated against advertising due to some innate strength of character, unlike their stupider and more susceptible peers. This is called the Third-Person Effect and it’s one of the reasons that mass communications are so effective. But marketing would not be a multi-billion dollar industry if people were immune to its messaging. If it didn’t work, there would be no fashion trends or materialism or consumerism, period.
But aren’t there more important issues to focus on and don’t I have better things to do with my time? Yes and no to both questions. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Better yet: How do you liberate women? One step at a time, in shoes that can go the distance.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter and the President of the Board of Directors of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. You can connect with Lori on Facebook or Twitter.