There's a meme going around the blogosphere right now which I particularly like. There's no tagging. If you want to do it on your own blog, do it. I'm going to do it here.
Five Things Feminism Has Given Me
1. My Body. I'm not pregnant, I'm not a mother, nor have I died in childbirth because some benighted godbag thinks it my duty as a woman to suffer and die in childbirth after what Eve supposedly did, if she was even a real person. Everyone I know is a mother -- or not -- because she chose that for herself, one way or another. Every child I know is loved and wanted. (Can you say the same? If not, why not?)
2. My Freedom. I'm not married. I have been married, and I have been divorced. I was not married when I was just barely menstrual (or younger) to some guy I'd never met whom my parents chose for me on the basis of social position or financial gain for me or them. I was not infibulated or circumcised to ensure my chastity and marriageability. I was not executed for adultery when my husband and I already lived in separate houses but hadn't gotten divorced yet and I started seeing other people. When I was emotionally and physically abused while married, people openly took my side and tried to protect me to an extent limited only by the measure of each one's physical and emotional courage -- and how much help I myself allowed. I was not executed for being unwanted. When my marriage ended, I was not expected to live the life of an ascetic. I do not now need to marry the man I've been living with for over 11 years in order to stay out of jail, though here in Massachusetts I would have had to as recently as less than 100 years ago. All the material things I own really belong to me, by law.
3. My Intellect. I can read. 'Nuff said.
4. My Voice. Without legal consequence, I can say anything which does not unfairly harm another person, and I can disseminate what I say through whatever medium I choose. I can paint whatever I like, even naked people of both genders, even details of their genitals (which I am even free to study to learn better!), and I can publish whatever of my work I choose and sell whatever people choose to buy. I can also vote. Less than a hundred years ago, just two generations in my family before me, women in this country, my maternal grandmother among them, at last won the right to vote for the very first time. Gives you chills, doesn't it?
5. My Feet. Now, isn't that a funny thing for a transfemoral amputee to say? Yet that's what the rest of this post is about.
This last gift is not all that different from 1 or 2 above. It's a part of one and a tool for the other. It has proven a surprisingly challenging gift to hold and protect, though, in ways that amputation has only thrown into relief. And it's one I took utterly for granted, abused mindlessly, and mostly never thought about for the longest time.
I own a delightful book called Heavenly Soles, by Mary Trasko. It's a portfolio of remarkable, mostly 20th century women's shoes, an exploration of how they changed and why, and also a sharp set of essays on the history of women's liberation -- or not -- as demonstrated by footwear trends over several centuries, all presented from the perspective of an unabashed lover of shoes as art and treasure.
I purchased this book shortly after its publication, while I was still in my 20s, and that's quite honestly the first time I ever considered my feet in the context of feminism. Here is one rather long excerpt that may help you understand why this book opened that particular mental door for me:
Over centuries shoes have also expressed social power, symbolizing men's authority over women and effectively enslaving women by circumscribing their mobility. The symbolism can clearly be seen in some rituals of the marriage ceremony. In the Middle Ages, for example, a father's authority over his daughter was passed to her husband by means of her shoe. In other instances the groom might hand the bride a shoe; to put it on was to concede that she had become his subject.
Perhaps the most potent example of the use of footwear to enhance men's authority (and thereby their pleasure?) is the Chinese custom of foot-binding, which began in the tenth century and continued until 1911 when the Chinese republic was founded. Girls aged four to six, sometimes younger, were subjected to this excruciatingly painful ritual, which ultimately shaped their identity. Women with unbound feet often served as second wives or slaves to these favored women who, after enduring the deformations, could only mince along with painful, delicate steps -- a gait that men found deliriously erotic.
The bound feet themselves, called lily feet, were treated as an extremely private domain, to be viewed only by a woman's husband and otherwise kept covered at all times. A French doctor traveling in China in 1899 noted that the unshod, deformed foot was thought to be exquisitely beautiful; touching it brought on feelings "similar to the European sensibility in touching a woman's breast...purely a question of sentiment and of sensation."
