The Harrows of Heels
These shoes weren’t made for walking, but that’s exactly what we’ll do.
By Sofia Rivera, Simmons College
When I was little my favorite toys were, perhaps predictably, dolls.
More specifically, Barbie dolls. And since I have two older sisters, by the time the dolls were all passed down to me the collection was an impressive one, including—but not limited to—a jeep, a pool and of course a hot pink convertible, in addition to dozens of Barbies and countless outfit changes. Alarmingly, their impossible proportions never really phased me; what got to me were their shoes.
Neon-hued Barbie shoes littered our basement rug, so just walking around barefoot was like a game of minesweeper I was doomed to lose. But what irked me about the mini plastic daggers was not their uncanny ability to find my feet and lodge themselves into them, but the feeling that my feet would never actually fit into shoes like that. Barbies’ super petite and uber-arched feet were a stark contrast to the wide, flat ones I inherited from my dad (COOL DAD THANKS).
Yet *thankfully* in the following years I discovered that ridiculously uncomfortable heels are actually accessible to everyone, no matter the shoe size! I apparently didn’t learn anything from Cinderella’s step-sisters and happily squished my feet into pointy-toed high heels supported by wine-glass-thin stems that would definitely earn Barbie’s stamp of approval.
During middle and high school semi-formals I always had to ditch my heels on the outskirts of the dance floor (gym floor, let’s be real), where they joined at least fifty other pairs.
The next day I would return to flats, hobbling around due to the blisters I proudly considered battle wounds from the fight for beauty. I never particularly questioned if the price was worth the reward or why I so eagerly accepted this discomfort.
Eventually I realized that I’m actually horrible at walking in stiletto-style heels and registered that sacrificing my comfort isn’t worth whatever payoff of increased beauty I perceived.
I definitely continued to wear heels, just slightly more comfortable ones: platforms that didn’t bend my feet into anatomically beguiling arch shapes, chunky heels that didn’t risk getting stuck in sewer grates and wedges with soles that completely touch the ground.
And I actually love them all. Even though I do rock Birkenstocks basically all summer long, which I know is far from a fashion statement, I feel most put together when I’m wearing a cuter shoe. Although there is a large selection of adorable shoes that are completely flat, it’s easier to find stylish heeled shoes because someone who wears heels is generally considered to be more fashionable.
But why? Over winter break I went to London and visited The Victoria and Albert Museums and found some answers in an exhibit entitled “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain.” The exhibit explored centuries of footwear from several distinct cultures and the one recurring theme was the apparent un-wearability of many of the showcased shoes.
From doll-sized slippers meant for foot-bound Chinese women, to gravity-defying shoes with nothing to support the steep incline where a heel should be, the shoes were all somehow gorgeous and horrifying.
They were also adorned with all the bells and whistles imaginable—almost literally. Flashy materials including feathers, spikes, fur and sequins decked out the footwear, all in an effort to help the wearer make a statement. The exhibit described wearing shoes as a performance; your footwear dictates not only how you move, but how you are seen and heard.
Traditionally, ostentatious designs were meant for the elite—wearing shoes that hindered mobility indicated that they didn’t have to move very much. Maids would do the cleaning and chauffeurs would transport the well-heeled women so they wouldn’t have to engage in any manual labor of their own.
But as time and technology evolved, these styles became accessible to a much wider audience until eventually a gym full of middle school girls came to pose for pictures in them, trying desperately to look like the dolls they had idolized as even younger girls.
So where does that leave us now? Pretty much in the same place we have always been. History will continue to repeat itself, particularly in the world of fashion. Designers will continue to disregard the actual shape and function of a foot, moleskin will be purchased to prevent blisters, blisters will form anyway. We will dance, hobble, strut and we will sometimes stumble, stumble, stumble, and eventually fall.
And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As long as we make sure the footwear choices we make are personal, rather than something we feel pressured to wear or not wear because we’re too short or too tall, have cankles or flat feet, are attending a wedding or high school semiformal, or are just going to the grocery store.
I still wear heels sometimes and I still love them because they help me express my personal style. But especially while studying in Madrid and exploring its winding, cobblestoned streets, I realized I’d have to bench the heels for a little while, and dropped more euros than I care to admit on a pair of Nike’s Air Force Ones.
They’re amazingly comfortable, go with almost everything and make me feel very Spanish-chic whenever I where them, which is basically always. Now every time I pass a sneaker store my eyes linger on the display window, so I may have just traded one obsession for another.
If it’s true that wearing and walking in shoes is a performance, as the “Pain and Pleasure” exhibit claimed, then make sure it’s a show you want to be a part of. Choose your footwear knowing that you’re casting yourself, there’s no audition; your life is a part you’ve already landed (which is a line that should definitely be on a Hallmark graduation card if it’s not already). The shoes in which you choose to walk around are totally up to you, and Barbie won’t come back to haunt you if you don’t feel like emulating her.