Each September while I was in elementary school, my mom would take my older sister and I back-to-school shopping. This consisted of typical errands, stopping to get folders, pens, pencils etc. We would spend the whole day getting organized for the upcoming year, making sure my pencil case and backpack fit the third grade aesthetic I was going for. The start of school was all about first impressions, and I intended to go in with an astounding bang.
One particular year, I remember stopping by a shoe store to look for new sneakers. I had ruined my last pair running into our pond to catch a frog. One of them even got stuck in the mud and I have never seen it since.
Upon entering the store, a pair of black Converse with searing flames along their sides immediately caught my attention. This was the pair I wanted. No one would mess with me so long as I rocked this bold footwear statement, not even the boys who they were marketed towards. I convinced my mom to buy them for me, promising not to go frog chasing in them (crossing my fingers behind my back as I said so).
The first day of third grade rapidly approached and I strutted onto the bus with my fiery new kicks. As I walked down the aisle to the back seats where all the “cool kids” sat, my peers began to poke fun at my boyish tennis shoes. One kid even asked if my older brother gave them to me as a hand-me-down. Luckily, we had recess together and I schooled him in a pickup soccer game hours later.
That third grade tomboy still rests inside me and abruptly awoke as I read about the recent Cannes Film Festival controversy when a group of middle-aged women were turned away for wearing ballet flats instead of high heels. They were criticized for looking out of place, ill-equipped to fit in with other female attendees who honored the unspoken red carpet rule that women must wear high heels.
Inspired by this recent footwear controversy, Elizabeth Semmelhack wrote a viral article for The New York Times titled Shoes That Put Women in Their Place. She points out that it was men who originally wore heels in the 17th century and their present-day femininity is simply a social construct. Over time, high heels have become a sex symbol for women, a means to increase their dominance.
Semmelhack offers keen insight when she eloquently and poignantly argues that “This is the ultimate problem with sexual allure as a purported means to power: The power lies in the eye of the beholder, not the beheld.” Heels are not just a physical discomfort, they also send a disempowering message that women must wear them to “measure up.”
“Linking sex appeal to power also clearly suggests that women have a very short window of opportunity for when they can be seen as powerful,” Semmelhack adds. High heels represent the sexualization and objectification of females, a way to make their appearance “more desirable” when in fact it is the non-material qualities and characteristics that should define womanhood.
Part of the mission of A Woman’s Place (AWP) is to promote equality and encourage creativity. Combining these two values, the Walk a Mile In Her Shoes event on June 13 hopes to raise awareness about domestic violence, while also advocating for gender equality. Unlike the Cannes Festival, men are the ones who are strongly encouraged to wear fashion heels for the duration of the walk to protest rape, sexual assault, and gender violence. For all the men out there reading this, please channel your inner 17th century man and come support AWP!
I am not sure whatever happened to my flaming pair of black Converse – chances are I probably lost them to another frog chasing outing. Throughout the years I’ve always enjoyed sporting different types of shoes be it soccer cleats, flip-flops, rain boots, you name it. As your own shoe collection grows, remember the multitude of roles women play and the importance of establishing their value beyond the height of a pair of heels.
Student, James Madison University
and AWP 2015 Summer Intern