Gonna lock her up in a trunk


200142863-001Last week I found myself in a branch of a very fancy shoe shop, the kind where a pair of shoes costs about the same as I would begrudgingly pay for a new sofa or a week in the Med.

I don’t recall the name of it, and frankly I don’t need to because I don’t ever plan going back. I am only really interested in shoes that I can wear without any degree of actual agony, ones that I can literally go about my normal business whilst wearing – Birkenstocks for example, or Wellies, or possibly – in festive mood – a low-kitten-heeled slingback. I certainly have no need for the kind of death-defying, vertigo-inducing, migraine-risking shoes on offer in Jimmy Choos, even if they did attract Sparkly Daughter from the pavement like a droid to the Borg.

It was a weird experience to be in there, because it was a shop of two halves. On the right, the shoes available for the gentlemen were indistinguishable from those sold in any shoe shop during last forty years – brogues, Desert boots, Oxfords, moccasins.

But on the left, for the women, was rack after tacky rack of the kind of shoes that, even 15 years ago, would only have been available in specialist shops for drag queens and burlesque dancers. Platforms, ridiculously high heels, dominatrix spikes.

When did it became commonplace for young women to wear shoes that don’t allow them to walk or even stand without risking pain or outright injury?

Next week, at our school prom, I can guarantee you that I will witness countless young women struggling to dance while standing on what amount to a pair of carefully-shaped dumbbells, with the kind of paste-sparkles that used only to grace Christmas crackers.

Again, just the women, mind; the young bucks will be unlikely to be wincing and rubbing their blisters by the end of the evening.

And it isn’t just party wear – teetering platforms are everyday shoes, making it a nerve wracking experience to walk across stretches of concrete with young women forced to walk like a new-born foal wearing stilts.

And of course, while not all young women are clomping around in these diamante encrusted clown shoes, it has become a cliché to say that this the 21st century equivalent of the internal-organ-squishing-corset or Chinese foot binding – crippling, even damaging to the health, in the cause of achieving accepted standards of ‘beauty’.

Of course it’s at this point I start to hear myself sounding like the grumpy old feminist that I undoubtedly am. I experienced the same sinking feeling – Number6, get with the young folk grandma! –  earlier this week when I read that one of the reasons I should feel sorry for the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was because he had left behind a ‘hot’ pole-dancing girlfriend.

Will somebody throw me a rope here, because I am sinking in this quagmire – what’s feminine, what’s feminist? What’s powerful and what’s exploitation? What’s sexy and what’s sleazy? I can’t seem to put my foot on the bottom these days.

I do know, though, that to say that is all a matter of ‘choice’: choice to wear crippling shoes, choice to take your clothes off for money and dance all sexy like while men watch and drool and slurp and pay – well in this context I would say the excuse of ‘choice’ is the gloopiest, stickiest, stinkiest kind of mud to have the misfortune to find yourself sinking in.

I’m clear about this much: that the choices that we all face – least of all young women – can’t ever be described as entirely free. We are bound and hemmed in and limited by the boundaries of our culture, class and gender; the expectations that are deep in our mental and psychological DNA, reinforced every day by our peers and media images.

But surely we KNOW what’s beautiful, right? What amounts to beautiful in 2013 can sometimes make me feel a little queasy – and the young women buying shoes that are what Christian Leboutin describes as a ‘quasi-masochistic experience’ is not even the half of it. Plastic surgery, the bigboobstinywaist conundrum, confusing sexual power with dressing like a dominatrix… I might go on, but there’s enough material there for a catalogue of whinging blogs.

It is hardly controversial to point out that the pressure on young women is very different, much more intense, than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The causes of this are both simple and complex – the images that we are all bombarded with through the global media show extremes in everything (sex, size, hair, clothes, weight, shoes) and can make them seem normal.

To take a hard look at some of these extremes is to recognise, I would say, the limits of using choice as an answer to the squirmy feeling we get when read about a cosmetic procedure currently popular in Japan called ‘yaeba’; this gives a “snaggleteeth” smile deemed sexually attractive because of its endearing “childlike” quality.

Grim, right? But the underlying assumptions here – that it is desirable for women to look child-like and doll-like – are both repulsive and commonplace. To talk about choice in this context sticks in my throat – when the standard of beauty has become this corrupted, to make mealy-mouthed excuses about women having the ‘choice’ to get closer to the ideal of a doll-child, strapped into body-con corsetry and unable to walk without pain, seems more like betrayal of this generation of young women than support.

(Whether the men involved have any choice at being attracted to doll-children, or even if they ARE attracted to such images – well that’s a subject on which I can’t bring myself to comment.)

So in a few short years, when the Sparkly Daughter asks to dip into her paper round money for a belly piercing or some classy porn tats, what will I say?

Christ, I honestly don’t know. I hope, I pray really, that by then she will have the ability to choose her own path across the quagmire, find some role models that are not reality tv stars and find some way to express her power in the world that doesn’t make her walk like she’s been hobbled.

Because surely it can’t be that hard to tell the difference between freedom and slavery, even in this trashy-Kardashian world.

About number6

I am not a number, I am a free woman. More or less.
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