Sunday, October 31, 2010

Shoes as a feminist issue

In her recent book "The Beauty Bias," Stanford University Law Professor Deborah L. Rhode asks: If men can manage to be sexy without help from their footwear, why can't women?

I wish I knew the answer to that, but right now I'm obsessing over the possibility that my search for blood-red heels for a major event two weeks hence might indicate I'm not a feminist. And this troubles me nearly as much as my inability to find the perfect shoes.

According to Webster, feminism is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. While I have believed in this my entire life, three decades of living with males have finally forced me to concede that there is no equality in how men and women think -- or behave. Nonetheless, I consider myself a feminist because I believe the same opportunities should be available to everyone, irrespective of gender.

But does feminism have to apply to shoes? Or wearing nail polish? Or whether I decide to cover the gray in my hair like two-thirds of American women? Can't it just pertain to equal pay and opportunity? I really do think I need those red shoes.

Rhode says her interest in the "Beauty Bias" -- that women face standards of beauty more exacting than those for men and that unattractive people are less likely to be hired, promoted or make salaries equal to their more attractive co-workers -- began with the observation that so many accomplished women were standing in lines for taxis or late for meetings because they couldn't walk far in their fashionable "killer shoes."

She goes on to cite the statistic that four-fifths of women experience back and foot problems because of shoe choices, and women account for 80 percent of foot surgery -- much of it related to wearing high heels. And while she acknowledges that shoes do not rank among the greatest challenges facing women in a country where 4 million of them are victims of domestic violence and 20 million live in poverty, she believes they could be symbolic of the bias that women find themselves facing when it comes to physical appearance and societal expectations -- and the subsequent civil rights issues. (Again, why don't men need shoes to be sexy?)

As a woman with large feet, I'm not sure I've ever considered my shoes sexually appealing. And since I generally care more about whether I can get from Point A to Point B than how my feet look, I also don't own a single pair of "killer shoes." In fact, I suspect my shoe "collection," such as it is, is the smallest -- and most boring -- of all of the women I know. Most pairs are black, all have low heels and each was chosen for the ability to be worn without discomfort for long periods --and to prevent risky encounters with the ground. As a result, my feet are blessedly free of imperfections like hammertoes and bunions, but people rarely have the opportunity to admire them because they are usually encased in practical black shoes.

However, I won't deny that I have succumbed to other societal pressures affecting women, such as makeup -- which, as Rhode notes, is not an issue for men. She also observes that three-quarters of women consider appearance important to their self-image, and over a third rank it as the most important factor.

She goes on to say that our annual global investment in appearance totals close to $200 billion—and female consumers account for 80 to 90% of those purchases. Equally disturbing are the statistics that 80% of the 10,000 ingredients in cosmetics and personal care care products have never been assessed by the Food and Drug Administration -- and the findings of an Environmental Working Group survey that nearly 400 personal care products sold in the U.S. contained chemicals prohibited in other countries. I wonder if the statistics would be the same if men comprised the predominant buying group.

Rhode also notes that society and the media focus more on a woman's appearance than a man's. For example, the media might describe a prominent woman as dowdy, but would never use a similar appearance-related description for a male. Or consider the media circus that followed the news that then-presidential candidate John Edwards spent $400 on a haircut, but the response was far more muted to word that the Republican National Committee was spending $750 a day for a traveling hair stylist for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and forked out an additional $68,000 for a makeup artist.

Taken together, these statistics and findings do give one pause. I know they have caused me to reevaluate my thinking regarding fashion choices and my shoe quest. However, it also has not escaped my notice that the red shoe on the cover of "The Beauty Bias" would be perfect for my outfit.

Does anyone know where I might find two of them?


Julie H. said...

You know, I actually struggle with this. I am a feminist with strong opinions about women's attire (aka cover up), but I wear make up and hear your dreams for your shoes. A worthwhile struggle, and interesting blog.

MaxWriter said...

I can so relate to this. But I'd put my collection of shoes up against yours any day, Pat, for the Boring Prize. As a result, I'm also free of foot problems. And will be wearing flat black shoes at the Vampire Ball! Luckily, I have managed to find men in my life who find flat shoes and undyed hair sexy, but I know they aren't the mainstream. For makeup (reserved exclusively for Halloween night), I rely on daily exercise and a big smile.


PatRemick said...

I think the "cover up" issue is worth addressing in a future blog and Edith, I do believe your smile is more beautiful than any makeup could be anyway. Hopefully we'll be dancing so much at the Vampire Ball we'll discard our black (or red) shoes early!