Today was my son’s 5th grade graduation. As I sat trying to hold back the water works (I get all soppy at such events), I couldn’t help but notice at least 85% of the 5th grade girls were wearing high heels. Some were modest little heels, some were honking platforms, and some had spiky, sparkly heels of the variety you might see Carrie from Sex in the City trying to traipse around the streets of Manhattan in. One girl I walked past even had a French pedicure with rhinestones on her toes!
The plethora of girl feet I saw sadly crammed into adult shoes today reminds me of a post I read a few days back at Appetite for Equal Rights about high heels for babies. As the post (read it in full here) notes, the baby heels are not actually meant for walking. So, in other words, they are like adult high heels! High heel shoes are not built for movement or comfort but, as Sandra Lee Bartky notes in her classic essay “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” they are about disciplining the female body into ‘proper’ form. Referring to high heels as a form of self-subjugation, Bartky notes that when a woman chooses these foot constraints “her body is thrown forward and off-balance: The struggle to walk under these conditions shortens her stride.” I am sure most of you have seen (or experienced) this shortened stride (reminds me of watching Gwyneth Paltrow in 6 inch heels recently mincing across the screen in Iron Man).
Now, the school my children go to is no rich bastion of kiddies. In fact, it is the school in our district with what is termed the ‘lowest socio-economic standing.’ So, this was not Beverly Hills babies or La Jolla debutantes. Yet, regardless of skin color or socio-economic status, these 5th grade girls already seem to have swallowed one message: “to successfully perform femininity/beauty, torture your feet!” (Another message they seem to have learned all two well: “flat iron your hair.”)
The torturous nature of high heels was particularly apparent when one girl hobbled across the stage to receive her certificate. As she did so, the woman behind me whispered, “wow, sure looks like her feet hurt.” Yes, ladies and gentleman, girls and boys, it ain’t no secret – heels hurt! They may make your calves look better, they may give you that desirable (?) hip sway and back arch, but damn if they don’t cause some pain. I wonder how many of these 11 and 12 year olds already know the mantra ‘beauty knows no pain.’ I also wonder how many of their parents promoted these very feminized performances with comments like “Now you want to look pretty for the pictures honey. Let’s straighten your hair, paint your toes, get a new dress, and buy you some heels…” How many parents talked about the academic achievements their daughter has made, their hopes she will go to college to be the teacher/librarian/politician/social activist of her dreams?
I don’t have a problem with enjoying adorning the body. I am a sucker for fashion myself and will admit to torturing my own feet once in awhile due to a particular weakness when it comes to cute shoes (damn if I could only get rid of all my own social conditioning!) Beautifying oneself can be fun. However, it can also be a prison house of shoulds, of hating one’s own body, of feeling like the next pair of shoes or the next lip-gloss will bring happiness. It is also a competition that boys and men are not expected to play – at least not with near the dedication. Yes, males are supposed to bathe and keep their hair looking decent, but they are hardly expected to shave, wax, perfume, pluck, make up, or diet themselves into a beauty norm that is preposterously divergent from what most humans look like naturally. Needless to say, they are not expected to wear shoes that make it impossible for them to stand let alone walk.
So, as I sat and watched all these diverse girls with their futures ahead of them, I was saddened by the fact that this future will hold all sorts of gendered expectations that lead to them hating their own bodies and tries to discipline them into ‘proper’ feminine form. For now, they are girls trying to pose as women. Soon, they will be women trying to pose as girls. They will try to keep their youth, their pre-pubescent hairlessness and body shape, their air of ‘innocence.’ (I sincerely hope none of them will grow into women who try to re-girlify their vaginas through surgery!) I wish they could grow up in a world that celebrates the beauty of intellect and activism, the beauty of the body in all its forms, colors, hairiness, sagginess, flabbiness, lumps and bumps. I wish they could grow up in a world that would pay them the same as men, would give them the same respect, would allow them to control their own reproduction, and would not treat them as Others, but as equally human and important.
What if as a society we didn’t teach little girls to try and look like women? What if we didn’t praise women who look and act like little girls? What if 5th grade graduations looked like a bunch of kids celebrating their achievement rather than a pre-teen debutante ball? If only, if only…
*For a number of other great posts on the high heels for babies phenomenon, see the following:
“Little Girls Gone Wild” at Salon.com here.
“High heels for babies” at The F Word here
“Start em while they’re young” at Menstrual Poetry
**For a good analysis of this girl/woman phenomenon, see also “The Pornification of Youth” at Mocking the Litany in its Face.
“Padded Bras for Six-Year-Olds” at Feministing.com
and on the stripper poles for girls phenomenon, see this post at I Blame the Patriarchy