November 10, 2009

My Own Two Feet

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?


  1. I loved this - and it reminded me of the various shoes I had in grammar school. I did get to have saddle shoes and black patent leather Sunday shoes, but until my feet stopped growing in 6th grade, my Mom made me wear my brothers' black buckle rain boots, and use their hockey skates!

  2. And I bet your mother told you that no one could tell that those were boys' boots and skates, right?

  3. When I was very little (5 or 6?) I had to wear special shoes that were different sizes because my feet are different sizes. I guess the doctor (or shoe salesman?) convinced my parents that I wouldn't grow properly or something if I didn't wear these ugly, clod hopping shoes. They looked like saddle shoes I guess, but they were definitely *NOT* in style in the early 1970s!

    I still can't wear shoes that don't lace up, or at least have a strap across the front because they'll fall right off my smaller foot. I have learned to love boots instead!

  4. Not that I'm happy you had to wear special shoes, Kelly, but I wish I had known that others were having issues and self-doubts, too. Maybe I would have felt less freaky.

  5. Shoes can make or break you in grade school. I'm not sure how you turned out so well-adjusted, Barbara. My ultimate personal shoe story: I "lost" my shoe on television on Chicago's Bozo Show when I was around 6 - -it was too big (frugality), black patent and when I kicked my leg during a televised snake dance with several other kids, a frenzied "crack the whip" ordeal, my shoe sailed across the studio, and I sat down on the floor, revealing my underwear beneath my pink dress (black patent, pink dress?), as I re-shod myself. I can still hear the roar of the audience today . . .

  6. Kris,

    That is both hysterical and heartbreaking. I could hear your voice as I read, and particularly love this: "a frenzied 'crack the whip' ordeal..." I have my own Bozo the Clown show (Detroit) story, which may make it into a clothes-related essay or post.

  7. Barbara, I well remember you missing about 3 or 4 weeks in the ninth grade due to the rubber allergy of your feet. I felt so sorry for you, because of the pain that those blisters must have caused you. I also had "shoe" problems. I was almost clubbed foot when I was born, and the Dr. had my mom put my baby shoes on the wrong feet to get them to turn outward instead of "pigeon-toed". Then I had to wear corrective shoes through 8th grade, and they only came in saddle oxfords, which broadcasted to everyone that I wore corrective shoes. They became popular around 8th grade, but I wanted nothing to do with them by that time. I do believe that in 7th & 8th grade, I actually had a different style leather corrective shoe. Of course, all I wear now are running shoes. I never want to own another pair of saddle oxfords as long as I live. I am also glad that you now wear different kinds of shoes, including "tennis" shoes.
    Love Bobbie

  8. Bobbie, I never knew that. I can kind of picture you in saddle shoes in 8th grade, but it's possible that by the time we moved to Virginia you had stopped wearing them and I only think I remember them.

  9. Hi Barbara,
    Loved the story and your writing!