I always wanted to have Barbie’s feet.
Well, okay, maybe not the wires that run from her heels to her thighs and allow her knees to bend with that clickclickclick clickclickclick so dear to a child’s ear. When it comes to the inner workings of our legs and feet, I clearly got the better deal.
Ah, but the shape of them: slender, high-arched, delicate – while I tromp around on Fred Flintstone feet: flat, fat and with no discernible taper between calf and ankle. My feet always worked, and for that I am grateful, but transportation aside, they did little for me and certainly seemed to go out of their way to scuttle my desire to attain the twin pinnacles of adolescence – beauty and popularity.
When I was a kid, my shoe choices were limited not just by income (low to middle) and size (short and wide) but by my mother’s insistence that I was allergic to rubber. I’m not sure exactly what was this based on, except that the elastic in her bras made her itch and left deep red grooves in her white flesh each night. She said, "You’re allergic to rubber, just like me." So the allergic to rubber thing was always there – sort of like my little brother. If there was a time in my life when either of them didn’t exist, I don’t remember it.
What this mostly meant was no tennis shoes (or as Mom always called them, gym shoes).
Even in the early grades we were expected to wear gym shoes in the gym. No hard-soled shoes allowed. The only shoes I was allowed to wear were hard-soled. I spent a lot of time sliding around gym floors in my socks, and at the beginning of each year I had to tell a new teacher why I didn’t have my gym shoes on the day we were to produce them as proof of our parents’ understanding and support of the no-hard-soles rule. Once, when I was perhaps in first grade, the teacher didn’t believe me, and in front of the class implied – if not outright said – I was a liar. What a horrible accusation for a child devastated by the slightest of public reprimands. She wanted a note, "From a doctor, not your parents," to deliver me from the dreaded "E" (Detroit’s 1960s version of a failing grade). It’s possible she even asked whether we were too poor to buy gym shoes. (Well, yes, finding money for school clothes was often a challenge, not that it was any of her business.) Eventually the teacher was forced to accept a note from my parents, and I was left to the routine difficulties of playing dodgeball and volleyball and doing the Eraser Run portion of the Presidential Fitness Test in my socks.
At some point during elementary school, maybe through the sheer force of Mom’s will – which was forceful, indeed – the proof of her assertion that I was allergic to rubber began to bubble to the surface, literally. Tiny blisters spread across the bottoms of my feet, making walking and other forms of mobility first painful and then impossible. I missed school in the fourth grade, the seventh grade, and the ninth grade. The doctors we saw "Never saw anything like it," and offered only semi-helpful suggestions until we stumbled across a combination of effective topical ointments. A patch test confirmed, yes, a mild allergy to rubber and maybe the glue holding the bodies and soles of mass-produced shoes together. And so, in junior high, just when it mattered most, my shoe selections narrowed to all-leather, hand-stitched, special-order, intended for adults, more expensive than multiple pairs of gym shoes shoes. Buying them was a sacrifice for my parents, and I should have appreciated their commitment to my foot health, but I was blinded by all that I couldn’t have: No Candies, no platform heels, no Earth shoes, no Barbie-pretty sandals fit for every outfit and occasion.
Still, for all that I felt constrained by my ugly feet and embarrassed by my even uglier shoes, I could usually count on them to hold me up. The same can’t be said for Barbie: Even at fifty, she remains unable to stand on her own two prettily-shod feet. But does that mean I can't wish mine were more attractive?