Saturday, September 18, 2010

Shoes as a Landmark: A Journey into Adulthood and Femininity

In middle school I always wondered about the cliché of women and the number of shoes they owned. As far as I was concerned all I needed were my steel toe Doc Martins. I never dressed (willingly) in a way that required another pair of shoes. I was all about living and looking by the grunge code as accurately as an average teenager could. Of course I had a pair of dress shoes at the request of my mother for the rare occasions I needed to look “nice” and “pulled together” and a pair of Chuck Taylor’s for gym class; Chuck Taylor’s were acceptable by my standards, if you remember the videos from Nirvana Unplugged, Kurt Cobain was wearing them. I thought as soon as these obligations imposed by adults that required wearing shoes other than my Docs were no longer a part of my life, I wouldn’t need more than one pair of shoes. Now, as an adult, I think about all the shoes I need in order to complete my various outfits. Some outfits remain true to the grunge look, but others are more consistent with the feminine style I’ve acquired during the eternal process of developing into a female adult. For me this process is never fully complete; there is always something new to learn about being a woman and looking the part.
The first pair of shoes I bought of my own accord other than Docs was flip-flops, the summer following 9th grade. I went to the beach with my friends and the only shoes I had were my Docs. This was problematic: every time I wanted to go to the concession stand or bathroom I had to put on and take off my boots which also required tightening and loosening the laces. It was torture going barefoot because the sand was made excruciatingly hot by the sun. When I realized how nice it was to wear flip-flops, how easy they were to slip on and off, how my feet could breathe and not be stifled by the summer heat, not just at the beach, but anywhere I wanted to go, I was sold; flip-flops became a staple of my summer wardrobe. This exposure of my feet must have been one of the first indicators of femininity for me. To this day, I feel more lady-like in the summer.
Then sneakers became an everyday wardrobe choice, a change that also came about from a decision based on practicality. When I began college at Bard, it meant I would be flying more often as opposed to my one annual trip to America during the summers. Steel-toed Doc Martins being the only shoes I owned meant every time I passed through the airport metal detectors I would have to be frisked, sometimes even take off my shoes. I still had my Chuck Taylor’s but for some reason I didn’t think they would suffice. I decided to get something loud and I purchased a pair of bright red sketchers with 2 white diagonal stripes on the side. I loved these shoes and started wearing them more than my docs.
Maybe this is because in college my mind was opening up. I no longer pinned myself into one genre of style. I was listening to different kinds of music, reading more books and thinking more independently all around. I was even wearing a different type of shoe!
Something that became obvious to me at Bard, though, was how girls maintained a feminine appeal yet still maintained their alternative identity. I was not very attractive or feminine. I decided a black pair of flats might slightly manipulate my image as a more feminine one. I purchased a pair from the Athens flea market, however, I don’t think I emitted any strong sense of femininity, as I still looked kind of oafy and heavy.
Meanwhile, my sneaker saga continued. I wore those red sneakers until they stank. Eventually I had to toss them and fished out my Chuck Taylor’s. On the white toe area I had written FUGAWZ because that’s what Kurt Cobain had written on his. Finally making the decision to commit to them I added NOT THE MAMA on the side of the sole of the other shoe referring to the TV series Dinosaurs. They suited me quite well and I wore them every single day occasionally alternating with my flats.
For a while now my history with shoes becomes stagnant. I purchased a very pretty pair of black heels for job interviews having finished college, but I was mostly alternating between my Chucks and flats during winter and Chucks and flip-flops or sandals during summer. By this time I had moved back to Greece. I was at my heaviest and most unattractive.
After some time I was determined to lose weight. I had acquired some disgusting habits. I drank a lot by myself and ate more than I needed. I dropped about 20 lbs just modifying those habits alone. I was aware of my weight loss but didn’t understand how much better I looked until I tried on a white dress at Zara. When I looked in the mirror I was surprised at how flattering the dress was. Of course I was no model, but I really felt good about myself, like I was a new person. I bought that dress and it’s sitting in my closet with the tag still attached. That dress changed my perception of myself and I don’t want to ruin it.