In the Western world small feet were also regarded as aristocratic, a most exquisite expression of femininity. Even though the practice of wearing shoes of the smallest possible size caused the bones of the feet to become twisted and deformed, it appeared and reappeared from the Renaissance to the Victorian era. Just as the corset created the illusion of a tiny waist, so might a tightly buttoned boot pinch in the foot, leaving a bulge of flesh above, as engravings of the period sometimes show. Once anesthetics were introduced in the 1860s, some women even had one or two toes removed to better endure wearing the extremely narrow shoes of the period.
Bizarre examples abound of the ways that shoes were used to control women's mobility. Indeed, immobility was indicative of an aristocratic standard -- the less a woman walked, the higher her social prominence. From medieval times, women of the beau monde in England, France, Italy, and Spain moved about in some form of sedan chair or litter, in most cases being carried directly into the room. In sixteenth-century Venice, extremely high platform[ shoe]s became fashionable -- so high that ladies required the support of an escort or maid in order to walk. (The highest platforms in a Venetian collection are two feet, three inches tall, although the models higher than nine inches show little evidence of wear.) The Venetian women, who traveled primarily by gondola, apparently adopted the style from Turkish harem women, who walked even less. Interestingly, some noblemen disapproved of the fashion, which allowed the ladies to tower over them, but the church sanctioned it because it was thought that if women couldn't move around freely, dancing and so on, there would be fewer possibilities for sin. Insubstantial footwear had a similarly restrictive effect on women's movement. In the 1830s, for example, women's shoes were so flimsy that their wearers could not stray far from home.
In the twentieth century shoes...continued to embody certain attitudes toward women's power and place in society. Although women today enjoy much greater freedom of movement, with footwear perfected for fit, comfort, and balance, it has not been a steady evolution toward comfort (witness the stiletto heel), nor is the liberation total. Recent studies indicate that as many as forty-five percent of American women sometimes wear shoes that hurt in order to look fashionable, and one leading scholar has estimated that the percentage for European women, who tend not to walk as much as their American counterparts, is considerably higher. Yet women now have a significant choice: They can walk home in...[sneaker]s and later slip on a pair of stiletto heels for a night on the town. Women today are perhaps more aware of the sexual politics inherent in shoe design, but the allure of shoes continues to thrive.
And please bear with me while I copy out one more quote, from much later in the book:
"Apparently the flat-sole influence of the '60s and '70s is fading," observed writer Francine Prose, "and the extremely high heel (along with that other great comfort item, the mini-skirt) is currently moving back into the boardroom, the editorial office, the TV studio -- the footholds of politics, power, and visibility that women have only recently and marginally achieved." Certainly there are a great many women at all levels who commute in sneakers and put on their heels at the office, and others who have become used to wearing them all day. But Prose has suggested that at least some executive women are wearing high heels to set themselves apart from women below their level -- a subtle sign that they can afford to taxi to work rather than deal with public transportation. Remembering the Venetian noblewomen of the Renaissance who distinguished themselves by wearing platforms so high that they needed a servant to accompany them, this aspect of women's footwear seems to have changed very little over the past five hundred years.
The trend toward high heels in the workplace in some ways looks like a cruel fashion joke whose punch line combines discomfort and exploitation. But for women at the top who are no longer fearful of not being taken seriously, wearing high heels can be a sign of self-assurance. And a few more inches of height can be a decided asset in the workplace, a world that is still very much a male domain in which height is equated with power.
I find that last paragraph particularly indicative of the kind of confusion women get into when power and the deeply coded uniforms of fashion, earned self-confidence and the appearance of self-confidence intersect and get mistaken for one another. I also think it's a perfect summation of the shoe quandary in which most modern Western women find themselves, if they think about it at all and don't just reflexively submit to perceived standards without questioning why they should.
