On Dr. Martens and Disability

My cerebral palsy often turned footwear into a wedge issue

Photo by Elijah O'Donell on Unsplash

My love affair with Dr. Martens started while I was hunting for “cool” at a gigantic St. Louis mall. In an otherwise nondescript store, I spotted a pair of black Dr. Martens boots covered in flaky gold glitter. The sparkles weren’t baked into the material, but were instead glued all over the boots in tiny, puckered circles. Glam yet punk, sturdy but whimsical — these boots flipped a double middle finger at convention, and of course I had to have them.

My entire high school fashion aesthetic was best summed up as “alterna-teen” — a Daria-caliber pejorative once lobbed at me by a guy in my band class that nevertheless fit me to a T. To me, khaki was kryptonite. Instead, I preferred anything that looked different. I raided my parents’ closets for threadbare vintage clothes and old flannel shirts and wore oversized band T-shirts with jeans or corduroys. At other times, I rocked suburban-weird fashions, like fishnets with a knee-length black lace dress that made me look like a Stevie Nicks in training.

In other words, these glitter-spangled Dr. Martens were the ultimate weird-girl accent piece, something that would make me look wildly different from everybody else in my high school.

Ecstatic at the thought, I tried them on — or, more precisely, I went to battle with them.

I was born with the neurological disorder cerebral palsy, specifically the type known as spastic diplegia. Cerebral palsy (or CP, as it’s abbreviated) manifests itself differently in every person who has it. In my case, I walk with a stiff gait and fatigue more easily and have difficulty walking long distances. Even if I wanted to blend in with everyone else, I couldn’t. In hindsight, it’s not a stretch to view my need to look quirky as compensation for physical differences.

To keep my gait steadier, I wear custom wraparound foot orthotics. Mine are molded from sturdy plastic and secured with Velcro straps. They hold my feet well and improve my balance. But the orthotics also add width and bulk and reduce joint flexibility, which can make finding cute shoes a chore. And so there my mom and I were, trying to shove Dr. Martens on my feet, determined that they would fit over my orthotics. Eventually, after much sweating and swearing, they did — and I emerged from the store triumphant, boots in hand: a bona fide badass.

This experience, however, was far from my first shoe trauma. In 1994, I had surgery known as a selective dorsal rhizotomy, which involved snipping the sensory nerve fibers circulating faulty signals from my muscles. This improved my physical flexibility and muscle control immensely, although the ghosts of those nerve-fiber pathways remained, reflected in my uneven gait. I was also fitted with supremely wide foot orthotics that required me to buy men’s shoes many sizes too big. I started high school wearing these oversized, clunky kicks, a deeply embarrassing fashion debut for a lowly freshman.

The 1980s and ’90s were otherwise a halcyon time for a young girl with challenging shoe needs. Prior to buying the gold-glitter Docs, I already used a pair of plain black Dr. Marten boots as my “fancy” shoes for band concerts and other events. After all, the ’90s rock stars I admired wore them. During the ’80s, meanwhile, I surfed the Day-Glo fashion wave by rocking Converse All-Stars in red, yellow, and turquoise, and L.A. Gear high-tops with colorful shoelaces twisted like DNA strands. All these funky styles were also wide enough to accommodate orthotics — an added bonus.

I emerged from the store triumphant, boots in hand: a bona fide badass.

At other times, I shirked smart choices for the sake of fashion. In elementary school, I wore tannish-brown loafers with the shoelaces knotted at the ends, making them de facto slip-ons that didn’t offer much in the way of support. And in fifth grade, I begged my parents to buy me pointy black patent-leather shoes adorned with laces made of thick, ribbon-like material. The shoes were slippery and narrow and sent my balance off-kilter, but I didn’t care. That year, the popularity caste system had started to settle like layers of sediment, and I could feel myself slipping down into the cracks. All the cool girls had these shoes, and I wanted to be more like them, at least on the surface. I was tired of feeling different.

As I grew up and reached dating age and beyond, shoes became more of a wedge issue. I was (and am) physically unable to wear high heels. The closest I came was in college, when I wore strappy black sandals set a few inches off the ground. Otherwise, my go-to formal footwear is a pair of black Saucony Jazz original sneakers (men’s size eight because they’re wider, thank you very much). They’re comfortable and snazzy, but they aren’t as come-hither as a pair of colorful pumps.

I have very complicated feelings about these limitations. On a basic level, they hamper my clothing choices. Long skirts with sneakers look terrible, winter boots are impossible to find, and forget wearing dainty kitten heels with skinny jeans. Such fashion barriers aren’t just superficial: In high-profile pop culture, high heels remain a status symbol intertwined with women’s desirability. Pairing sneakers with skirts is sweet, maybe sporty and cute, but not perceived as conventionally sexy.

On a deeper level, I’m wistful that I never had the chance to explore a major aspect of female gender expression. From a young age, girls learn through toys, pop culture, and even Mom’s closet that high heels represent glamour and femininity. Getting your first pair of heeled shoes is a rite of passage, a symbolic transition into womanhood. Having only fleeting tastes of this ritual is alienating; it’s like being excluded from an entire cultural conversation. This isolation is nothing new: Disability often means being left out of physical activities or facing transportation and navigation obstacles that many others don’t. The feeling of being on the outside looking in doesn’t get any easier with time or adulthood.

In a perfect world, high-heeled shoes would represent confidence, competence, and power across the entire gender continuum. Perhaps that’s why I originally gravitated toward Dr. Martens: The boots were (and are) inherently gender-agnostic and offered me freedom from binaries while providing the tough-as-nails veneer I couldn’t find in conventional women’s shoes. Even though I felt insecure about nearly every aspect of my life, Dr. Martens helped me at least fake self-confidence.

The feeling of being on the outside looking in doesn’t get any easier with time or adulthood.

Back in the modern world, in recent weeks, I started breaking in a new pair of orthotics slightly wider than my older ones. In the process, it’s become clear that black New Balance sneakers are a better option than my beloved Saucony Jazz kicks. Retiring yet another style of shoe has been bittersweet, as it reminds me of why I eventually stopped wearing my Dr. Martens: My orthotics pierced the soft leather of my black pair, which required makeshift reinforcements that didn’t quite take, and my gold-glitter Docs never did feel very comfortable.

Still, I can’t bear to part with my one-of-a-kind boots. Even though it’s doubtful they would fit me today, they represent a link to a spunky version of myself that I don’t want to lose. I know I’m not alone feeling wistful for this younger self — after all, in recent months, Dr. Martens rolled out boots emblazoned with New Order and Joy Division art, which fetishizes nostalgia for a very specific fan niche. Back in the ’90s, I felt part of something bigger than myself when I wore Dr. Martens — maybe the alternative zeitgeist or a youth movement predicated on embracing weirdness. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t wear fancy shoes. I belonged.

Writer. Recently seen @ NPR Music, Salon, The Guardian. Duran Duran ‘Rio’ 33 1/3 out 5/6/2021. https://bit.ly/orderrio333

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