Despite having watched sex and the city on an irregular basis for several years, it was just the other day I realised how the show was almost as much about shoes as either sex or the city. For those 4 psychotic women, the acquisition, the wearing, the sharing and the coveting of shoes provided almost as much pleasure as did the unfortunate men who happened to cross their paths. Take away the endless natter about the shoes and you cut out half the dialogue and ruin the continuity of the story lines. The love of shoes held the series together.
To most men, this unnatural fixation with shoes remains a mystery. The extent to which women will go to contort their feet in the name of fashion seems to know no bounds. Being forever in the pursuit of knowledge that will enhance my understanding of the female of my species, I have decided to focus my intellectual energies to the question-du-jour: why do women do this to themselves? Why don’t they realise that we men don’t really care very much, as we tend to notice a lot of other things before our attention moves to the feet?
My friend Rani jumped in with an amazing insight: women spend so much energy on shoes not because they wanted to attract men, but because they were a substitute for men - shoes compete with men as objects of desire. Not just that, but shoes are in many ways superior to men. The perfect shoe is more perfect than the perfect man, and therefore more desirable. A perfect shoe is a thing of physical beauty in itself, causing little or no suffering to the delighted woman (remember this is the perfect shoe. Which by definition looks gorgeous and causes no pain).The perfect man has two problems. First, most men can only either be beautiful, or cause no suffering, never both, most often delivering only on the suffering in the long run. Thereby, of course, ceasing to be perfect after all. Second, although once abundant in the wild, the perfect man is now even more elusive than the snow tiger, and probably just as mythical as the unicorn, I am told. The perfect shoe, on the other hand, has been sighted, and worn by Edna’s best friend’s first cousin, and thus remains a realistic goal, achievable in this lifetime, nay, this year!
But I cannot see how this is entirely a female thing, because I too would dearly like to substitute my search for the perfect female companion with the acquisition of footwear, lovingly designed by men with such improbable names as Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik. Not that there are no men who do not spend ridiculous amounts of money on shoes, nor are all these men gay. But I suspect that for men they function more as a signal (of wealth, or status) rather than objects of desire in themselves. Perhaps this signals that men have not given up entirely the possibility of the perfect woman? Maybe men hold on to their romantic view of the perfect woman for much longer, confirming their reputation for being impractical.
Perhaps my naiveté in the matter reflects my upbringing. Back in secondary school in Nigeria, shoes did provide an important signal, but in the exact reverse way. That is, if you were in any way cool, you wore flipflops or sandals, and these needed to be appropriately scuffed, worn out and perennially in danger of giving up the ghost– so if any form of locomotion beyond a gentle stroll were needed, they would be immediately abandoned. Shoes (and by extension, socks) were decidedly a symbol of un-coolness, or a sign of foreign birth, a foreign parent (both of which implied a soft skin, the ultimate insult), some medical condition or an obsession with marijuana (anecdotal evidence drives this last point, with an admittedly small sample size of one – a permanently stoned chap who insisted on wearing platform shoes, even to the track). I do not recollect being able to identify the Sons of Big Men from those of smaller ones by means of their footwear. The absence of symbols of privilege was intentional – reflecting to some extent a culture that class was not something to be flaunted, at least, not in public. Being not only the progeny of foreigners, but a day student in a boarding school, I wore shoes, with socks, and even owned plimsolls for the purposes of running, and thereby uber-uncool.
This egalitarianism continued through university, although the Sons of Big Men did indeed begin to wear nicer shoes. But the quality of their shod was an aside to the other accoutrements of wealth such as the appropriately expensive set of wheels, the exquisitely embroidered gown, unnecessary shopping trips to London, the large stock of very beautiful women being picked up and dropped off in said car.
But perhaps it was the company I kept, but i saw no shoes amongst my crowd. I never did hang out with the ostentatious consumers, the Benz-driving ladies’ men from the social sciences faculty. Engineering students tended to be more nerdy, and conservative in their dress. My female friends – whether platonic or otherwise – did not also show an especial need to own more than a few pairs of shoes.