This brought on a whole series of shopping sprees since most of my clothes were too big for me. I realized that I had to match all these changes with shoes. None of my outfits looked truly youthful and feminine because I didn’t have the appropriate shoes to complete them. I guess the sandals were alright, but my flats made me look like a spinster and this was no good because men were finally beginning to show interest in me, one in particular that I liked. This was where my love for Campers began. I don’t think there is any make of shoes that is so geared to my taste and personality. They are simple, stylish, comfortable and feminine but not completely.
My first Campers was a pair of simple black zip-up boots. I wore them almost every day. But I never retired my Chucks. Unfortunately, one day I had to, but at least they went out in style. I had gone on vacation with the man the gentleman I referred to earlier (we were a couple by now) to the island of Samothrace where there is a lot of dangerous, but extraordinarily scenic hiking. On one of these hikes the sole came partly dethatched from the rest of the shoe. I sewed it back together but after a few more hikes they were officially done for. I don’t have the heart to throw them away, but I certainly can’t wear them, and quickly replaced them with a black pair of etnies, a skater brand. Although they are not too feminine, they are entirely comfortable.
There I was, at a certain point of my life and I believed that I had drastically improved on becoming feminine. Until one day my boyfriend expressed a desire that I look more feminine. This made my heart sink. I didn’t think I was gorgeous, but I thought I had some feminine appeal. I protested that one factor keeping me from a feminine appearance was I didn’t have shoes to accommodate such wardrobe choices. Later, I started comparing how I looked, what I wore, what shoes I owned to some of his girl friends (who are gorgeous and feminine). I then decided it was time for another onset of shopping sprees.
My etnies were too big and clonky for some of my wardrobe purchases so I bought a pair of navy blue oasics; thin, narrow sneakers, that reveal the feminine shape of a lady’s foot. During this shopping spree I learned that I had lost more weight which is part of the reason my old clothes were no longer flattering. When I told store-clerks my size (or what it had been) they gave me looks of disbelief and handed me jeans maybe 5 sizes smaller than what I thought I was. This made an impact on me. It was clear how people perceive things differently. I have this permanent image of myself as a heavy-set, meek looking girl and the thin store clerk is telling me to try one size bigger than hers. Within a few purchases, I was looking and feeling like a woman again. And I could tell that he was happy with the change.
Since then I have built up a modest shoe collection. Perhaps I’m still no match for what the stereotype is but I have been more daring in my purchases and have made it a mission to accustom myself to high heels. I try to wear them once a week to work, or cook for my boyfriend in a skimpy outfit with a pair of high heels to make the training fun. And I must confess, I love heels. I used to find them a demeaning and sexist shoe designed by men, now I feel like they make women stronger by making us taller and adapt to pain. I have various heels, but the pair I bought that made me feel I have really become extremely feminine is a pair of pomegranate strappy high heels from nine west. I know its stupid but just holding the bag gave me some sense of empowerment, and not because of the high class profile that Nine West is known for but for the fact that anyone who knows anything about shoes, knows that I had just purchased a pair of real hard-core feminine shoes.
All this history of what shoes I owned at which point in my life came about while I was making a list of shoes I “need” and I thought of myself as a middle school student. I thought of how I looked, what I liked, how I saw the world, what was important to me, etc. I traced it all the way until now where I feel that I need more than I really do. But I don’t think clothes, shoes and style are something strictly materialistic. It’s a form of expression, how you see yourself, and how you want others to see you. And though I may be reveling in this new found femininity of mine, I will never let go of the grungy little middle schooler or overweight college student; underneath the feminine appearance I still hold the same core values of honesty and genuity and in my wardrobe, there will always be shoes to accommodate the earlier versions of me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

