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Do Shoes Make the Woman?

When I learned my trademark shoe was destroying my feet, I did what anyone would: question my entire identity

(Not actually my foot, but a foot, anyway.) Photo: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

MyMy identity crisis began with pain in my right foot. I hadn’t done anything particular to injure it so I didn’t take the pain very seriously at first, but as time went by, it got worse. At first the top of my foot hurt, but then the pain spread to the outside edge, to my arch, and then to the base of my little toe. Walking on uneven surfaces was painful, and walking downhill was excruciating. Accepting the fact that at 39 years old, I had arrived at an age where I could hurt myself doing nothing, I gave in and went to a podiatrist.

The doctor was young and energetic. He told me his philosophy was to treat all patients like elite athletes. That sounded good to me. After a thorough examination, he arrived at the diagnosis of peroneal tendonitis, noting that I also displayed chronic ankle instability, cavus (high-arched) foot, and equinus (limited upward bending in the ankle joint).

“What shoes do you normally wear?” he asked.

I nodded with satisfaction at the patent-leather clogs gleaming on the floor beside me, shoes that proved I took footwear seriously.

He groaned, shook his head, and said, “Those shoes are bad for your feet, your legs, and your back.”

Undaunted by the look of horror on my face, he said, “What you’ve got to do is go to Sneakerama and tell them you need a neutral heel-posting eight-millimeter drop shoe.”

Sneakers! My hatred of sneakers goes back to my 12 years of Catholic school. Sneakers were not allowed with my school uniform. Sneakers were only for gym class—my least favorite class, because I was always picked last for every game. Sneakers were for activities I sucked at. Who needed them?

“I can’t wear sneakers to work,” I said.

“Well, with your foot, you really want something that laces. You want something with a bit of a heel but softer and more flexible than your clogs.”

There I was, a woman under doctor’s orders to get new shoes — Permission to shop! Have fun, girl!—and instead of even the faintest glimmer of excitement, all I felt was resistance. Clogs couldn’t possibly be bad for me. Nurses and doctors and chefs wore clogs so they could be comfortable on their feet all day. Clogs were supportive and ergonomic. No way could I believe my clogs had anything to do with my foot pain.

As soon as I got home, unable to resist the urge to prove myself right, I turned to Google and typed, “Are clogs bad for your feet?” The results page was soul-crushing. Here’s a representative sampling of the articles that turned up:

One article with the promising title “Are Clogs a Healthy Shoe Choice?” let me down by answering the question in dire terms: “The truth is, clogs are among the most harmful or injurious shoe types available to consumers.”

Depressed by the sheer volume of articles advising people to give up their clogs, I turned to Zappos and tried to keep an open mind as I perused the offerings. As I did, however, I found I wasn’t grappling so much with a shoe issue as with a full-blown identity crisis.

WWhen I became a clog-wearer nearly 20 years ago, all my shoe problems were solved. Not only had I found comfort, I had found an all-occasion shoe that, by not really going with anything, went with everything. I embraced that no-style style. It was proof that I was not vain, and my lack of vanity obviously rendered me a superior person.

My whole identity became entangled in my choice of shoes. I was part of the “clog tribe” now, and in their clunky chunkiness, my clogs revealed much about me. They said, “Here is a practical person who spends her days on her feet.” They said, “Here’s a no-nonsense woman who chooses comfort over fashion.”

They said, “Here’s a well-educated, liberal, folk-music-loving, granola-eating, middle-class woman who believes in age-appropriate, expensive footwear and also in looking like a pre-20th century Dutch peasant. She probably drives a Subaru with a ‘Who Rescued Who?’ bumper sticker.”

Now sinking into the depths of despair, I closed the browser window. I grabbed the keys to my Impreza, stopping to give my dog a quick belly rub as I headed for the door. As she licked my face, I assured her, “I’ll give up my clogs when they pry them from my cold, dead feet.”

How could I possibly accept the fact that, for 20 years, I was living a lie with the mistaken belief that clogs were a healthy choice for my feet and back? And if I did accept this new information, if I could no longer be the sort of person who wears clogs, who the heck was I? Peroneal tendonitis was upending my entire worldview. If I had known that was going to happen, I never would have gone to the podiatrist.

Nonetheless, I had doctor’s orders to get sneakers, so I drove to Sneakerama. To my amazement, the sales clerk knew exactly what “neutral heel-posting and an 8+mm drop” meant, and I left 20 minutes later with a pair of blue and pink Asics “Gel Cumulus,” which truly lived up to their name: I felt like I was walking on clouds.

The night, when my husband and I were watching TV, he said, “I keep noticing your sneakers and wondering who they belong to. I’m having some real cognitive dissonance here.”

“You and me both, pal,” I said. Still, as a starting point for building a whole new me, walking on clouds didn’t seem like the most terrible thing.

AA few days later, I could tell that my new sneakers were having positive effects on my foot pain, so I again braved trying to find appropriate shoes for work in place of my now-defamed clogs. I didn’t want to, but I had no choice but to admit that, if I continued to wear my clogs knowing they were not healthy for my feet, they would be merely a style choice, a point of vanity. I have never been one to choose fashion over function, and that meant it was time for new shoes. I searched for a couple hours but nothing grabbed my attention until, at last, on a clearance sales page, I saw them—silver wingtips. Were these the new identity I was looking for? I wondered

They really are silver, but everyone says they look gold in this pic. It’s like “What Color is this dress?” all over again. Photo: Diane Vanaskie Mulligan

And then I realized these weren’t a new identity at all. With their slight heel, supportive footbed, and lace-up styling, they had all the practicality I liked in clogs, but with their shiny silver leather, broguing, and white soles, they were slightly absurd and would go with everything—because they didn’t really go with anything.

Maybe it was possible to get new shoes without having to get a whole new identity after all. Maybe there really were other shoes out there that could suit my personality and my feet.

That’s right. It took me a week and many hours lost shoe-shopping to realize that my whole personality isn’t defined by a brand and style of shoe. I might be a little dense, but then again, the expression “the shoes make the man” (or woman, as the case may be) isn’t for nothing.

It’s easy to let material things become shorthand for one’s identity and then to cling to those things as essential extensions of self. In a world of uncertainty, maybe we just want a few things we can count on, one or two constants in a world of flux. When those certainties become ambiguities, it’s terrifying, even when they’re just a pair of shoes.

As for me, the desire to walk without pain was enough of a motivator to do some scary but overdue soul-searching. Now, with my sneakers-like-clouds and silver-lining-shoes, I understand myself better than ever.

Sure, I’ve already blown my shoe budget for the whole year, and yes, I am still using material things to answer questions about my identity, but these tendencies are reflections of my unchanging nature. I overspend on shoes, and I solve my emotional crises by turning to materialism. Isn’t it comforting to know some things really do stay the same?

novelist, teacher, sourdough enthusiast, dog-lover, folkie and a whole bunch of other things, too.

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