Monday, October 19, 2015
Women's Dress Shoes: A Public Service Announcement
I have severe, chronic foot problems. I've had them since I was a teenager, and I'll probably have them for the rest of my life. My foot problems seriously restrict my shoe options. On better days, I'm limited to flats with decent arch or ankle support; on worse days, nothing short of hiking boots, custom orthotics, and foot tape will do. By now, I've settled into three classes of workable shoes-- hiking boots, sandals with serious footbeds, like Birkenstocks, and cowboy boots. Cowboy boots might seem like a surprising choice, but they're uniquely good at accommodating my weirdly-shaped feet, they're flat with very sturdy soles, and they allow me to use foot tape.
Like many women who have health problems that conflict with fashion norms, I have spent hundreds of hours trying to find acceptable options. At this point, I can say conclusively that the reason I can't find dress shoes I can wear is not that I haven't tried hard enough, but because the design philosophy of women's shoes is fundamentally incompatible with what my feet need in terms of support. Most dress shoes are heels, which I can't wear. The flats typically have flimsy soles, don't offer any support, don't have removable footbeds, or are not high enough to accommodate orthotics. I'm grateful for sites like Barking Dog Shoes, but my foot problems are far more extreme than the issues they address. I don't need comfortable shoes; I need shoes with a specific set of structural requirements that allow me to not be in pain.
It is much more difficult to dress around health problems if you are a woman than if you are a man. If I were a man, I would have no problem finding appropriate dress shoes. I know this because one of my male family members has the same foot problems as me, and standard men's dress shoes work for him. There are a myriad of different health problems that involve a similar double standard-- imagine a woman vs. a man with a skin condition that prevented them from wearing makeup, or a woman vs. a man with a health problem that prevented them from wearing tight-fitting clothing.
I'm often judged negatively for not wearing appropriate dress shoes, and this judgment comes by and large from other women. Men generally don't care. In fact, they generally don't even notice. Women have told me many times that it's my fault that I can't find appropriate dress shoes, and if I can't find decent dress shoes, my career will be doomed because I will fail every job interview.
Along with the judgment comes unsolicited advice. This "help" can be reduced to four unhelpful categories:
(1) You should just put up with it! For many people, this is not a viable option-- the short-term or long-term effects are too severe. For me, assuming I could make it through the day, which I probably couldn't, I would likely be crippled for weeks. I would be unable to cook, do the dishes, do the laundry, or any one of a number of mundane household tasks that require standing. I'd be lucky if I could leave the house. It's hard to understand the true extent to which health problems can impact your life unless you've experienced them yourself.
Beyond the practical issues, consider the implications of that statement: "Surely your health problems can't be all that bad." "Appearances are more important than your ability to live your life to the fullest." "Rather than accept you for who you are, the world and I would prefer that you suffer." This attitude is toxic and offensive.
(2) You just haven't spent enough time looking! Again, the implications of this statement are troubling. How do you know how much time someone has spent looking? Why did you automatically assume that lack of effort is the problem? Or that continuing to look is a good use of time?
For me, my hit rate is so low I would have to spend tens of hours looking for shoes to even have a hope of finding something. But, in those tens of hours that I spent fruitlessly searching for supposedly job-appropriate shoes...I could have spent that time on career development with actual substance. I could have written a first draft of a paper, or learned a new programming language. Personally, I'd rather put my time into out-badassing the competition by such a wide margin that nobody even cares about my shoes. Not everyone wants to eat the opportunity cost that comes with an extended uphill battle against the system, and that's OK.
(3) You should just try X! This response is a manifestation of a very common, and frustrating, occurrence for people with any kind of chronic health problem. Someone with no firsthand experience of your condition or your day-to-day life sweeps in and declares that they can fix everything in one simple step. It's clear that they mean well, but habitually fielding well-meaning but misguided advice is exhausting. In addition, for some people, there is a very real cost to trying new products. For someone whose skin is sensitive to makeup or jewelry, the result of a failed experiment could last for days.
(4) You should just try ordering online! Online shopping is no magic solution. It's great that many online stores have shipping and return policies that allow customers to try on clothes or shoes for free. However, for some people, the hit rate is so low that they might have to try on tens or hundreds of items to find something that works. This involves fronting large amounts of money over a long period of time. Again, it is not reasonable to expect that everyone is willing or able to expend so much time or so many resources in this way.
In the end, for me, it is simply not a good use of my time or money to actively continue trying to solve my dress shoe problem. The deck is stacked against me and the opportunity cost is too high. I don't need to find the perfect pair of shoes; I need a paradigm shift.
Listen. The fashion industry isn't going to change any time soon. Fashion editorials aren't suddenly going to start celebrating orthotic-friendly shoes, and high-end designers aren't going to start producing a flood of stylish and supportive flats. So I'm talking to you, readers. You get to decide for yourself how harshly you judge women based on their appearance. If you sit on a hiring committee, if you get to decide in any way who you work with and how they get promoted, you have great power. And with great power comes great responsibility. You don't know whether someone's odd clothing, makeup, or shoe choice is due to some kind of medical condition they do their best to work around. Don't be judgmental. Don't be a jerk.
Because you-- YOU-- are the ones who can make a real difference.