orig, pub May 12/15
I’m going to a wedding in a couple of weeks’ time and I need a new pair of shoes. I don’t often buy new shoes and, when I do, they are always the same make – Dr Martens and Skechers – because these are tried and tested and I know they fit and are comfortable. I have long since given up on shopping for footwear in shops. I am a good five inches taller than the average woman and my feet are proportionally bigger. Not for me a dainty size four or five.
A good chunk of my teenage years was spent standing around like a spare part whilst my friends were shoe-shopping. They would try on all manner of shoes, and got grumpy when their usual size wouldn’t fit and they had to go up a size. Bloody luxury! If shoes don’t fit my feet, if the fit is on the small and/or narrow side, there is no size me for me to go up to – at least not in the women’s section. Unfortunately, as a teen, it wouldn’t have entered my head to try the men’s section. I was a woman and so had to wear Woman Shoes. If I’d headed off to try on shoes in the men’s department of any high street store, my friends would have killed themselves laughing. Now, the advent of the internet coupled with my desire to be comfortable rather than hobbled have combined to make shoe shopping a lot less stressful for me. To an extent.
Click on any given shoe-selling website and select ‘women’s’ and hundreds of shoes appear. Literally hundreds. The first page of a random search throws up items like these:
My painstaking research leads me to the conclusion that such items are representative. This is the kind of shoe I am *supposed* to be wearing. These are Woman Shoes. Now if we take the middle pair as an example, I know for a fact that if I order my size in these, they would not fit. I know this because when I look at my bare feet, they do not taper off into tiny little triangles. My feet, the inconsiderate buggers, have toes, and joints, and bones. I could order those shoes, of course, and I could get them on my feet, but then my toes and joints and bones would all be cramped up into a space not designed to accommodate them. Which, when you think about it, is pretty stupid when it comes to footwear, you know with us having to *walk* and whatnot. If I ordered those shoes, it would hurt me to stand up in them and it would hurt even more when I put one foot in front of the other and propel myself off on my two legs as bipedal creatures are prone to doing. So, no, I won’t be buying those shoes – or indeed, any of the others.
Look at the height of those heels. Wearing any of those shoes would disable me. Literally. They would limit my movement. They would impair my ability to do what my legs and feet were designed for, i.e. to get me from A to B. I know this because I have owned Woman Shoes. I have ‘walked’ in shoes like those pictured above. I, quite willingly, have worn Woman Shoes because it was expected that I would, what with me being a woman and all. In my younger years I wore Woman Shoes like those pictured above because there were very few alternatives for women that would have been *acceptable*. In the 1990s I worked at a city centre firm of solicitors. It was my first full-time job after leaving school. It was quite an achievement for me to get this job because I didn’t have the requisite qualifications (I blagged it) and because it was quite a posh office and because my mum told all her friends with pride. It was my mum who talked me out of wearing trousers for the interview – trousers having always been my preference over skirts – and so I begrudgingly bought a cheap skirt suit from Solitaire (a Liverpool shopping legend). I can’t remember what shoes I wore but they would have been cheap and heeled (to go with the skirt, see?). They more than likely gave me blisters (Woman Shoes always do). It wasn’t until I started the job that I discovered, to my horror – and, yes, indignation – that women were not permitted to wear trousers in this office. I would have to wear a skirt (and Woman Shoes) five days a week, 48 weeks a year. I nearly had a heart attack on the spot.
Quite apart from the cost involved – I owned several pairs of trousers but only that one blasted skirt – I was angered at being told what to wear. More than that, I was angered by such a blatantly sexist policy. I could see no reason for it – does a woman sitting at a desk perform her job less well if she is wearing trousers rather than a skirt? I was (am) an adult who is not comfortable in skirts or dresses. Trousers have always been my choice for my bottom half, mainly because – for me – they provide freedom where skirts do not. Freedom from worrying about what my legs look like (always ghostly white), freedom from a shaving regime, freedom from the nightmare of tights (I’m tall, remember. They didn’t make ‘tall’ tights in those days. The crotch always ended up mid-thigh. Hoiking up your tights numerous times throughout the day is fucking annoying, not to mention that you look like a dick).