the meaningless 9-5

“You need to speed it up,” is my boss’s favorite criticism. And he spits it out so frequently that it had lost its meaning to me. One day, though, the phrase sounded more severe than usual because he had closed the door behind him to warn me privately. This, he had never done before. Luckily, the paper I was proofreading was extremely time consuming and my boss seemed a little more understanding when he gave it a quick glance. However, he didn’t fail to remind me a second time to “speed it up” before he opened the door again. In my stomach I felt a huge urge to scream.
Melville’s character Bartleby came to mind. It’s hard to associate boldness and courage with a character whose existence revolved around inactivity. Nobody knows what it is that Bartleby liked to do, but whoever has read the story certainly knows that he never did anything he didn’t want to do. When his employer asked him to complete a task, he NEVER said he WOULDN’T do it; he just said, “I prefer not to” and left the task undone. This pattern landed him in an asylum. Ironically, Bartleby is one of literature’s most sane characters; his actions were true to what he really felt as opposed to those of us who commit ourselves to obligations that leave us unfulfilled. Aren’t we the ones who are ridiculous running around and stressing out to please people we don’t like by doing a great job on things we don’t like doing?
I suppose in the greater scheme of things we aren’t working explicitly for our boss or because we are masochists. There are things outside our lives at work that are funded by the work we do: our independence, our families, our leisure activities. But somehow, work seems to dip into these areas of our lives and while not taking them away from us exactly, it limits the degree to which we enjoy them. Our jobs make us irritable, tired and apathetic and although we have these other areas of our lives, we run out of energy to devote ourselves to them fully.
To some extent, the individual is also responsible for his lack of fulfillment; he has the time to devote to the more meaningful areas of his life and I am a strong believer of the phrase “if there is a will there is a way.” But balancing our interests and passions with our obligations takes almost superhuman discipline. However, it CAN be done. The incident with my boss happened a bit before I took off for vacation. I was rundown and exhausted because the situations in the other areas of my life had priority at that time and I decided it was work that was going to have to suffer. After spending two weeks unplugged from the system, I came back rejuvenated and determined to do what I want to do. After all, not every job is spiritually meaningless. But because we live in such a frenetic world where the system requires us to labor at work we hate doing, for people we hate doing it for, I realize I will have to slave while I pursue what I want. I enjoy living in my apartment, doing my martial arts class and going out with friends and family. And although Bartleby was right, I don’t want to end up like him.
Likewise, I don’t want to end up like my colleagues where I work now. I’m the youngest in the office and unlike them I haven’t given up on life. I still see that I have a chance to do what I want to do. I still consider myself free and I realize that I should not tether myself to a job I dislike. Life is full of stepping stones which we tread on swiftly and quickly. The point is not to get complacent with a stepping stone that seems to be only “good enough”.

Friday, July 9, 2010

man vs nature: 2 contrasting settings, 1 feeling

Ikaria has many footpaths woven into its natural settings. During our stay there, we came across a very beautiful spot a bit off one of these footpaths in Chalares Gorge, with just minimal traces of previous trekkers. There were big, white rocks to sunbathe on, clean running water to drink and swim in and the whole place seemed unearthly and foreign as an environment; it drove through my body a very powerful sensation of isolation as if we were at the edge of the world.
Looking up at the towering mountain, I felt like it could swallow me at any moment and no one would ever know. I felt small and insignificant. And not in a bad way necessarily, but it did feel scary with a tinge of excitement. And as most feelings do, this one had a physical symptom; my stomach felt the way it does when I’m going up a ladder or standing on a cliff. That sense that danger could be imminent if one slight mishap should happen, but also a joyous thrill and sense of self-satisfaction for having taken the risk. I suppose this feeling comes from being in an environment without people and our everyday appliances that have become convenient tools for survival.
Interestingly, it is not just the isolation found in nature that instigates such unusual yet pleasurable fears. Sometimes the environment of an urban area that is overpopulated and overrun by traces of man inspires an almost identical sense. While sunbathing on the rocks, taking in the beauty of nature and made giddy by the excitement and fear instilled by my surroundings, I realized it all felt very familiar. It reminded me of walking on the sidewalks of New York City.
Instead of mountains making me feel miniscule there are tall buildings and an overwhelming population. Skyscrapers hover over sidewalks, casting shadows over the city streets. They are massive, imposing and beautiful like mountains. Walking on sidewalks entails dodging many other pedestrians, each one a reminder of how many of us exist in this world. Instead of being swallowed up by nature and digested in the ravine there is that sense of getting lost in the city streets or a huge park and vanishing without a trace for whatever reason. And in this city environment, that in some ways might appear to be less pure than the seldom-trodden footpaths of Ikaria, inspires this innocent feeling of fear and excitement combined, that anything is possible from being that glamorous looking woman a few steps ahead of you, to being that homeless bum begging for change on the stoop to the left of you.
Although the feeling was so similar, in New York City it was instilled by being completely immersed in a man-made environment whereas in Ikaria it was caused by being totally removed from such an environment. Both settings possess this idea of the infinite, in nature because of its vastness and in urban areas because of its density of human existence. Both environments have their qualities that can be used to develop an individual; the urban environment provides a ground to excel materially and practically whereas nature provides grounds to develop your spiritual self by reminding us of what is actually necessary for our existence and survival and separating it from our superfluous, yet not superficial wants and desires.