By Ellen Painter Dollar
Shoes drive me crazy. To be more specific, if you are a woman who wears what most women wear, your shoes drive me crazy—your flip-flops and Crocs, your Dansko clogs and Merrell mocs, your ballet flats and high-heeled boots and wedge espadrilles.
What have you and your shoes done to offend me? Nothing intentional, I assure you. I’m bothered by the very fact of your shoes and the simple relationship you appear to have with them. You see a pair of cute shoes on sale and if they fit, you decide, “Why not? I’ll get them.” You need a certain kind of shoe—pumps to match the dress you’re wearing to a wedding, sandals you can slip on to chase the kids around all summer—and you know you’ll find what you want. It might take some comparison shopping, some trying on of different sizes, but eventually, you’ll find something that fits your criteria.
My relationship with shoes is more complicated. On the positive side, my shoe options have expanded since my childhood. Then I was limited to hard-soled Oxfords (essentially, boys’ dress shoes) because I wore long metal leg braces, and the bottom of the braces had to hook into special holes drilled into the heels. I vividly remember the two pairs of shoes my mom bought for me in middle school (white canvas Nikes with a blue swoosh, and brown Docksiders) when I switched to plastic braces that could slip right into my shoes. I still get a little giddy in shoe stores, intoxicated by the idea that I am no longer limited to brown clodhoppers. I can buy any shoes I want.
Except I can’t really. While I no longer wear leg braces, I will always have the bone disorder that made them necessary. So I have a long list of qualities I need in shoes. Rubber soles to offer good traction and accommodate the 1 ¼-inch lift I have added to the left shoe to partially compensate for a leg-length discrepancy. Laces or straps to keep the shoe firmly on my foot (most slip-ons are out of the question). Flat soles and broad heels to prevent my ankles from twisting. A closed front to cover my knobby toes. And on top of all that, they have to feel good, or at least good enough. My feet always hurt, every day, no matter what shoes I wear. So I look for shoes that hurt the least.
These requirements mean I have to buy high-quality (i.e., expensive) shoes. And then I have to shell out $100 per pair to have the lift added to my left shoe. And then, after all that, my feet still hurt at the end of the day.
Do you see why regular sightings of Old Navy flip-flops can make me a little crazy? (And don’t even get me started on Crocs…)
Of course, it’s not really about the shoes. It’s about the sense of alienation that crystallizes when I recognize how little most women have to ponder their shoe choices vs. how much I do. I do not navigate the world wrapped up in self-pity or bitter awareness of my disability. But occasionally, something catches me up short, brings into focus that yes, I am different. Our family is different (one of my three children has the same bone disorder I do). Our differences can be a gift as well as a burden. But they are definitely differences.
I recall a beautiful summer day nine years ago when my toddler daughter (the one with the bone disorder) and I were at a friend’s house with our play group. For everyone else, being outdoors on such a day was the epitome of carefree summer living. For me and my daughter—who could not ride a plastic tricycle safely, could not yet walk, and could break a bone as the result of a minor accident—playing in a hilly, toy-strewn backyard with six other toddlers was dangerous, frustrating, and anxiety-producing. Eventually, we just went home, and I felt sadder that day than I had since the day my daughter was diagnosed at six weeks old.
As a family living with this disability, we live with different assumptions than other families. We operate under different rules. We see danger where others see the daily givens of middle-class suburban life—a great pair of shoes on sale, kids running amok in the backyard on a summer day.
For those of you also living with disabilities, what crystallizes your differences or your sense of separation from others? And how do you respond to those feelings when they come up?