This was written in February of 2009. As vulnerable as our feet are, this letter is equally as vulnerable.
Dear Tootsies (and Pinky, too),
Where do I begin? We haven’t talked much. I apologize, let me rephrase that. I’ve been talking all of my life, but rarely have I taken the time to actually listen to you. I’ve heard you, but I haven’t listened, heeded, or considered what you have been saying to me. In the almost thirty-three years that we have been together, I have only paid attention to you when Pinky bumped up against a wall, bed post, or some other large object whose presence my eyes failed to recognized. Pinky would yell, scream, holler, bawl—so loud that I couldn’t ignore her. Otherwise, I haven’t listened, and for that I am sorry. In fact, it wasn’t until I reread Sisters of the Yam by bell hooks, in 2004, that I even recognized that you need me to pay attention to you. In a chapter entitled “Dreaming Ourselves Dark and Deep: Back Beauty,” hooks wrote:
“Another area of the black female body that receives little or no focus, but usually indicates the degree of body self-esteem, is the fact. Recent studies on women and shoes reveal that the majority of women in this society stuff their feet into shoes that are at least one size too small. Many black women have large feet and again find it difficult to find reasonably priced shoes. Yet even the black females among us who wear regular sizes also abuse our feet by stuffing them into shoes that are uncomfortable or too little. Since many black females have learned if we are to acknowledge that the happiness and comfort of one’s feet in daily life are crucial to well-being. This unlearning can begin when we pay attention to our feet.” (hooks 92)
In few words, hooks spoke volumes about the way in which women in general, and black women specifically, relate to their feet. If I can be honest, when I reread the text, it was as if hooks was writing to me, about me, for me, on your behalf.
In many ways, your presence has always troubled me. Imean, with me being 5’2” and you being a size 10W or 11, you have always had a presence. I’m a short girl. That being said, you should be a size 7 or 8. But you are not, and we are an odd couple of sorts I was always told that from the knees down that I resemble Beaulah Powell, my maternal grandmother. Truthfully, if you take a photograph of both she and I from the ankles down, we are identical twins. That doesn’t sit well with me. My grandmother has never struck me as a glamourous woman. Strong, yes, but never glamourous. Her feet, my feet, are the same-strong, but not glamorous. Her feet walked cotton-fields—thick skinned, rough, spread wide like the fields.
I grew up listening to my momma playing jazz and blues on Saturday mornings while we cleaned the house. Well, Fats Waller’s tune, Your Feet’s Too Big, always touched a nerve:
Say, up in Harlem,
At a table for two,
There were four of us,
Me, your big feet and you!
From your ankles up, I say you sure are sweet,
From there down, there's just too much feet!
Your feet's too big!
Don't want ya 'cause your feet's too big!
Can't use ya 'cause your feet's too big!
I really hate ya 'cause your feet's too big!
All of my friend’s feet cooperate with them, but not you. It’s really hard to be nice when your presence makes me feel mannish, old-ladyish, hard-laborish. I cannot say I’ve ever dated a guy whose feet were much bigger than you are. In fact, I remember being so embarrassed when I found out that Esteban’s feet were not only smaller than you, but much smaller than you. I often wonder if your size contributed to our problems, or maybe it was my brooding over your size than caused issue between us.
Admittedly, I haven’t always treated you right. To guise the fact of your size, I often bought and wore shoes that were too short, too narrow, and too cheap. When I was partying, I wanted to be like Aloma, Stacy, and Kim and wear fiercely high-heeled shoes while dancing the night away. When I started going to church, I wanted to be like Minister L’Judie and Minister Nicola and wear fiercely high-heeled shoes while praising and preaching. And I did, but you suffered. Oh, how you suffered—ingrown toenails, bunions, and rough spots galore. But its not just high-heels that do us in. When ballerina shoes and flats became trendy, I followed along, and quickly learned that flats give Pinky corns and make your instep throb. I wish I could say that the pain made me buy more sensible shoes, but they didn’t. I’ve always been a good dresser—some would even say fashionable—and all I wanted was for you to match my style. To that end, I abused you, and I am sorry.
But your size wasn’t my only source of consternation. In recent years, I’ve come to know that you (and hands, too) suffer from hyperhidrosis. As a child, all I knew was that my feet were always sweaty and smelly. Again, not ladylike if you ask me. Not only were you big, but you were smelly. I feared changing for gym class, because it always meant taking off my shoes. I feared going to someone’s home that required me to take my shoes off. I resent the security checks at airports because it means being outed as a smelly-feet lady. You know I’ve tried everything—creams, powders, special socks, prayer. Just a few months ago I was traveling from Chicago after an exciting trip to the American Academy of Religion conference. I was on an intellectual and spiritual high until I passed through the security check at O’Hare airport. Not only were my shoes smelly, but the TSA officers made faces and said awful things about the smell. I wanted to run away, fast. It was like I was in high-school gym class all over again.
When I began to grow in my relationship with Christ, and was actively engaging in Bible study, my eyes were opened to truths about you. The psalmist wrote, “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well” (Psalm 139:14). For so long, I hated and abused you. I did not recognize, that you, in all of your large and sweaty glory, were part of my inward parts that were made by God. I did not recognize that you had been covered in my mother’s womb. I didn’t recognize that you, like every other part of me, is a marvelous work of God. Even when my eyes were opened to that truth, I failed to act on it, for it mean forgoing stylish shoes for ones made by Easy Spirit and Naturalizer. I failed to act on it, for it meant not being able spend quality time at Nine-West with my girlfriends.
But more than that, when I answered my call to ministry, you had a totally new significance to me. The Apostle Paul, quoting the prophet Isaiah, spoke about the importance on the feet in the preaching of the Gospel. He wrote:
“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
“ How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
Who bring glad tidings of good things!”” (Romans 10:14-15).
The most significant piece of this writing is the naming of the feet of preachers as beautiful. I’ve never thought of you as beautiful before, but you are. Even your size is a blessing. You are my foundation, you keep me from toppling over, you keep me standing tall. You may look like Beaulah’s feet, but you are mine, and I love you. You may not look be glamoroust, but you are mine, and I love you. I love you because God made you, and gave you to me. I love you because you have anchored me for so long. I don’t have to wear fiercely high-heeled shoes for you to be attractive. I don’t have to be ashamed of your smell (although waking a few minutes early and taking to time to carefully dry every inch of you has alleviated the stink). God says that you are marvelous, beautiful, and who am I to argue that point! So, even now, I vow to treat you like the marvelous and beautiful works of God that you are. I want to be well, wholly well, so I vow to begin with you.
hooks, bell. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. Boston: South End Press, 1993.
Unless otherwise noted, All Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible New King JamesVersion.