The Semiotics of Shoe Shapes
by Alice Andrews
Some of this was written in 1992 and some in 2003. In '92 I submitted it to Allure magazine on a whim and was happily surprised that my unsolicited manuscript was read by the actual editor, Ms. Wells, who liked it, but then said: "It's not quite Allure." This amused me because at the time there was an article in that month's Allure which referred to 'beaver balls' — and I realized then that maybe it was quite possibly a good thing to be "not quite Allure." - AA, 11/2006
February 22, 2003
I showed some of Warren Beatty’s Reds to my sociology class* a few weeks ago, to give them a flavor of left- and right-wing ideology and to give them a little historical perspective. In the film, the revolutionary journalist Jack Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, who wrote: “All I know is that my happiness is built on the misery of others....and that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play” comes down on his beloved Louise Bryant for writing a piece about the Armory Show which had occurred three years prior, while the country is in the midst of war and the possibility of changing the world is imminent. Reed has this deep sense of social responsibility to inform and radicalize readers and he’s irritated with Bryant for her lack of interest in, passion for, and commitment to the ideals of the workers’ movement—for being interested in stale ideas about nothing and which would do nothing.
Well, I must confess, I feel a little like Louise Bryant here. Alas, I have no Warren Beatty (Jack Reed) to rail upon me—but I have internalized him—and he’s angry! My writing about sex and shoes right now feels a little like Bryant writing about the Armory Show of 1913 when it’s 1916, about dead art in the wake of fertile revolution. However, there is so much being written about the possibility of war and peace, presently, that although it may appear somewhat frivolous and vapid to write about shoes and sex in this period, I don’t think it’s irresponsible. I’d like to think of it as a little distraction—a little life-affirming Yes or even Maybe—against the backdrop of a very real, death-instinct No, which seems to be—all peace marches aside—quite pervasive.
I was out the other night with a male friend when he asked me, looking down at my scuffed-up, square-toed, desert boots with a bit of a rubber heel:
“Do you ever wear pointy shoes? All my female friends are into pointy shoes these days.”
“I have a few pair of pointy pumps,” I explained, “but I haven’t worn them in many years.”
“What’s that about?” he asked, “Pointy shoes…?”
“Sex, I said. “ It’s about seducing the wearer into life. For being seduced. For seducing.”
“Oh,” he said, “That’s what I thought.”
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Foot fetishes are, not surprisingly, the most common of all fetishes. For Freud, a foot fetishist is born when a boy, seeing his mother naked for the first time experiences both castration anxiety and Oedipal longing. Because her lack of a penis terrifies him, he replaces her ‘nothingness’ with the first phallic shape he sees—her foot or shoe. And it’s from his unconscious, guilty desire for her, that the foot or shoe takes on an erotic character.
But men have fetishized the foot long before Freud tried to explain it. The etiology of Chinese foot binding—which, of course, is generally acknowledged as a way women were sexually, politically and physically repressed—may be tied to the notion that small limbs are most feminine. When e.e. cummings writes: “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” we understand this as a measurement of ultimate femininity. Small is child-like and subordinate and passive and submissive—and it may be a true signal and reflection of hormone levels. Fats Waller says it all when he sings Your feet's too big!/Don't want ya 'cause your feet's too big. On the other end of the gender spectrum, the myth (or meme) correlating men’s foot size and member size is something that persists, despite a recent study’s attempt to disprove it. Researchers at University College London measured 100 men’s privates (not erect!) and concluded there was no link between shoe size and length of penis. However, although I’m by no means an expert on such things, it is widely known that the average penis measures—sans erection—about 4 inches; whereas lengths vary considerably when erect. A better study would have measured them all erect. (One wonders about the researcher’s motivations for the study, as well as “researcher bias.”) So, is there a connection between the size of a man’s foot and his vital part? I don’t think this study is the last word on this. The myth must be borne out of a collective wisdom of humans’ experience with genitalia.
Here’s some science: Recently it was discovered that the Hox gene controls both limb and genital development. That means there’s some kind of relationship between hands/feet and penises/vaginas. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that index finger length correlates positively with penis length. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one day there were studies showing that toe length or ratios were related to hormone levels, since recent studies show digit ratios—specifically the ratio between the second (index finger) and fourth (ring finger) digit—indicate testosterone levels. The larger the difference between your ring finger and your index finger (digit ratio), as well as the longer your ring finger is, the more testosterone you have—which is related to male fertility/sperm counts, aggression, etc.
For women, the ratio is smaller—that is, there is usually a very small (if any) difference in length between the second and fourth digits. And in fact, the index finger is related to estrogen levels, so women will tend toward same length second and fourth digits or toward having a shorter ring finger than index finger. Women with relatively long ring fingers are, according to Manning (2002), endowed with a stronger sex drive and are likely to be more assertive. [For all you ever wanted to know about this phenomenon, see Digit Ratio: A Pointer to Fertility, Behavior, and Health;John T. Manning (2002).]
