by Susan Weidman Schneider

When Our Shoes Hobble Our Freedoms

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Tell me what it is about shoes this season.

The photographs I see in the glossy ads actually scare me — 19-inch heels on 5-inch platforms. (I exaggerate only slightly.) The shoes on women’s feet would be cartoonish — if only they were in a comic strip.

Look, shoes have meaning. Just check out all the recent books about footwear. We know about foot binding. About the iron shoes along a Danube promenade as a memorial to the Hungarian Jews forced to remove their footwear before being shot. About traditional Judaism’s halitza ceremony, in which a childless widow throws a specially designated “halitza sandal” at her unmarried brother-in-law, thus releasing him from his obligation to marry her and continue his brother’s line.

Shoes can be serious signifiers. They can identify us; think untied sneakers as a memento of prison, where shoelaces are prohibited. Think too about the restrictive shoes that in some cultures Jews were forced to wear — mismatched, with one heel higher than the other. Shoes make us comfortable and nimble, or they hobble us. But unlike prisoners, or Jews facing discrimination in hostile societies, we choose what we want to wear.

I was reminded of these choices when, on a recent weekend, I had two sightings worth sharing; I imagine you’ve had similar experiences, if you spend any time on city streets, or anywhere else where bipeds congregate. On a sunny Saturday afternoon I watched teenaged girls walking home from Shabbat services together. They were adorable, a gaggle of them, in their pencil skirts and pretty blouses. But the term “walking” is inaccurate. They were staggering! They were all — to a girl — wearing platform shoes with no flexibility and very high heels. Then, later that same day, I saw young couples out on dates, heading to movies, bars, theaters, restaurants. The men were all walking upright, at a relaxed pace. This wasn’t speedwalking, but the women couldn’t keep up. Many had to hold tight to the arm of the man they were with — as much for balance as it was a gesture of affection, their acquired helplessness looking like something out of the era of corsets!

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted its sellout show “Savage Beauty” last year, about the work of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, the starring objects included his bizarre, fetishistic, unwearable shoes for women. McQueen himself noted the “sadomasochistic effect” of his accessories. But these were mostly fantasy objects. This year, S&M shoes are on the feet of real women!

Seeing the images from that show, and seeing the women trying to walk in this fall’s stilettos, I keep thinking back to those exercises from campus consciousness-raising groups, where a young woman would walk across a room in a pair of high heels, and then traverse the same path wearing sneakers, so the rest of the women could observe the difference in walking style and body contour. How much the more so is the difference accentuated in this season’s stratospheric heel heights!

So why do we consent?

I understand about fashion shifts, and how especially when times are tough it’s fun to have a lighthearted, trendy accessory. I’ve suffered through my share of fashion trends too. But we’re not talking aesthetics or fashion sense with these shoes on girls and women. We’re talking about actually dangerous footwear. You may look good in these shoes if you’re standing still. But move off stasis, and you’re at a huge disadvantage.

We’re living in an era when many of us have an abundance of choices available to us as women. We can, for the most part, still choose our careers, our love objects, our reproductive trajectories. But we’re also witnessing the erosion of our right to make some of those choices. What we can choose to do is to remember that freedom also includes the freedom to move about freely—and safely. To be able to stride into a room — board room, newsroom, operating room, courtroom, classroom — aware of our power to speak out in our own strong voices. But how can we feel our power, and act on it, if we’re sashaying into the room on shoes that limit our mobility, hurt our feet, and remind us that we’re dressing to dance before the gaze of others, not to please ourselves?

What is going on today on women’s feet is more than fashion. It is, I swear, about being hobbled. And yet we sanction this hobbling, a kind of twenty-first century foot-binding. We say yes to something we know is not in our best interests, not what feels comfortable, not what will bring us pleasure. When you read the article in this issue about women wrestling with consent in intimate relationships — how to say yes and no, how to get what we really want — remember our shoes!

© 2011 Lilith Magazine