PERNICIOUS FOOTWEAR

In the novel Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth, Portnoy's overbearing mother berates him: "Oh, you're riding for a fall, Mr. Big. You're fourteen years old, and believe me, you don't know everything there is to know. Get out of those moccasins! What the hell are you supposed to be, some kind of Indian?" I suppose Roth was more or less quoting his own mother, but to the same extent, he might have been quoting my mother.

My mother insisted that the only kind of shoes a respectable person could wear in public were black leather narrow shoes with laces and pointed tips, and that is what she made me wear. Whenever I needed a new pair, she would buy me more of the same, with the inevitability of death and taxes. I hated those shoes. They caused me pain and gave me corns, and I thought they were ugly. But I was only a child, helpless against a devoted mother ministering to her offspring.

In my own mind, I formulated the case for the prosecution:
     1. Pointed Tips. Even a cursory glance at the human foot shows that the front end, the toe, is wider than the back end, the heel. What kind of insanity dictates that the toe of a shoe should be narrower than the heel? Why must I have my toes squeezed into those narrow tips, and suffer painful corns in consequence?
     2. Laces. Why must the shoes have laces which cause endless trouble, when they could be made to slip on and off easily? Because of those accursed laces, I am forever bending over, loosening or tightening them, struggling to tie them or to untangle them.
     3. Polishing. Why can't the shoes be made of some material that is not bruised or scuffed whenever it is touched? Why must I be forever polishing them, smearing my hands with the disgusting shoe polish and wearing myself out wielding the damnable brush?
     4. Breaking In. Why must I suffer while wearing new shoes, until they are broken in, reshaped to fit my feet? Why can't I have shoes that fit my feet from the start? And this was not the worst of it. When a pair of shoes was finally broken in so that it was less painful to wear, that was the signal for my mother to decide that they were too old, and looked disreputable, and it was time to buy a new pair.

I tried to voice these objections, but I was wasting my breath. Mother knew virtue from vice, right from wrong, good from bad, respectable shoes from slipshod, down-at-the-heel rubbish. My only option was to suffer in silence, and play a waiting game.

At the first opportunity, when I was finally allowed a bit of independence, and had some money in my pocket, I bought myself a pair of loafers. They were wonderful! It was a deliverance, an emancipation! I was pleased with myself, that I had achieved foot freedom without going to extremes. After all, I had not bought moccasins, or slippers, or espadrilles, or sandals, or clogs, or mules, or scuffs, or flip-flops. I had only merely bought dignified loafers made of black leather that still had to be polished.

The reaction was horrendous, complete with shrieks and groans and tears, and it went on and on. The text was, that the moment the leash had been slightly loosened -- against her better judgement -- I had wasted no time in sinning. Surely this was just the prelude, and there was no telling to what depths of depravity I might sink.

That terrible crisis ended long ago, thank goodness. Nowadays everyone wears comfortable sneakers, which do not have to be broken in and are not forever in need of polishing, thank goodness. They are sold with all sorts of idiotic extras (like little lights that light up with each step) but they are comfortable, thank goodness. Nevertheless, I still have two faults to find with the footwear situation: one general and one personal.

My general grievance: men are more or less off the hook, but women are still made to suffer. The dictates of fashion encourage (and in some cases, force) women to wear high heels. If there is a difference between the evils of the traditional Chinese practice of binding women's feet and the present practice of wearing high heels, it is only one of degree.
     1. Laming. The ancient Chinese bent the woman's foot, pressing the toes against the sole and breaking the arch. Modern high heels tilt the body forward so that most of its weight is brought to bear on the toes, which are jammed together. In both cases, the result is to lame the woman and make her unable to walk freely: in ancient China permanently; today temporarily while she wears
 the heels.
     2. Purpose. In ancient China, the purpose was to produce the tiny steps and swaying walk called the "lotus gait". The purpose of high heels is to make the foot appear smaller and the calf and buttocks more prominent, and to produce a gait of short steps and swaying hips. In both cases, the purpose is to pander to a male erotic fantasy.
     3. Damage. In ancient China, the woman was crippled for life. High heels always cause some damage: blisters, corns. deformation of the Achilles tendon, deformation of the bones of the feet, knees, pelvis, or spine. In both cases, the practice is injurious.

There is also the matter of the pointe shoes that allow a ballerina to dance on her toes. This produces something very beautiful, but I find it difficult to ignore the fact that the beauty is achieved by deforming a woman's feet. Also, I cannot ignore the parallel with the former use of castrated men to sing the female roles in operas. In both cases, an ideal of beauty is realized at the price of injuring the performers. Today women or contra-tenors can sing the operas, but we cannot have ballet without ballerinas with deformed feet. As long as the ballerinas themselves do not object, I suppose we can go on enjoying the ballet. Nevertheless --

My personal grievance: even today, in the permissive age of the ubiquitous sneakers, I find myself at odds with footwear conventions. Even now, there are those who look askance at the way I am shod. I suppose it is my fate.

I have black loafers for occasions when there is a dress code, or when I want to be sure to be indubitably respectable. The loafers take a high polish, and they look eminently dignified, but they are soft and comfortable, with wide toes and no laces. Some of my family and friends see nothing wrong with them, but others resentfully accept them as an unavoidable compromise with my stubborn unconventionality.

The footwear that I really love, and wear whenever possible, indoors and out, are plastic flip-flops with adjustable uppers fastened with velcro. Here also, some see nothing wrong, or perhaps see in them a harmless eccentricity; but in the eyes of others this is disgraceful, and probably a symptom of my approaching senility.

I take no notice of these faultfinders; or if I do notice them I comfort myself by repeating my favorite stanza from The Walrus and the Carpenter:
     But four young oysters hurried up,
     All eager for the treat;
     Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
     Their shoes were clean and neat --
     And this was odd, because, you know,
     They hadn't any feet.