Let’s get the criticism of this column out of the way upfront:
The most important election in our lifetime is barreling toward us and you’re writing about a candidate’s shoes?
For the first time a woman of color is on a major presidential ticket and you’re writing about her shoes?
The world is burning literally and figuratively and you’re writing about sneakers?
That guy from The New Yorker is … hey, look on the bright side: At least I’m not writing about that.
I’m not the first person to note that Kamala Harris, who’s running for vice president, has broken another barrier by choosing to routinely wear sneakers on the campaign trail. The sneaker reports are often dismissed as trivial, distracting or sexist, but, in fact, Harris’ shoes are meaningful. Talking about them isn’t sexist, it’s a recognition of the sexism she’s working to overcome.
As the campaign nears an end, it’s worth taking a moment to fully appreciate the importance of the shoes Harris has chosen to wear while walking that rocky trail.
The shoe story took off in September after Harris stepped off a campaign flight in Milwaukee wearing a pair of Converse sneakers. A tweet of that event has inspired 37,000 likes on Twitter and a lot of commentary.
The Kamala Converse sightings have been frequent since then, most notably this week when she wore them during a campaign stop in Florida, where she danced in the rain.
Many people applauded the sneaker dance, though some were predictably derisive, like the tweeter who sniffed, “What kind of candidate for public office wears fish head sneakers on stage like they were going to wash clothes or a college party?”
What kind of candidate does that? The gutsy kind. The practical kind. The kind who has been liberated from the cruel high heel.
Harris’ sneakers have inspired sociological interpretation, like a piece in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Under the headline “Kamala Harris: what her sneakers mean” ran the words: “As a woman of colour wearing sneakers on the campaign, it semaphores a change in political dress and much more.”
(I had to look up “semaphores” as a verb too. It involves visual signaling.)
Some of the sneaker sociology verges on ridiculous, but even so, Harris’ shoes do matter, not so much for what they are but for what they’re not.
They’re not high heels. They’re not even low heels. They’re shoes that hug the ground, comfortable shoes meant for walking, moving, doing. That shouldn’t seem revolutionary, but even today it is.
Even in an age in which yoga pants can pass for office wear, women continue to live under the tyranny of the high heel. Ask heel-wearers why they wear them and many will tell you it’s because heels make them look better. But look better for whom?
Women are raised to believe that strapping their feet to sloping platforms raised on sticks is sexy. Or professional. Or the only way to be tall enough to look men in the eye. Nancy Pelosi is one of the most impressive and powerful women on the planet, and she is famous for her stilettos. I respect that choice, but only to the extent that it’s a choice. Clearly, she believes the high heels help her. She may be right. The fashion expectations placed on women are hard chains to break.
(Yes, expectations are placed on men, too, but rarely the kind that cause bunions, hammertoes, shortened calf muscles and low-back pain.)
When I gave up heels as regular attire in my early 30s, I was sad at first. I missed the sassy way they made me feel. Then I realized how much heels hurt, and that the sassiness was largely, if not entirely, a social construct. These days I occasionally wear a pair of low heels I keep for the times when I want to make it clear that I know I’m supposed to be dressed up, or when I don’t want to feel as short as I am.
And every time I put those shoes on? My feet and legs ask me afterward: Why? Why? What’s wrong with being short?
By the common definition, Harris is short too. But, though she sometimes wears heels, she gains a different kind of stature by demonstrating the courage to wear practical shoes. Her footwear says: Women deserve the freedom to choose shoes that don’t lead to foot surgery or back braces. By making that conspicuous choice, Harris helps to liberate other women.
In the past few days, social media has been full of women posting photos of the “Kamala sneakers” they’ve worn when they went to vote, proving that style always sends a message, and one message Harris is sending is: There’s a better way.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
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