My hatred for the activity of shoe shopping, which has, for some reason, become a stereotypical “female” activity that people use to demonstrate how frivilous those womefolk are, is deep, with spiky bits. I cannot stand shopping for shoes. Ordinary people who need shoes can pop into the nearest discount shoe store and grab the least offensive $10 pair of whatevers off the shelf, or so I’ve heard. Those of us with oddly sized and shaped feet tend to share such stories with each other in tones of awe. It is the Weird Foot Person’s version of an urban legend. We are unfamiliar with the concept of cheap and abundant shoes.
My father, who needs size 15 shoes, had to wear size 12s for years; size 15s were simply not available to a Canadian family of modest means in the 1950s. He has spent his adult life frequenting specialty shoe stores, even going to the States occasionally because there’s more selection there. My mum’s feet have been, at various times, 10 1/2 and 11 (the equivalent of 9 and 9 1/2 in male sizes). Mine are 11 AA: in other words, 11 extra-narrow. They’re like really skinny clown feet. Everyone in my family except my sister, whose feet are of average size, has a hard time finding shoes.
When I was in Calgary for the summer, my sandal strap broke. Anyone else would have regarded this as a minor annoyance. I, however, knew what was coming. I must have visited every shoe store in Calgary. None carried anything over a 10. A few said they might have an 11 somewhere (none did), but 11 M, not 11 AA. Most ordinary shoe stores stick mostly to M widths. Even Tallcrest, which used to be a good place to find mid-priced shoes, dropped its wide and narrow fittings six or seven years ago. Calgary was a wasteland of shoe stores that entirely lacked shoes I could wear. I finally located a Birkenstock store and coughed up an appalling amount of money for a pair of sandals. Admittedly, my Birkis have been my most comfortable sandals ever, but I wasted hours trying to find something less expensive before I finally went crawling to the specialty store.
Those of us with weird feet belong to a sort of shoe-related sub-culture. Many or us will, in desperation, wear our shoes until they wear out, and when I say “wear out,” I mean “fall completely to pieces in at least six ways simultaneously.” The sandals that broke in Calgary had already more or less lost their soles. My Birkis are on their last legs (so to speak), being cracked in several places and having lost chunks of cork. Only the straps have held up. My five-year-old walking shoes self-destructed in the spring; the soles and toes were already in bad shape when one of the soles came semi-detached from the shoe, meaning that every time I took a step, I tripped over the flapping sole. This, of course, happened at a convention in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. The only people who understand the trauma of losing a pair of shoes are themselves the victims of very small or very large feet. We nod at each other in the street and exchange world-weary stories in speciality shoe stores.
There are clans within the larger group. I was in Harry Young on Saturday, replacing my unsalvageable walking shoes. Harry Young is one of the only places in Toronto that carries shoes that fall outside the magic 6 – 10 M size range. I like the selection, though not the prices. It’s not the store’s fault, though; no one makes cheap shoes in unusual sizes. As I waited for my salesman to finish up a phone call, the woman next to me started talking to me about her shoes. Her feet were size 5 1/2; she insisted that my own problems finding shoes were nothing compared to hers, as “most stores” carried 11s. I tried to tell her this wasn’t the case, but I don’t think she believed me. The Little-Footed People and the Big-Footed People sometimes regard each other with suspicion. Each group is convinced it’s got the short (or overly long) end of the stick.
Harry Young also stands out in having shoes that actually look nice. I’ve looked over the 11s in Winners. They’re all Ms, for one thing. For another, they’re the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen in my life. The lower sizes get some nice-looking shoes; the 11s get shoes covered with sequins and artificial flowers. This happens with clothes in general, actually: the bigger the piece of clothing, the less attractive it is. I don’t really care what my shoes look like, but I draw the line at sparkles. I would also like to point out to the shoe designers of the world that women who need size 11s often prefer flats to heels. Many of us don’t need to be any taller; we also find high heels painful. Winners’ selection of six-inch size-11 platforms makes my brain cry.
I sincerely hope that my new walking shoes hold up as long as my old ones did. Shoe shopping is never going to be my favourite activity.