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On the Liberating Power of Unflattering Shoes
Or, helping my fat feet and ankles get ready to spring into action
It has been a grim week, getting grimmer. Am I allowed a small bright spot so trivial I hesitate to mention it? I think so. I hope so. This fight is for the long haul. Taking stock and resting, sometimes despite ourselves, is no luxury. (This applies all the more to BIPOC women, unlike me, as the vital work of the Nap Ministry makes beautifully apparent.)
A pair of new shoes is a luxury, of course. But in this case they also help to remind me of something I am fighting for: the bodily freedom to be fat. To be unapologetically not what the patriarchy wants me to be. To be steadfast, to be flat-footed, and to plant myself firmly on the ground in preparedness for anything.
It’s taken me nine years and many pairs of keds to get here. (I’ve literally worn through a couple.) But, looking back, they were a crucial part of discovering what it means to be comfortable in, with, my body.
I bought my first pair in 2013, when I had just started teaching at Cornell. I was, frankly, terrified. The experience of being at the front of the classroom reminded me, obscurely, of what it was like to be at the back of it, when I was bullied during high school. I’ve been writing about that recently—the pain and sheer fear I often experienced in being a girl at an all-boys’ school during my final two years of high school. Undoubtedly that’s where my keen interest in misogyny came from originally. It’s also where I began to understand fatphobia from inside of it, even as an only moderately chubby teen. You can expect to hear a lot more from me on the topic, and my subsequent reckoning with fatphobia as a truly fat woman, in the book I’m working on at the moment.
But back to the sneakers. I had always worn “flattering” shoes, designed to make my feet and ankles and calves look slimmer. Often that was a wan hope, since—unlike some fat people who can find respite from the exclusion of mainstream fashion in shoe-shopping—I have always accumulated fat in those areas of my body. I have fat, flat, short, wide feet; thick, soft ankles; fleshy, ample calves. I can say all of this without judgment now. It is just my body.
Still, back in high school and college and graduate school, I tried so hard to fight it—primarily with Mary Janes with a small heel and black opaque stockings. I pored over a book with the singularly unpromising title How to Never Look Fat Again, by Charla Krupp, that recommended such measures as a bulwark against your body looking the way it actually is in clothing. I was determined to combat what I perceived as my physical foibles, which proliferated as I got older, but were often concentrated below my knees. I invested in shapewear and leggings and stockings and shoes meant to make me look leaner and taller and more angular.
Not only was it a fool’s errand—I am ineluctably wide and short and rounded—but I was never truly comfortable in some of the most fundamental ways. I could never quite balance properly. I never felt entirely steady on my feet. I didn’t enjoy walking long distances. I often felt physical pain and the psychic discomfort of trying to conceal my body from my own person—as if the former would discredit the latter even to myself. And of course I also hid my body from other people.
I won’t say that all changed when I bought my first pair of keds. But it was the beginning of something.
I spied them online: perfectly flat, light grey, with mint piping and laces. They were completely unlike the shoes I’d been wearing. But they looked so light and fun and un-clumpy. I found myself thinking, unbidden, that I could run in them if I needed to. I could run from someone pursuing me.
They arrived and they were perfect. I loved how they felt. I loved how they allowed me to plant my feet, center myself, steadily, in the classroom. I started wearing them with jeans—another item of clothing I’d long avoided. I may have looked “meh,” but I felt powerful, free, incredible. I could move, breathe, run—and, best of all, walk silently. I could sneak in my new sneakers.
This went against all of the standard advice to first-year assistant professors to dress the part. Instead of dressing up, I dressed down. Way down. I loved it. I have never looked back from it.
It’s worth noting that my desire to be able to run—silently, moreover—was undoubtedly born of patriarchy and the fear it had engendered. This fear was once justified, though no longer adaptive to an environment in which I was safe and valued—including by my students and my colleagues, as I’d soon come to know and later internalize. Still, there was something radical and liberating about satisfying this desire by breaking another norm of patriarchy, which tells girls and women that your shoes are meant to be attractive. Specifically, they’re meant to give other people pleasure. And they’re meant, most of all, to make someone with a fat body like mine look as different as can be. I had said, in effect, “fuck flattering.”
The philosopher Cheryl Frazier has written insightfully and movingly about the liberating power of opposing fashion norms via the “fuck flattering” movement. For:
Fat people are plagued with oppressive standards which dictate everything from the way they eat in public to the way they dress. These norms are a discriminatory reminder that fat people need to take up as little space as possible, conforming to others’ beauty ideals while simultaneously remembering that they are not the kind of people who get to count as beautiful… One of the rules often used to control people in contemporary fashion is that women ought to dress in figure flattering clothing that both emphasizes their curves and hides any “flaws” on their bodies… For fat women, the “right” cut is one which minimizes the appearance of fat. Clothing that smooths over rolls, lumps, and bumps, or which makes someone appear smaller, is accepted.
And this applies to shoes too. Hence the power, from head to toe, of the “fuck flattering” movement, which Frazier theorizes as a form of anti-oppressive “beauty labor,” a concept she in turn borrows from Shirley Anne Tate. I encourage you to read the whole thing (the second chapter of her dissertation).
And so, here, today, is my own small contribution: a picture of my feet and ankles in my new Rifle Paper Company keds, which came in the mail on Friday. They are silly. They are girly. They are, arguably, clownish. They make my feet and ankles look fat. Since my feet and ankles are fat, that is entirely as it should be. In short, I love them.
And I look forward to looking down on them and remembering my right not only to take up space, but to walk around flat-footed, steady, and ready to spring into action. On this week of all weeks, I am keenly aware that I will need to.
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