Women are expected to be appropriately costumed in our culture. Appearance and submission to fashion are locked into our perceived viability as women. A woman does not have to wear high heels or a skirt or a gown to any given occasion, not anymore, supposedly, but the fact is that when she does not wear whatever costume society has conditioned itself to expect, she pays a price. She pays a tax. The tax appears far more mild than its consequences. Rarely will anyone tell another person that she is incorrectly attired, especially if her attire falls within the spirit but not the unspoken letter of the expected costume. A woman who pays the tax levied upon those who do not comply is simply excluded. Those who do not comply and yet are not excluded have worked harder than those who simply comply. Sacrifice must be evident or a woman is not perceived as a woman of value.
Human bodies sometimes experience catastrophic changes. When a woman's body changes irrevocably so that she can no longer don the appropriate costume, for example, when she has to give up a foot, she is expected to fight this with every fiber of her being. She is not expected to fight losing the foot nearly as much as she is expected to fight appearing to have lost a foot. And usually she wants to. No one wants to be discounted.
A woman patient of my prosthetist's former employer was a bilateral trans-tibial amputee who couldn't imagine wearing anything but high heeled shoes, and so her only prosthetics bore feet and ankles made to accommodate heels with "life-like" foam covers. She was considered "marvelous" for not giving in to disfigurement. Without knowing her, I considered her story insane. Yet I understand why she would want to hold onto this. Those heels are her signature, her identity. I can see how that can come to be in our culture, and how devastating it would be for most women to give that up.
As a measure of how pervasive is everywoman's need to be reassured that her life will be "normal" after amputation as represented by potential shoe choice, a photograph of joyful jumping people specifically including a woman in a skirted business suit and heels was on the cover of a publication I was given to help me adjust to the idea of my own lower limb amputation.
Look, I am not dissing shoes, not even, believe it or not, high heeled shoes, even though I now understand that choosing to wear them is a far more political choice than most women care to consider. I have always loved shoes, and I used to especially love high heeled shoes. When I wore them, once I got good at them (which I accomplished in spite of my legendary klutziness by being sent to modeling school -- yes, really), I felt like I was dancing all the time, on tippy-toes with my calves flexed for action and spring. I felt powerful and strong and beautiful and stylish -- and tall. And I was tall. I'm 5'7" on my flat foot. When I first wore my highest heels ever in 1977, 5" heels on a one-inch rainforest-wood platform, I topped six feet, making me taller than the average American man and most men from other countries 1/, taller even than my frequently abusive father. I was hooked. I was probably wearing high heels when I purchased each of the books from which I quote here.
I slowly reduced the number of very high heels in my wardrobe over time for reasons of practicality. And with some warning, it eventually proved quite easy for me to give up the possibility of ever wearing high-heeled shoes again because even without them I am tall and strong, and because I knew I could have something which would let me still run, jump, dance, kick, and most importantly walk wherever and whenever I wanted. When women have to give up their range of shoes with no warning and no assurance that they will still be able to do everything they could in them, including identify themselves, it is not so easy. And that's the case for most women amputees.
Women often grieve for their shoe collections almost as much as they grieve for their missing limbs. Though I took most of mine to Goodwill fairly matter-of-factly just before surgery, I grieved a little, too, and still do. What are we grieving for? We are grieving for a loss of status most obvious, status as whole people with options who don't need an excuse and don't attract pity. We are grieving for the loss of a range of abilities -- shoes to dance in, shoes to run in, and a whole range of acceptable costumes to transmit specific messages about ourselves in public, messages saying we are sexy, businesslike, fun, whatever. High heeled shoes are something we grow up looking forward to being able to wear, like makeup, something to divide us as women from the powerless little girls we used to be. Shoes are part of how we express ourselves, including our gender identity and our sexuality, our creativity and our ability and willingness to fit in to the outside world. Suddenly having one less very prominent way of being able to do that is like having our own personal brand names significantly erased, especially if it is taken from us and not relinquished.
