Well, I’ve made a decision. It is neither convenient nor cheap. But if life has taught me anything, it is that the road to finding comfort in your own skin isn’t paved in velvet.
After decades of stuffing Band-Aids in my handbags and adjusting my weight from one leg to the other at parties, I have decided once and for all to give up high heels. It’s all my grandmother’s fault.
My paternal grandmother was gorgeous--Betty Davis eyes, a jawline so sharp both profiles were her good side, style that matched the glamour of old Hollywood, and an ease while hostessing that could put Martha in her place. But of all the traits of hers I would inherit, it was her bunions that would be the most apparent. She spent a lifetime hiding hers in designer heels, and I’ve spent a lifetime cursing my inheritance.
I first became keenly aware of my inheritance when in junior high I advanced from the Kids' shoe section to the Women's department. The saleswoman at Maison Blanche department store in the Plaza was all too willing to point out my bunions to me as I was being fitted for my first pair of heels--white, one-inch pumps.
As my foot emerged from my sock, the saleswoman, who reeked of Jovan Musk or some similar Eau de Cologne of that time, gasped.
“Oh how I hate this on someone so young,” she said, shaking her head. “You were cursed before you even had a chance. Poor thing.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Did my feet sink? Did I have a certain odor coming from between my toes that others don’t? My whole life I have had this thing about sleeping with socks on. Even as a kid, I’d have insomnia without them. Was that seemingly harmless idiosyncrasy causing me danger? But then she touched...it. That knob on the side at the base of my big toe.
“They won’t affect you now, but old lady feet always get the last word.”
Old lady feet? I was eleven. I still watched cartoons on Saturday morning. I still ate sandwiches without crusts and snuck into my sister’s bed at night. Old lady?
But the Psychic Saleswoman was not just outspoken, she was right. My bunions soon plagued me and I was the leader of their resistance, trying to force my surrender. In high school, high-heeled tap shoes pinched my bunions daily and subsequently pissed off my bunions. College was merciful for a time. Steve Madden - sweet, good bunion Samaritan Steve Madden - gave us mules. But then those awful block heels came across the pond with the Spice Girls and I broke my left big toe in a pair while dancing to “Come On Eileen.”
The war raged on.
It was during the Manolo Blahnik stiletto craze that I began to pity the eleven-year-old girl who so innocently chose her white pumps. Bunions are wide. Manolos and their lesser-priced wannabes are not made for wide loads. Bunions ooze from flirty strappy sandals until your feet look like they need a girdle. Bunions will not be stifled. They push and poke through any fabric. No self-respecting shoe lover would sport shoes that look like your big toe is pregnant, that is, unless you’re desperate to look like everyone else.
Mostly, bunions hurt like a bitch and this is why after thirty years of forcing them to be something they aren’t, my big, fat, swollen old lady feet cannot go on any longer. I’ve tried sleeping with orthopedic bandages that move them over time as I sleep. But all that happens is I wake up at precisely 3 a.m. in pain that should only be reserved for torture chambers in the Tower of London. It seriously feels like my big toe is being ripped off my foot. So each night in response, I rip the bandage off and hurl it across my room. Life’s too short to wake up to a nightmare each night. So peace out, orthopedic bandages, and farewell, heels. I surrender.
My bunions have won. They are getting the last word.
What’s even more ridiculous than having a power struggle with your toes is hiding them from view like they’re a crazy relative. Ever since the Psychic Saleswoman pointed them out, I did whatever I could to pretend my feet were just like everyone else’s. I made meticulous shoe choices like beachy mules instead of flip-flops, or heels with wide straps across the toes versus floss-like straps--anything to hide my bulges. But recently, I’ve let my bunions hang out in all their knobby, bony glory. I guess at some point I realized that they are just toes.
Still, I feel bad about my toes and I know I’m not alone. All I need do is look to these confidence boosters to realize that everyone has something about themselves they think they should hide: hair plugs for men, concealer to cover acne, Spanx into which to stuff muffin tops so last year’s low-rise jeans still fit. What about those gel-filled pads that look like chicken cutlets that women stuff in their bras so certain tops have just the right amount of pull? I own several cutlets. I found one the other day in my daughter’s room. Her American Girl doll was using it as an eye mask. But the greater question should not be if I should tell my daughter it isn’t an eye mask, but rather, why do I think I need to create a body I don’t have?
In a world where honesty is the new PC, are we keeping it real or are we all faking it?
I grew up without much money. Pop started his architecture firm when I was eight and until things leveled off, prayers for a good “cash flow” were regular during Grace before meals. But I also didn’t know what I was missing until I was 13 and spent the summer at Tulane, performing musicals with kids who lived in mansions with guest houses. Like that day at Maison Blanche, I became keenly aware of what I lacked--primarily status. Those girls that summer considered The Gap generic clothing, and though their snobbishness was shocking, I studied those teenage jet-setters and took proper measures so that I could fit in. I hid my humble upbringing. Those kids never hung out at my house or got rides in my used station wagon. They only saw my grandparents’ house at the beach because that fit the narrative I wanted them to believe so that I could fit in. Really it was so I could feel normal.
Maybe some of those girls were super rich and fabulous and out of my financial league, but perhaps more were pretending just like I was and wouldn’t have if I gave them a chance to know the real Annie with her nondescript yellow brick ranch house in New Orleans East who shopped the clearance rack at The Gap. We don’t do that when our normal feels abnormal. Whether it’s an outspoken salesperson or a pack of designer teens, someone will always point out things about us that make us feel different or show us what we don’t have. We can play along with them, like I did, forcing ourselves into a tight squeeze, or we can keep it real. And maybe, just maybe, our real will become our new normal.
I know enough to know that wearing heels doesn’t feel normal to me anymore. It feels the opposite of normal, unless slipping into pumps is supposed to give you the sensation of your feet being sliced in two. So I’m going to keep it real. Maybe one day I’ll have corrective surgery and will spend my golden years sporting all the sexy styles I couldn’t wear in my forties. Until then, I’m bringing sexy back to flats and will stand tall in structured loafers, frilly mules, and metallic slingbacks. This transformation won’t happen overnight. Settling into who I am deserves time. It’ll take months to swap out wedges for ballerinas and stilettos for kitten heels. But eventually, I hope what feels natural to me will be the style for which I’m best known.
So I was born with bunions. So they got the last word on my shoes. They won’t get the best of me.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.