Sensibilities, Self-Esteem & Shoes

By Holly Hazel McGowen

Elvis’ blue suede shoes and Dorothy’s ruby slippers; Steve Martin’s cruel shoes and Hans Christian Andersen’s Red Shoes; I’ve loved and owned a version of them all. I wore Cherokees and Get Theres in the ‘70s, urban cowgirl boots and preppy topsiders in the ‘80s, and polished pumps and working girl loafers for most of the ‘90s.

Then came a spinal cord injury, hospital-issue Stryker boots and sparkling white oversized hightops for rehab. Looking back at the few photos I have of myself from that time – with my custom-cut halo vest T-shirts, baggy sweats and blinding white shoes – I think it’s no surprise that my self image was shot. This was not a good look. Certainly not self-assured, certainly not sexy. With a Foley, a Theravac and a package of powdered gloves, I looked ready to wheel into the gimp sunset with only my white shoes to light my way.

When I got home from the hospital I purged my closet of all the shoes that reminded me of my pre-injury self – the perfectly broken-in Italian boots, the sandals, the pumps and the little blue flats with the grosgrain ribbon trim. These shoes didn’t belong in a paralyzed woman’s closet. The new me, I thought, would never wear out a pair of shoes again. And the new me, in theory, could wear sweats and high-tops for the rest of her life. But what I settled on was to be innocuous, to blend into what I imagined a person in a wheelchair was supposed to look like. I would shop endlessly, looking for the perfect “wheelchair” outfit, the perfect pair of “wheelchair” shoes. And the things I bought during that time … yikes. Did I really think a plum velour outfit with shoes to match would make me unnoticeable? And the bright orange linen tent dress with the clunky brown shoes? What was I thinking?

For me, the freedom began when I let go of what I believed I was supposed to be and began being what I wanted to be. There were little turning points, like when I transferred into the pedicure chair of my local nail salon and chose the reddest red polish I could find. When I bought the toe ring at the hippie store. When I chose the black suede sandals at the discount store even though they fell off every time I transferred.

Recently on a shoe-buying trip, I slipped on a lovely pair of soft suede shoes. While I felt around for the fit, I told the salesperson that they might be too big. He, in his trained shoeman way, said, “Well, it’ll probably be all right when you stand up.” I cupped my hand to my mouth and whispered laughingly, “Psst I don’t stand up!” He put his head in his hands and uttered, “Sorry,” as I smiled and assured him that it was OK. That I was OK. This, I’m certain, is a sign of healing.

And it’s a sign of a journey undertaken. I asked several other women what shoes they were wearing on their journeys.

Dress Birkenstocks
Cherly Marie Wade, Berkeley, Calif., rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia:
I wear Birkenstocks, dyed black for “dress” and other colors for everyday. They fit, and few shoes do. It was a great day of liberation, the day I stopped trying to squeeze my short, fat, very sore feet into so-called stylish shoes.

Glorify those Feet
Pam Matteson, Grass Valley, Calif., spinal cord injury:
My shoe choices over the years have been based on fashion fads, not on ignoring or disliking my feet. My feet are probably the most aesthetically pleasing and intact part of my gimped-out body, so why not glorify them? They are not atrophied like my legs, pouchy like my belly, or bony like my butt, but perfectly smooth and better looking than any AB’s. I do think that what you wear on your feet is a reflection of your self-esteem. Shoes are just part of the whole “put together” image I am out to convey. I don’t see any reason I have to wear dumpy grandma shoes. I am a vibrant, self-assured woman who uses a wheelchair – not a wheelchair that has a woman in it. The woman comes first.

Tracking the Changes
Cindy McCoy, Las Vegas Nev., multiple sclerosis:
In the beginning I used to gauge my “wellness” on the size of my heels. Watching my shoes go from “CFMs” to sport sneakers to Wal-Mart Velcros was one way to keep track of the changes. Increasingly, I am glad not to be plagued by the afflictions that walking women endure – bunions, corns and calluses. Liberation, acceptance, patience – all this and more I’m learning, sometimes from the feet up.

Choosing a Vehicle
Joy Dryden, Berkeley, Calif., spinal cord injury:
When you first find you require a chair to get around, you are so conscious of the fact that everyone is staring at you that you learn to get out of yourself and into whatever you are doing – so much so that you are totally oblivious to people staring. I have had many people comment to me, “I don’t even think about you in a wheelchair.” I take that as a compliment and a sign that I am having an “out-of-body in-a-wheelchair experience”!

My feet are so wide and atrophied, I rarely find shoes that fit. I always have to wear hightops or sandals that buckle up high. I don’t like to call attention of my feet. My head and posture are much more my expression vehicles.

Changing Stereotypes
Melina Fatsiou Cowan, Huntsville, Ala., spinal muscular atrophy:
I love to wear any kind of shoe as long as it does not hurt (because of SMA I have very sensitive feet). Provocative shoes are OK with me if they have good aesthetics; after all, they may change the way some people with stereotyped ideas think about disability.

Feeling Sexy
Jolene Wells, Sacramento, Calif., spinal cord injury:
Shoes are very important to me [but] after my accident, I didn’t like myself very much and gained a lot of weight – which led to getting rid of my full-length mirror. I gave all my dress clothes, shoes (especially heels) and jewelry away. I purchased old-lady clothing and shoes; clothing that would cover this ugly fat body and shoes that would not pop off when I transferred in and out of the wheelchair. Today, at almost 50 years old, I weigh a lot less and wear clothing and shoes (including heels) that make me feel sexy or whatever mood I am in that day.

Dressing to Code
Dani Kent, Santa Barbara, Calif., spinal cord injury:
The worst of all are formal events where the-old lady shoes with the wide heels that stay on the footrest just won’t cut it. That’s when I buy a pair of hideously cheap dress shoes because at the end of the night I hate them so much I get great joy out of throwing them away. So there is still some fun in it.

It took me a long time to get used to wearing pumps in a chair and since I now spend at least 40 hours a week in them, I am totally qualified to tell you that sneakers are a lot more comfortable. But I do think that being able to dress to the “normal” person’s dress code, both at work and formally, feels better than being an exception and expecting people to understand.

Staying Stylish
Jenny Carlson, Leawood, Kan., spinal cord injury:
I must admit I was very uncomfortable with what to wear after my injury. As time went on and psychological wounds healed my horizons expanded. I was as comfortable wearing stylish shoes as I was wearing stylish dresses. I like to look my best in a wheelchair. The big advantage now is that my shoes will last forever. To my husband’s dismay, however, they do not stay in style. My feet aren’t compromised, just my ability to control them.

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