Some of us are simply grieving for the ability to make ourselves tall enough to look men in the eye.
We are also grieving for the sheer easiness, and yes, fun and excitement, of being able to go into any shoe store anywhere and walk out with something new. Because fashion is about maintaining a regulation costume to help identify who is a viable woman, a woman still in the running for unlimited consideration, and since that sells because almost everyone wants to be perceived as viable, includable, and not have to break ground on new frontiers for that where she will have to stand alone for at least a little while, there are usually thousands of versions of the same thing available from shoe store to shoe store at any given time. It is branding, "in" vs. "out," and almost everyone wants to be "in," not make "in" up for herself, so regulation "in" is almost all that is ever offered. With a small proportion of exceptions, and completely ignoring athletic or specialty shoes, of course, women's shoes are generally defined by fashion as shoes that have heels 1" high or higher and little or no traction. That is the lowest common denominator, if you will, of "in," and therefore of what is most widely available.
Because so many women feel an actual loss of womanhood if they cannot wear a wide range of shoes, and because some women simply cannot take the stress of exercises like taking three years before being able to find a single pair of, oh, I don't know, affordable plain black boots with 1/2" heels and traction in their size over an area with a three-county radius and also via international mail order, various manufacturers have created prosthetic feet and ankles which allow women to wear heels up to three inches in height. Heather Mills-McCartney has made a name for herself partly by capitalizing on this demand. Not every woman can buy this product, though, even if she desires it. Some women can't wear prosthetics. Most amputated women don't have unlimited funding.
Women who choose these types of prosthetics either have such deep resources -- including charity and other forms of sponsorship -- that they can afford them in addition to other prosthetics or they sacrifice functionality. Prosthetic legs are not modular for their owners; only licensed prosthetists can properly pop off one part and put on another, and not every brand makes every option, and most brands do not work together. So a woman who wants a foot like this has to also get a separate leg to attach to it. Same with a jogging foot. My leg cost $18,000 by the time I was done, and it will probably not last my life. My little unisex foot and ankle combo with its supposed suitability for playing squash and its narrow range of acceptable heel sizes cost thousands of dollars even without the rest of my leg attached to it, but it is made for a very active person's use. A specifically female-looking foot which can accommodate high-heeled shoes can pretty much only walk in different kinds of shoes, as far as I'm aware. That's its only trick, as far as I know. My leg, my beautiful, high-tech, carbon-fiber leg, is just the sort of thing a woman who worries about her appearance not conforming would seek to hide under a leg-like foam cover, but this would limit its functionality by removing access to various tension settings.
There are reasons beyond self-expression, vanity, fear of being excluded, or fear of being counted out of the womanhood game to want to make one's amputated state less obvious. First, going out into the world as someone anyone can see is physically impaired marks a woman as an easy target for criminals. Of course, that woman may also know karate or carry pepper spray or a knife or gun she knows how to use well, so this kind of assumption is a very stupid assumption, but criminals are not bright or are extremely desperate or they wouldn't be criminals.
Then there are the whole range of objectifiers. The god-bless-you people are annoying, and the people who are offended or frightened by the sight of us are pathetic but not really our problem except when they tell us we can't do things because we're too ugly. There's a whole segment of the population, though, that's almost creepier than those troglodytes, that thinks we're extra attractive sexually because we are missing one or more legs. Their ideal is a young woman with one leg wearing a miniskirt and crutches, no prosthetic.
Hmmm...why could this possibly be attractive? What oh what does that sound like? Oh, I know. It sounds like this:
Crippling of the Chinese girl began at the age of five or six. Footbinding was a lifelong torment that slowly broke bones and deformed the flesh until the full "beauty" of the atrophied, three-inch "lotus hook" was achieved. Many women died of suppuration and gangrene before the desired effect was complete.