So maybe foot size is predictive, maybe it isn’t. Maybe hands matter, maybe they don’t. Anyway, who cares? Well, judging from the amount of e-mail spam I get about “addingtwo, three, or even five inches of rock-hard manhood” to one’s penis, I’d say plenty of people!
But, back to the thing we put on the foot. There is a semiotics, a language, a code to the accessories and clothing we put on different body parts. There is meaning. And this has to do with the organs or, if you will, “centers” that the clothing covers or adorns. In reflexology, the foot is the map of the whole body/self; so perhaps by extension, the shoe represents the soul. Shoes ground us to the earth—the earth being nature, fertile, real—and we are the earth: from dust becometh, to dust returneth. Shoes are the farthest accessory from our brains (and the heavens) and perhaps our least conscious but perhaps most essential costume. The hat is the extreme opposite of the shoe—close to the head, conscious, willing, strategizing, provocative—the most conscious of seduction and therefore, at least to me, not terribly seductive. (I for one never found the hat in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being terribly seductive, though certainly sexy.) Think: hat as culture and personality, shoe as nature and essence.
We know this about adornment and body parts from our experience with others. All I have to do is change the color of my shirt and different people will say hello or smile at me—I will “seduce” different people. On a bike ride through my town, white shirts get the most hellos and smiles, black shirts get no hellos and the smiles from a particular cohort (young men of a certain subculture). White says you’re open, pure and innocent of heart, black says, “stay away” to most Americans. And that’s perhaps why it’s the most alluring and seductive for some—it refuses the straight game. But also there must be something to the fact that white appears to give off energy and black seems to take it in. I sometimes wear it as contradiction, as simulacra, to show it doesn’t have to mean what it says. And sometimes not. I do this with shoes too.
As free as we are fashion-wise (e.g., wearing different skirt lengths, not allowing ourselves to be categorized), there are algorithms associated with shoes that convey meaning to others who happen to be gazing down there. So, if I happen to spot a pair of fetchingly scuffed-up brown oxfords with splatterings of paint, or a pair of brown, worn-in hiking boots and then look up at the owner, I am usually pleasantly unsurprised. That’s because shoes, like dogs, so often match their owners. The shape of these shoes tells me the man is stable. The brown, that he is earthy and sensual. The paint or worn-in-ness, that he’s artistic and/or a bit rebellious; that he doesn’t “care” what others think. Perhaps there’s something “manly” about that—that he doesn’t care—as if I can read his testosterone levels. What seduces, anyway, is the part that seems unseductive. And though after a while this aesthetic can come to be understood as a seductive strategy and lose its power, it often works for me anyway.
Shoes are clearly extensions and projections of the self. They penetrate the space and earth, and ground us. Shoes tell the world about your core, your identity, your soul—what you’re like as friend, parent, worker, and lover. The shape you choose to ground yourself at the root and end of yourself conveys a powerful message to others. What are you saying with your shoes? What are others saying? Here’s a psychological profile:
sadistic, sexy, available, penetrating, aggressive, independent, boundaries of self and other in tact, bad girl/boy.
types often match shoe shapes, just as body type and personality have
Pointy: endomorh: thin to anorectic
masochistic, sweet, sensual, martyr, selfless, no boundaries, becomes other, empathic, childlike, maternal, innocent, fairy-taleish, good girl/boy.
|Round: ectomorph: plump to obese|
alienated, cut off, rigid boundaries, strong, self-protected, afraid to lose self, withdrawn, afraid of commitment, unique, artistic, schizoid-like, rebellious, tough bad girl/boy.
|Square: mesomorph: muscular and solid|
stable, healthy, can change roles, not an extremist, flexible, somewhat conservative, can be the parent of your child and sexy to boot, normal, gets things done, not risky, unadventurous, not-too-good good girl/boy.
Oval: “perfectomorph”: average, slim
|*The pointy shoe, often a pump, has some contradictory features: the pointy shape is a phallic representation, especially in the way it gives length, signifying testosterone and sexiness. (Men, historically, are the pointy shoe-wearers.) But pointy pumps are repressively tight, binding, and narrow, which serves to extend a submissive, hyper-feminine effect.|
But perhaps the best way out of all this is to follow the footsteps of hundreds of American feet which never so much as feel the hide of leather, the cotton of a sock. Check out Barefoot Hikers and the Dirty Sole Society (www.barefooters.org). After all, what could be more you, more essential, more basic and pure than your dirty, old smelly feet? g
* When I was teaching full-time in the Behavioral Science department at Dutchess Community College, in addition to my General Psych courses, I also had to teach two sections of a course called "Social Problems"; which I did with an evolutionary lens. I also had Lorna Tychostup come to that class after returning from Iraq—an eye-opening experience for us all.
Copyright by Alice Andrews,
2003. All rights
Copyright © 2003 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. All rights reserved.