I’ve often wondered about this system of morality to which many of us subscribe, the one that dresses up moral integrity in demure, fashionable clothing. Slut shaming the non-conformists is an inevitable consequence of this line of thought. Women are expected to be subservient to males and this is reinforced in the way they are expected to dress. I won’t even go into the historical corsetry torture devices women were expected to wear and in some cases, still are. I mean, really. What man do you know who is crazy enough every day to wrap a couple of hunks of wire around his sensitive body parts, like his chest, for example? Women do it without a second thought. But let’s just talk about today. In fact, let’s keep it really simple and talk about shoes.
Almost exclusively, I wore high heels. They made my slender legs look longer and more elegant, or at least that’s what I thought. They boosted my 5’7” to close to 6’. They made me fit in with all the other women who also wore high heels. According to my mother, fitting in was very important, so I valiantly and ultimately futilely struggled to conform. The whimsical little straps encasing my heels, the dainty scraps of fabric or suede or leather that formed the upper announced in no uncertain terms whether the wearer was a woman of fashion or a mere worker bee. I preferred the illusion that I was a woman of fashion.
They had their drawbacks. Occasionally, a simple misstep would result in a painfully sprained ankle. Limping somewhat subtracted from the elegant persona I hoped to convey. Every new pair of shoes brought new pain. My non-conformist toes would not co-operate with the sharply pointed toes of fashion, ensuring that breaking in a new pair of shoes was slow torture. My stilettos were death to expensive wooden floors, pock-marking them with tiny heel imprints, which I did my best to completely ignore. That was the price of fashion, which was fine by me as long as I didn’t have to pay for the damage.
Then there was the problem with running. I couldn’t. Let’s just put aside the fact that a genteel woman should never run anywhere. If circumstances required it, I could walk quickly, even very quickly, but run? In high heels? Forget about it! Those shoes were never designed to stay on a foot travelling at speed.
Quite apart from dealing with the almost insurmountable issue involved in running in high heels was the issue of stretched calf muscles. My calves were so accustomed to wearing high heels that I would find myself tip-toeing while barefoot, so if circumstances were such that I was called upon to run, I would first have to remove my shoes and then run on tiptoes. If my life depended upon it, I suppose I would manage it, but I’m glad I never needed to test the theory.
A few years ago, I read a book by Arthur Golden called ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. In it, the protagonist, Sayuri, has bound feet. This was a new concept for me and I wondered what it entailed. I found out that while it was popular in Japan, it was far more extensively practiced in China. I was horrified to learn how and why it was done. The ‘how’ is quite easy to explain. The four smaller toes are repeatedly broken, the joints dislocated and the toes folded back under the foot where they are bound by cloth bandages. After years of this, the toes eventually stay under the foot of their own accord.
The ‘why’ is more problematic. Some schools of thought claim that it was done to be aesthetically pleasing to men, while others maintain that binding girls’ feet (and it was only ever done to females) would ensure they would acquire a good husband. It turns out that both of these were true to a point. The ‘good husband’ part was a sales pitch, used to convince the unwilling to sacrifice their feet with the promise of a spouse. The ‘pleasing to men’ part… well, we women understand only too well how that works, don’t we? The third reason was much more practical. It was done purely for economic reasons. It ensured girls as young as six or seven sat still while they worked at boring and repetitive handcrafts, like spinning yarn. In removing their ability to ever walk freely, it enslaved them in a prison of their own making.
Fortunately for those Chinese and Japanese women who were victimised in this way, the practice was outlawed in the early 1920s, though there were still incidents of binding feet in rural China as late as the 1940s.
This got me thinking about my own feet, or more accurately, my shoes. Why were women’s feet encased in flimsy fabrics and not sturdy leather as men’s were? Why did we cripple ourselves by crushing our toes into tiny little pointy-toed shoes? Why did we teeter on increasingly higher heels while men’s feet stayed flat on the ground? Why were their soles thick and practical while ours were often paper thin and absurd?
Why couldn't I run?