Chinese men were conditioned to intense fetishistic passion for deformed female feet. Chinese poets sang ecstatic praises of the lotus feet that aroused their desire to fever pitch. The crippled woman was considered immeasurably charming by reason of her vulnerability, her suffering, and her helplessness -- she couldn't even escape an attacker by running away.[*]
Westerners sometimes imagined that footbinding produced a well-shaped but miniaturized foot. Actually, it bore little resemblance to a normal foot. The four smaller toes were folded completedly under the sole; then the whole foot was folded so the underside of the heel and toes were brought together. The victim had to keep her feet tightly bandaged forever; letting them spread would cause even worse pain.
(The Encyclopedia of Women's Myths and Secrets , by Barbara Walker (Harper & Row, 1983), citing at [*] Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom, by Howard S. Levy (Walton Rawls, 1966).)
So it's bad enough we can't wear the uniform of a proper woman without going to even more expense and trouble than women with the ordinary number of body parts. If we don't also make some effort to conceal the fact that we don't have the ordinary number of body parts, or at least make up for what's missing with a prosthetic we get damned good at using, we are subject to even more costs, more vulnerability, including more objectification by pornsick schmucks turned on by the very sight of a woman because she's a crippled woman -- in keeping with centuries-old tradition! And we're supposed to go about our lives as if this isn't happening, or end up pandering to those schmucks' desire for attention by the very act of complaining about it which invariably brings them out of the woodwork to tell "their side" as if any of our pain and loss had anything to do with them at all.
At the same time, the way to fight to be included and not vulnerable is not to hide. So what's a woman to do?
I am lucky because I can wear a prosthetic, because I could shop for a prosthetist and for a device that would give me my freedom and because it was available to me. I don't live in some country or culture where my husband has to do all the talking for me when we go to a doctor about something to do with my body, so I could make my own choices all the way on this, although I did find bringing my engineer boyfriend along almost as an interpreter helped get my needs across to the men from whom I purchased my prosthetic.
My prosthetic fits me perfectly about eight days of every month. The rest of the time, it fits somewhere between poorly and okay. Because of the vagaries of my biology and my unwillingness to spend one minute more than necessary of my precious, irreplaceable life on a problem I think can never be absolutely solved, this is pretty much the best I am likely to get. Most of the time it feels like a large, ill-fitting shoe, but instead of giving me corns or heel blisters, at its worst it tends to do things like abrade my flesh, shove itself up my ass, or squash my genitals with every step. Nevertheless, if I am out in public, I am wearing my prosthetic, without fail. I feel strangely grateful for all the blisters and corns, broken metatarsals and ridiculously high arches I sustained painfully over years of wearing heels, especially when I did little modeling jobs through that modeling school where I'd go four hours at a time on four-inch heels without sitting down once, because those experiences set me up with the kind of endurance required to take what I have now and make it work.
It's obvious there's something "wrong" with how I walk, and most of the time I am limited to fairly unisex garb by the amount I wish to accomplish and the much smaller amount of money I have to spend accomplishing it. A determined violent criminal not smart enough to be put off by my size, muscles, and very broad shoulders, or by my large, martial-arts-expert boyfriend when he's around, might consider me a mark, but it's unlikely, and no one who doesn't already love me will consider me sexy, either by virtue of apparent disability or wardrobe choices. I will not be rich. I will not be given opportunities to mingle in certain types of society. But I am free. Nobody broke my feet to make me a valuable object, and even though it's a bit of work, I can actually find shoes that fit my feet, real and rubber, shoes that have traction, and occasionally some shoes that might even identify me to other people as a viable woman. It's a ridiculous amount of effort I have to spend toward that end, but I can do it.
When I think of women in other times and places, and the options from which they could choose for their feet vs. the options available even to my strange combination of feet, I thank feminism. It's been a long path that only we peasant types have actually walked, apparently, but then in spite of appearances many still feel compelled to attempt to pull off, that would be most of us.
Still thinking, still more to say. Please feel free to throw in your own, unless you're an objectifying fool.