Shoes – on the streets of Zaria- had to be more practical. Most of the walking one did was on potholed roads and poorly paved sidewalks, often without the aid of street lighting. Expensive shoes tend not to be associated with actual walking, and by necessity require not just the money to acquire them, but the wherewithal to underutilise them. By which I mean, they looked best when not covered in a layer of mud or dust, preferably seen as one exits or enters an automobile. Shoes such as these require also that one has the necessary assistance (by way of cooks, drivers, general-purpose hangers-on, people to do your shopping, etc) to tackle tasks on your behalf that might involve locomotion detrimental to your finely attired feet.
One does not, of course, need such assistance in the developed world. One’s feet do not, on the whole, make contact with Mother Nature in any way detrimental to your shoes. In other words, shoes imply functionality in circumstances of poverty. Fancy shoes imply impracticality, and the resources to be so.
Of course, this paved-and-lit comfort is all rather new, even in the west. Not much more than a 100 years ago, the streets of London were also mostly dark and always covered with horse manure and mud. Fine shoes were also a sign of wealth then – this is probably why the wealthy had footmen (a job title suggestive of their true purpose?), whose job it surely must have been to prevent the elements coming into contact with the feet of the obscenely wealthy as they stepped from mansion to carriage and back again? It is no accident that Shakespeare failed to wax lyrical on the matter of shoes, in whose time they would surely have also served no purpose beyond the essential. In most cultures some of the worst insults are associated with shoes: showing another the soles of one’s shoes; striking a person with your shoes, walking with your shoes in their dwelling, gifting a person one’s old shoes. There are few circumstances – still – where shoes are auspicious and complimentary. Shoes as a coveted gift are largely a new phenomenon, and are still – I maintain – viewed as a sign of a poor upbringing, or a preference for sugar daddies.
Let us then, accept that the shoe fetish is largely a product of modern, more affluent times.
So why are women willing to consider shoes as an almost-perfect alternative to sex, and men are not? It is well-known that men have a marked preference for women who make their life difficult; the chase is as important as the conquest. As most women discover sooner rather than later, we appreciate our prey when we have to hunt. Walking into a shoe shop and unleashing one’s credit card can hardly be termed a chase, and the acquisition of anything so easily can surely have little value, unless it serves as a tool for use on more complex and challenging hunts. One may buy a pair of shoes to impress a woman, but then it serves only as an accessory to the hunt, it is rarely its object (unless the hunter suffers from excessively low self-esteem or low levels of testosterone). Women, on the other hand, have only recently begun to exploit their newly found equality in such matters, and perhaps confuse the object of the hunt with the tools?
Perhaps men are put off by the shoe thing by what they have to pay, and by this I do not mean in terms of money. As every woman knows, men have a low threshold of pain, and the acquisition of anything that promises very little by way of immediate pleasure, but is guaranteed to be excruciatingly painful for what only amounts to dubious glances of envy from other shoe lovers is simply not something that computes for us men. If, on the other hand, the excruciating pain led to an all-but guaranteed sexual encounter, men will put up with happily contort their feet, and will start to obsess about shoes as well. It is well known that men will do absolutely anything if there was a sexual payoff of some kind.
In closing, I feel the need to offer some useful take-home lessons to the single folks amongst you.
Men: Should you be suspicious of women with too many shoes, not just because she may prove to be a potentially very expensive partner? Does a woman with a shoe fetish indicate a woman who is:
a. Jaded by men, and resigned to not finding ‘the one’. All relationships with men play second fiddle to her shoe collection (and her career)?
b. Seriously promising girlfriend material, because the shoes indicate an unhappy history with men, and therefore now has reasonable (read, low) expectations?
Women: if you find a man with a larger shoe collection than your own, there really are only 5 possibilities: Low self-esteem, too many sisters, over-compensating, more money than sense, or still in the closet. Make haste – run.