Editor’s note: This is an old post. I deleted it a few months ago, but I’m reposting it today in honor of Sally Swift’s birthday ... and in praise of her pretty feet ... even if I don’t know what it’s like to have them. Here’s to you, Sally ...
Last summer, my 70-year-old mother and I sat side-by-side in a suburban cineplex, and waited for the lights to dim so we could be transported back to the political upheaval, provincial prejudices and Southern Gothic of the United States, circa 1960s, in the film “The Help.”
We had propped our sandaled feet on a metal bar in front of our front-row seats, and I stared at the similarities between my mother’s small feet and mine. They were nearly identical: pinkish blocks that ended in stubby toes and pedicured nails. As the movie started, and a rich panoply of Southern characters drifted across the screen, I smiled in the dark, and silently honored and accepted that—along with a short, curvaceous body and large almond-shaped eyes—I had inherited my mother’s pies de campesina or peasant feet.
It was no secret in our family that my mother, my sisters and I would likely never become foot models or ballerinas. Our toes were all nearly the same length. Our feet were so blockish and our toes so stubby that my little brother, John Francis Jr., christened them “Flintstones feet,” and joked that our ancestors must have “kicked a lot of caveman walls” back in the day.
As fate would have it, my beloved late brother was just the first of many males who would stare in morbid fascination at my homely lower extremities. Friends teased me relentlessly about my “Hobbit feet,” and I noticed men casting furtive, sidelong glances at my dogs on beaches, in boats and at swimming pools.
While living in the Caribbean, I kept my patas out of sight, bringing them out only to bathe, swim or windsurf. I lived in pre-revolutionary Venezuela, the land of mythic beauty queens and lost worlds, where the average woman is a bronzed Amazonian goddess—the girl from Ipanema on steroids. Venezuelan women don't just wear bikinis; they live in “dental floss” tangas, tiny scraps of triangles that barely cover their nether regions as they saunter enticingly along tropical beaches.
My short, curvaceous mestiza body betrayed both my indigenous roots, and my distant, circuitous Spanish peasant stock.
Unlike Linda Rondstadt and Shakira, I’ve never been one of those sunny hippie chicks who can seduce men with flowing skirts and bangled bare feet. Unlike Eva Longoria and Eva Mendes, I’ve never been a daring diva in strappy sandals, with finger-like toes that spill over soles and display tantalizing toe cleavage. No, not even toe rings and ankle bracelets can beautify my dogs.
One look at my little birdie feet and you know they were designed for chasing buffalo around pueblos and chalky cliff dwellings, for trekking across miles of high-altitude deserts, for trudging up hard-scrabble mountains, and for plodding along rows of maize, potatoes, spicy green chili peppers and other pre-Columbian crops, with a baby swaddled tightly on my back. They were not made for sexy sandals, dancing, or for propelling Michael Phelps-like through water.
Despite my genetic curse, or maybe because of it, I allowed American advertising executives to convince me that a bouncy strut and loud, decisive footfalls were true measures of hard-won independence, feminine mystique, youthful vitality and all-American sexuality. I internalized their absurd Madmen messages as a 1970s teenager, and spent years investing in shoes that made my feet look slimmer, and made me feel taller, slinkier and sexier. The higher the heel, the narrower the fit, the more powerful I felt. And the more pain I experienced.
It started in high school, where I teetered around in platform sandals and hot pants, and stretched into college, where I corseted my calves in lace-up, knee-high boots I wore under miniskirts and maxi coats. As a younger woman, I pounded pavements on two continents, wearing tight, narrow, pointy shoes and boots. I thought a confident stride could help me power my way to professional success. All the while, I pretended to ignore painful ingrown toenails, shortened calf muscles, sore arches, and weeping blisters. Despite my discomfort, I actually danced cumbia, merengue and salsa on 4-inch heels.
My feet were not designed for dancing blithely through gilded European ballrooms or across stages lit up by footlights—or were they? In the ballet world there’s a name for blocky appendages like mine: Giselle feet. As it turns out, they are ideally suited for dancing en pointe because feet with stubby toes can bear a dancer’s weight better than slimmer feet with longer toes. I’ve since learned that what I have admired all my life are “Egyptian feet,” narrow, elegant fronds with long toes that taper progressively and look amazingly hot in barely-there, spike-heeled sandals, feet that inspire fetishes, feet like Sally Swift’s, dear readers.
To test my Giselles a few years ago I took up flamenco at María Vázquez Flamenco Denver. My teacher, María Vázquez, from Seville, Spain, and her instructors coaxed out miracles from my peasant Spanish-Pueblo feet. I slunk around in sexy flamenco shoes, long skirts and Danskins, and stomped my feet in rhythmic, complex floor patterns. I learned sevillanas, golpes and step-clap combinations, and twisted my hands into heartbreakingly beautiful movements. Under María's tutelage, my hands became palomas, doves in flight, and my feet powerful, percussive instruments.
When I put my left foot forward, arched my right arm proudly above my head and stretched my short torso toward the sky, I imagined myself taller and more elegant, more refined, and less stocky: more like a dancer, and less like a peasant.
I’ve come a long way in trying to make peace with my purposeful, sturdy feet and my low-center-of-gravity body in a nation that sets impossibly high beauty standards for women. My puckish little feet and curves have served me well, and have taken me down many interesting roads.
Now, when I look at my feet, I see my history, my roots and my mother, and I remember where my feet have taken me, and how many roads they have left in them. To that, all I can say is: Olé, olé, Mamá. Olé, olé.
Happy Birthday, Sally. Here's to your pretty feet! (Google Images)