An online brouhaha has erupted over women’s shoes. Well, not real shoes. Emoji shoes. The red emoji stiletto, to be specific. The semi-controversy was sparked by public-relations expert Florie Hutchinson’s campaign to persuade the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee (yes, that’s a real thing) to add a ballet flat emoji. Why should women be limited to a sexy red stiletto — the only official “women’s” shoe currently available in emoji-land? As Florie argued in her proposal, “A FLAT SHOE would help pave the way to a more gender non-sexualized pictorial representation of the footwear category.”
Given all the serious things that are sapping women’s energy and stealing our attention these days — reports of powerful, serial sexual predators; full-time Twitter trolls; the regular offhand misogyny that occupies our day-to-day lives — maybe it seems silly to talk about red stilettos or any other aspect of women’s wardrobes. But women’s fashions exert legitimate power over women’s lives, and too often, we pay a steep price for the shoes and clothing we’re expected to wear. From a young age, we find that female fashion regularly limits our ability to move, and the stiletto, which keeps us in pain and keeps us from catching that bus, embodies this idea.
The problem starts early. University of Michigan sociologist Karin Martin observed more than 100 children at five preschools and concluded that the way young girls were dressed inhibited their ability to move around. Turns out it’s hard to crawl around in a dress. The girls also had to monitor how they moved in their clothes. Wearing a dress meant you couldn’t follow suit when your playmates propped their feet up on a table. The girls’ clothing was a continual source of distraction. Tights had to be yanked up. Bows had to be straightened. Martin watched 5-year-old girls playing dress-up in a pair of women’s shoes. The girls practiced walking, their steps small as they imitated how adult women move in heels.
Researchers at Kenyon College analyzed dozens of Halloween costumes, Valentine’s Day cards and action figures targeted at either girls or boys. Almost 90 percent of the female characters in these pieces of pop culture were adorned with what the researchers called “decorative clothing” — clothing that impedes movement. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of male characters wore functional clothing that encouraged free movement. A Spider-Man suit lets you run and play without worrying about exposing your body or tearing your costume. A crinoline-boosted princess gown requires you to sit like a lady, manage to avoid tripping on your skirts, and keep your head upright, lest you lose your tiara.
Things don’t seem to change much when girls become women. We wear Spanx to hide any jiggling, because controlling our body shape is more important than comfortably drawing oxygen into our lungs. We wear skirts that have to be tugged down when we walk, tops that have to be pulled up when we lean over. We wear dresses that require us to “suck in” for hours.
And then there are the shoes. Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode wrote of seeing professional women made late to meetings because the heels they wore required them to wait in taxi lines instead of walking. This is to say nothing of the fact that regularly walking in heels can have a permanent, negative effect on your gait and leave you at greater risk for osteoarthritis. These choices feel natural in a culture in which the sexual objectification of women is rampant. One study found that the more women thought of themselves as sexual objects, the less likely they were to select clothing with comfort in mind. When women feel they must wear clothing and shoes that leave them in pain at the end of the day, bodies marked by angry red welts, we have a problem, and it goes way beyond our emoji options.
I’ve been there. On the top shelf of my closet, a pair of strappy black suede stilettos sit gathering dust. The last time I put them on, my partner said: “Are you sure you want to wear those? Won’t they make your feet hurt?” His questions left me speechless for a moment. Of course they would hurt my feet. By the end of the evening, I would undoubtedly be half-hobbled in pain. But isn’t that just what women do?
I’ve been thinking a lot about stilettos lately, ever since I read about an event called “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” It’s a combination fundraiser and awareness campaign to fight sexual assault and gender violence, in which men literally walk a mile in women’s shoes: red stilettos. I was struck by the image of a red stiletto-wearing man sprawled on the ground at the end of the walk, presumably exhausted from the mile-long trek in such punishing footwear. And I felt tired, too. Tired of a lot of things, but also tired of our clothing and our shoes making it more difficult for women to be present and effective in the world.
We’ll find out in November whether Hutchinson’s proposal was successful, when the emoji committee makes its official announcement. That little blue emoji ballet flat won’t rid the world of sexism. But it might provide a bit of inspiration to women struggling to find balance between being fashionable and being comfortable, to women who want to look good but also want to be able to run if they need to. Do emoji shoes matter more than the long list of critical issues facing women? Of course not. We have many battles to fight. It would be nice if our wardrobes didn’t slow us down along the way.