My fascination with feet, and the relationship with black women and their feet was prompted by the following quotation from bell hooks’ 1993 book Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery:
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)
If care of our feet speaks to care of our whole selves, I wanted to know if hooks’ findings about care of feet, care of self, and shoe selection were still true 16 years later. I interviewed 25 African-American women, whose ages range from 18-73 (avg. 39 ), occupations range from student to anesthesiologist, and shoe sizes range from 6.5-12W (avg. 9). I asked the following questions: Age; Occupation; Shoe Size; How do you feel about your feet?; Do you care for your feet? If so how?; When it comes to shoes do you opt for comfort, style, or both?; What is your shoe of choice?; What is one word that describes your feet?; How many hours a day do you spend on your feet?; What is your most memorable feet memory?; and How do you feel about yourself?
My limited research speaks volumes about the nature of reeducation and self-care among African-American women. In fact, JW (73) cited her best feet memory as the healing of the gangrene in her toe as a result of a blocked artery. Since the healing she has not only cared more for herself, but she “diligently” cares for her feet.
On the subject of self-care, eighty-eight percent of women surveyed, do care for their feet. BS, a wise twenty year old, noted, “Of course I care for my feet. When your feet hurt, your whole body hurts.” 60% of the women surveyed get regular professional pedicures. The students I surveyed get professional pedicures when funds allow, but in this economy they have taken to caring for their own feet. All of the women who care for their feet mentioned a daily routine of drying in between the toes and slathering with cream. Other care includes foot massages and reflexology. For some the self-care is year round, while for others the idea of baring their toes in flip-flops or sandals in the summer months increases the likelihood that they will get a pedicure.
Speaking of flip-flops (the shoe of choice for summer months), the women I surveyed have an equal love for sneakers and stilettos! The sneaker is an obvious choice—32% of the women surveyed spend between 2-10 hours/day on their feet, and 28% spend more than 10 hours/day on their feet. Younger women (under 30) cited sneakers or flats as their shoe of choice. The thirty and forty-somethings are the stiletto lovers. Not surprisingly, the women over fifty cited flats as their shoe of choice. DS (56) even cited being barefoot as her shoe of choice!
While hooks’ observation that “ Many black women have large feet and again find it difficult to find reasonably priced shoes” still rings somewhat true today, the women I spoke with overwhelmingly choose shoes, regardless of kind, based on comfort first and style second. Gone are the days, especially for women 35 and older, of stuffing feet into uncomfortable or cheap shoes. In fact three women specifically mentioned purchasing well-fitting, good-quality shoes as part of their care for their feet. And while BT (21) may sacrifice style for comfort for a night on the town, and TC (33) cannot resist a “bad” pair of stilettos despite comfort level, comfort is important to 92% of the women I surveyed. In terms of shoe selection, retail stores have left much to be desired. KS (34) cites the difficulty in finding shoes that she likes to fit her size 11 feet. DT (56) used to despise her feet because they limited her style selection, but she grown to be “grateful for the large feet that carry this body.”
A large majority of the women I surveyed were, indeed, grateful to their feet, although some were not. The women described their feet in the following ways: beautiful, ten, long, flat, boney, skinny, supportive, deceptive, unpredictable, cute, big, durable, appealing, small, strong, important, painful, friends, sturdy, tired, and functional. While most women love their feet and love themselves, many are learning to love and care for both themselves and their feet. I believe this learning will further elevate the level of self-esteem among African-American women.
Among the most memorable feet stories, were beautiful experiences of digging one’s toes in the pink Bermuda sand, “standing knee deep in mud after a good rain in Mississippi,” using one’s long toes to pick up things off the floor, and a woman who learned to dance while standing on her father’s feet at her aunt and uncle’s wedding. BT (18) loves the way that her feet help her to praise God through dance. DW (31) and LS (32) have fond memories of their mothers playing with their toes as girls, however TR’s (32) mother was so obsessed with her daughter having pretty feet that she pedicured T while she slept. T recalls, “While not pleasant, it brings back fond memories of my mother teaching me the importance of self-care and upkeep.” Two women have feet memories that they cannot “share out loud.” Both women hinted at their feet memories being part of a pleasurable sexual experience. Perhaps they are like KB (43) who was told after a pedicure that she had “suckable toes.” BS (20) is pregnant and cannot wait to “resume unswollen feet.” Perhaps she will shout Hallelujah like Rev. DS (39) who “only had to wait 4 months [after giving birth] to wear a perfect pair of shoes that were absolutely gorgeous.”
What have I learned. Well, we have come a long way since hooks wrote Sisters of the Yam in 1993, but there is still a ways to go. There is certainly a correlation between foot care and self-care/esteem, however, based on my limited research, foot care (and self-care) among black women is on the rise. African-American women who care for their feet and speak positively about their feet, also engage in life affirming behavior and speak like affirming words about their whole selves. At a later time, I hope to continue this research in a more formal way. I believe there is much to be learned about the state of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health of African-American women from this kind of query. In the meantime, I’m caring for my feet more, loving myself more, and I just purchased two new pairs of good-quality, well-fitting shoes!