September 13, 2011
From Occasionally Offensive:
I don’t love shoes. In fact, I hate most shoes. I’ve never lusted after stiletto heels, or had a favorite pair of pumps. For me, a favorite pair of designer dress shoes is like having a favorite tampon–if the tampon cost several hundred dollars and had spikes. Shoes are a regrettable necessity. While I have had favorite pairs of shoes, they are generally boots or tennis shoes or something else which stays on without conscious thought. I prefer shoes which protect my feet, shoes which make walking several miles more comfortable than walking barefoot, or shoes which have a stiff enough sole that I can jump on the back of a shovel when gardening and not hurt my feet.
Still, I always love to try to understand how other people think. Is it true that some people love to teeter around in heels all day and are serious when they say they’re comfortable? Is it true that heels don’t hurt if you “just get used to them?” Apparently, no. I am happy to report that (according to this book) other women feel foot pain from ridiculous shoes, and that learning to walk in heels means “not falling over” rather than entering the fantasy land where you aren’t damaging yourself by resting all your weight on the balls of your feet. Getting used to heels means wearing them often enough that the level of discomfort they offer becomes your baseline (and frankly, my foot pain intolerance threshhold is probably lower than others–I don’t even like pedicures). Another factor is that if you wear high heels often enough, your calf muscles get shortened until you can no longer walk flat footed without discomfort.
Tanenbaum has plenty of quotes from women who have shoe lust. What is it that attracts them to the teensy little colorful leather and sparkly high heeled peep toe monstrosities that the designers display in NY boutique windows? I am quite firmly in the minority with my shoe animosity, but if you’re in the majority, you may empathize with the women who say that buying the shoes is like buying a fantasy. Sexy shoes mean a sexy woman. Fashionable shoes mean that for this season, at least, you’re part of the haute couture.
After discussing what women love about shoes, she talks about the history of high heels. How “mid height” used to mean an inch, and now they use that to describe three and a half inch heels without apparent irony. She talks about the origins of high heels, about chopines, and about how these shoes made the transition from masculine to feminine and never went back. She talks about the history of heels and feminism. Feminists decried heels because they hurt women’s feet (and backs, and knees), and yet by refusing to wear heels, they were deemed un-sexy and unfeminine and no one took them seriously. I respect that she’s spent a lot of time weighing the issue, because it’s not a clear cut situation. She compares high heeled shoes to footbinding (and let’s be honest, the comparison is apt) while still admitting that she loves her high heeled shoes and won’t give them up.
Tanenbaum also delves into the obscure and horrifying world of foot surgery, mostly surgery for people who have damaged their feet by, and/or want to continue wearing high heels. There are surgeries to remove your bunions, and corn removals, and then even ickier surgeries like inserting pins into your toes to straighten them out after you get hammertoes from wearing shoes with a small toe box, or injecting stuff into the balls of your feet to provide extra padding so you can stand on your toes all day. I loved this part, because it gives me a visceral frission and because it made me feel smug that being a sensible shoe wearer (and we all know that sensible shoe=unsexy) for most of my life means I have healthy feet now that I’m in middle age. Yes, all the guys thought you were hotter. My toes are straight. Ha ha.
One interesting point that Tanenbaum presents is that the reason why we need shoes is because we’ve been wearing shoes our whole lives. She says shoes are like a cast you put on your arm when you were three and never took off. Because you’ve always worn shoes, your feet aren’t strong enough to go barefoot. This is where we parted ways. I’ve bought into the “Vibram five fingers” party line, which says that most foot problems are caused by veering further away from barefoot. Tanenbaum says that you must have a shoe with arch support. She says that flip flops are horrible because your foot can go any way it wants. The philosophy I ascribe to says that arch support is for people with feet weakened by shoes. It’s kind of a catch-22. If you go barefoot often, your feet become stronger, and you can go barefoot (or wear non-supporting shoes) often. If you don’t go barefoot often, your feet become so weak that they need to be encased in a snug, protective cocoon. To use the cast metaphor, her philosophy (which, I understand, is the prevailing medical philosophy) is that a foot weakened by being in a cast needs to be protected so that it doesn’t break. The philosophy I prefer is that our feet are engineering marvels, and it’s better to give fashion the finger and only wear shoes that enhance our feet’s performance, rather than diminish it. My theory is that anything over 3″ is best suited for sex workers, or those who want to dress up like one.
I recommend this book for red-carpet type women who love teetering sexy shoes, and for run-with-the-wolves women who are baffled by people who spend hundreds of dollars on torture devices which they they wear of their own volition. And, I also recommend it for all men. Men should understand the physical and financial and social costs behind high heels, both for those who wear them and for those who opt out. If you’re a man who thinks women should all wear high heels because high heels are sexy, you need to read this book. If you’re a man who thinks women are stupid for wearing shoes that give them pain, you need to read this book. After that, you need to keep your opinion to yourself. Unless you’re a transvestite, you don’t know what you’re talking about.