My mum was given to bemoaning my rejection of the skirt on a regular basis. “You have such lovely legs! You should show them off!” she would plead. Even then, when I was eighteen and a long way from being a radical feminist, I remember being puzzled by this argument. “They’re for walking on, not for showing off”, I once responded, only to be met with an equally puzzled look from my mother. She didn’t get it. I was a woman. I was for showing off. I relayed this anecdote to a friend some years later and she told me that her mum had used a similar argument with her. “Show your legs off while you can,” she would tell her, “because when you get to my age, you won’t be able to anymore!” We had a bit of a sly snigger about what the cut-off age for skirt-wearing was. When do your legs become incapable of being encased in a skirt? If you have children? If you develop varicose veins? At age 45, or 50, or 55? When?
For me, long skirts have never been long enough (mid-calf is not a good look) so the only option when I worked at that office was to wear what would have been knee-length skirts on a woman of average height but on me were of course somewhat shorter. For four long years I persevered with the skirt/court shoe combo and I was uncomfortable for every single day of those four years. Long after I’d left that job and moved on to something else, I was told they’d done away with the ‘no trousers’ rule for female employees, presumably because the law had decided it was discriminatory. I doubt it was because the male bosses decided they no longer wished to ogle female employees’ legs.
Radical feminism is of course critical of Western cultural practices, including the availability of footwear which quite literally disables women. If you’re wearing a three- or four-inch heel, you’re disadvantaged when compared with the men in the room, the vast majority of whom – if not all – will have their feet encased in a comfortable shoe which actually fits their foot. Take any man’s shoe and compare it with a women’s show of the same size. The shoe designed for the man will undoubtedly be significantly broader than the shoe designed for the woman to squeeze her foot into. ‘Dress’ shoes designed and marketed for men are practical in terms of heel height, material, and colour. Conversely, women’s ‘dress’ shoes often resemble torture devices. This is no accident. As members of the oppressor class, men are permitted to dress for comfort and practicality. It is imperative for them to be able to move around with ease, to walk up and down steps unassisted, to break into a run if required or desired. Not so for women. For the (mainly male) designers of women’s shoes, comfort and practicality in footwear are of little or no importance. Comfort and practicality are the opposite of sexy, and women must always be sexy first and foremost. Appealing to the male gaze is paramount. As Sheila Jeffreys notes
It isn’t sexy for men when women walk in a way that suggests they have two feet firmly on the ground… Men get excited at seeing women walking like slaves in shackles (Beauty and Misogyny)
Under patriarchy, it isn’t sexy for women to ‘have two feet firmly on the ground’ either literally or metaphorically. Designers capitalise on this by producing a huge variety of footwear aimed at keeping the subordinate sex class in their place. They produce footwear which causes women pain – often extreme – and, in the long-term, numerous health problems, including bunions, misshapen toes, and the shortening of the calf muscle. As with most things, women are blamed for buying and wearing the very things we have been coached and cajoled into wearing. Very few people question the absolute ridiculousness of designing a shoe in which a woman cannot walk, at least not comfortably. It’s akin to manufacturing contact lenses which sting the eyes for every minute you are wearing them.
I found a pair of shoes for the wedding. They are flat and comfy. I am able to walk in them – hell, I can hop, skip or jump in them should the mood take me. I won’t fall over, or wobble, or require assistance to get up and down stairs (or if I do, it’ll be the vodka, and not the shoes, to blame). Perhaps most importantly, these shoes will enable me to dance the night away with my friends, uninhibited, unsexily, unshackled. I enjoy flipping the middle finger to patriarchy.
Firewomon: A Radical Feminist Blog [@Firewomon]