The quote "Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world" is attributed to Bette Midler, a multi-talented and deservedly successful woman regardless of her footwear. I have no idea in what context this statement was uttered, but both the truth and the ridiculousness of it are well-captured in Pam Laskin’s book My Life in Shoes.
Part memoir, part poetic meditation, Pam Laskin looks back at the memorable shoes that played a role in key points in her life, and in doing so, both celebrates and questions her and many women’s obsession with shoes.
Not yet classified as a real addiction, SOD, or shoe obsession disorder, has even made its way into the Urban Dictionary where it is gently described as ‘womankind’s enduring love affair with fabulous footwear; Commonly self-diagnosed and there is no cure.’ Urban Dictionary also notes that SOD is a term for fool. We’re apt to think of those suffering from SOD as certain types of women, the Carrie Bradshaws of the world, charming yes, but perhaps a bit too shallow and in ready possession of expendable income for us to completely identify with them. Though we may try to resist the mysterious powers of shoes, Laskin’s book gives a poignant glimpse into why very few women are completely immune from shoe mania. Weaned on childhood tales with iconic shoe moments like Cinderella testing the glass slipper and Dorothy clicking her red ruby heels, what else can we think but that the right pair of shoes will somehow have the power to transport and transform us?
Except that so often they don’t. In the early part of Ms. Laskin’s book, she chronicles the magic she invested in various pairs of shoes as she navigates a dark world peopled by her own mentally unstable mother, her father and step-mother. Though living in Queens, she is also sometimes farmed out to other relatives who live in the projects in Brooklyn. In a particularly moving section of the book, Ms. Laskin is sixteen and in desperate need of a pair of Fred Braun’s, the shoe owned by every normal, traditionally parented, sixteen-old-year girl in her universe. Presented with the prohibitive price of $60 dollars, her mother refuses and Laskin vows to work extra baby-sitting hours to buy herself the coveted shoes. After accomplishing this feat, Laskin returns home triumphant in her new Fred Braun’s. Her mother asks, ‘What are those monstrosities?’ Even worse, the shoes do not have the intended effect at school. Laskin writes:
I wear them to school: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. None of the Fred Braun girls ask me out to lunch, or to hang out after school . . . I wear them anyway, day after week after month, praying for someone—anyone—to acknowledge I am wearing her shoes and they look oh so fine on my feet. I still sit in the cafeteria and eat alone.
From this passage it’s clear that unless we are talking about combat boots, shoes are a bit overrated in their power to conquer anything.
Like the fairytale children stepping out of the dangerous forest, Laskin enters a much brighter existence as an adult, even if the larger world still proves treacherous. Though she acknowledges inheriting her mother’s feet, she refuses to wear her shoes, a concrete symbol of the power of choice and self-determination in shaping our destinies.
The ‘shoe history’ proves to be a quite successful lens for looking at a woman’s life. I for one would like to see more memoirs based on footwear, by women and men alike. My own would likely start with a pair of mukluk boots I begged my father to buy for me one winter, but then didn’t have the nerve to wear again once I realized what a fanciful, extraordinary choice I had made compared to the other second-graders at my parochial school. I spent my recess in hiding.
Laskin is unique in that she acknowledges the inner struggle that her love of shoes presents her with. She keenly feels events like the recession and the earthquake in Haiti and admits that in such a landscape, there might be something questionable about all this buying of flats and pumps and sandals. Her own husband only has three pairs of shoes and she loves him for it.
In the section on Haiti, she includes a beautiful poem by Phebus Etienne. The poet had made arrangements for her mother’s funeral and is deciding what shoes the deceased should wear when her aunt reminds her, Haitians do not put shoes on the dead. Shoes, we learn, would hinder the dead in their quest to find the living they have left behind. Laskin later considers shoes as a status symbol, a way of making oneself acceptable, and ponders a shoeless universe and how freeing it would be in many ways. Still, as promising as a world without shoes sounds, our need for and fascination with them will no doubt continue.