Doing Shopping Wrong, Summer Shoes Edition

Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston pose with the coach from their version of Cinderella.

The last thing I want, having finally settled on a (too expensive) bathing suit, is to start shopping for summer shoes, but yesterday morning I found myself buckling Babygirl’s sandals and then slipping on my own only to wince and take them off again. The inside of the backs were all torn up, the canvas porous and gaping as the inside of a cave. I swallowed a very Ron Weasley-like whine (“Why is everything I own rubbish?”) but Babygirl noticed anyway. “Shoe broken?” she asked me. “Yup,” I said, and then I put it on anyway and took her to day care.

As I walked, I comforted myself: the shoes were cheap, not intended to last long; flimsy as they were, I had gotten good use of them; the situation wasn’t dire. Out of crisis, opportunity, right? Every time one buys a pair of shoes, one seizes the chance to reinvent oneself. We try on different selves in a shoe store. We can be taller, more dramatic, more sedate, more refined, or simply extravagant, the kind of people who can — or anyway do spend $50+ on flip-flops monogrammed by Tory Burch.

The bottom six inches of a person, my high school friends and I once agreed, will tell you everything you need to know.

For a while there, as a young teenager, the bottom six inches of me were all wrong. I didn’t have summer shoes. My parents, busy and overwhelmed rather than uncaring, didn’t buy them for me and I had no idea how to buy them for myself. From where? What kind? How much should I spend? Working around the problem, I wore sneakers, which looked stupid and smelled when I removed them, and I wished, not for the first time, I was merely a brain in a jar, or else a boy, of whom less would be expected.Yes, the sneakers were uncool, and not even uncool in a cool way, just plain awkward and dumb-looking. So was my chubbiness, so were my glasses and my clothes. I was maybe hopeless, and maybe my parents thought I was hopeless, but I was also at least partly defiant. Screw cool.

“Screw cool” got put to the test when I spent a lonely, unhappy summer taking classes at Brown. One day a prof told our class, as part of an exercise, to remove our shoes. While I laboriously untied my laces, everyone else kicked off their sandals. I didn’t see mockery on my classmates’ faces, or pity, only bemusement, as though I had come from the zoo, and I had, sort of: I had spent the first chunk of summer working among grown-up misfits at DC’s National Zoo who didn’t notice that I wore sneakers because they had so many real problems of their own, disabilities and disappointments and husbands who had cheated on them with their best friends and yet who still lived with them because they were too broke to move out.

This last was my boss, Tee, whose wandering eye, she told me once, towards the end of our time together, was the result of a car accident. When she had found out about her husband and her best friend, she had gotten into her Jeep and driven off, taken a blind curve too fast, ended up in a crash and a coma. She was well enough now, except for the eye, which would never heal, and the husband, who, despite everything, might never leave her couch.

No, Tee didn’t notice or care about my shoes; she cared if I did a thorough job watering the delicate, high-maintenance greenhouse orchids and keeping them company. My peers cared though, and it was out of embarrassment — and a realization that, at some point, I wanted to get laid, the same set of impulses that led me to starve myself out of chubbiness and invest in contacts and more age-appropriate clothes — that led me to finally buy a pair of shoes for myself. I got them secondhand at my favorite store, the scrappy Mustard Seed in Bethesda, because they lifted me up and I could walk in them and they were cheap; and I went back to the store the next summer, too, before I left to take classes at Barnard. I had refined the process a bit by then: I had a better, though still adolescent, understanding of what heels signified about a woman (straight) and what clogs did (bi-curious), what platforms meant about a person (performative) vs flats (practical), and that a woman could appear to be all of these things in order over the course of a week simply by changing up her footwear.

I never accumulated more than two or three pairs of shoes at once; that felt extravagant. Still, it was amazing, at last, to have options. To be able to choose — and to present a deliberate picture of — how I looked.

Freshman year of college, my roommate’s mother, who had more money and time than she knew what to do with and lived nearby, dropped in with shopping bags. She also decorated our room, leaving gourds around our computers in the fall and a candy-bearing Halloween witch on the door, swapped out for a set of jolly-looking Christmas stockings with our names on them in glitter — my very first Christmas stocking — when winter came.

My roommate Kay was a descendant of a colonel who had fought in the Revolutionary War. What that meant, in practice, was that she looked like a socialite and her closet was a mess. Almost all of Kay’s mother’s purchases ended up somewhere in the avalanche that started at the ceiling and ended at the foot of Kay’s bed. Except the Birkenstocks. “Mom, those are lesbian shoes,” Kay said, laughing.

Kay’s mom turned to me, her face a question mark. She didn’t want to offend me but she did want to offer me the shoes, because what else was she going to do with them?

“I’ll take them,” I said, smiling. And I did. It was the right choice; I wore those shoes for years and they didn’t stop me from getting laid. This was, perhaps, my high point. If only more fairy godmothers could drop by and offer me shoes!

Too often since then I’ve made the wrong choice, especially when I go shopping by myself. Second-guessed, over-thought, slipped back into my fifteen-year-old self, the one who was such a potent mixture of screw cool defiance and loneliness. I don’t trust myself to buy the right shoes because I don’t trust myself, reliably, to know who I am, to be an adult who can make wise decisions, especially when money and and comfort and questions of fashion/femininity intersect. To whom do I want to appeal? What image do I want to project? What if I get it wrong, waste money, disappoint other people, disappoint myself?

It is easy to please a saleslady, to give her what she wants — to buy a pair of too-tall, garish, black-and-white heels, or a pair of creamy, flirty blue Steve Madden things in the wrong size — and then, having stashed the shoes on a shelf at the top of my closet, blame myself for not having more character. It is much harder to buy a pair of shoes about which, two weeks later, I still feel good.

Well, okay. There are solutions for people like me: Zappos and 6pm and lists like these, of shoes that are cute yet comfortable, reasonably priced but still reasonably sturdy. There is hope that we will someday figure out how to invest less, emotionally, in each purchase, and perhaps invest more, practically. How to lower the stakes so that a shoe becomes not a badge of adequacy or the beginning of a sexual conversation or anything, really, dammit, except a shoe, a tool to help us get from one place to another. Like, you know, a sneaker — only better.

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