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Oct 10 2013

Shopping for Kids’ Shoes is Getting a Lot More Complicated

By at 10:01 am

baby shoes

More than any other article of clothing, my children’s shoes have borne, for me, emotional weight. This started before they were born.

When I was pregnant, too superstitious (pu pu pu) to populate the apartment with nursery furniture and too nauseous to think about a layette, I allowed myself a single indulgence from among the hand-me-downs that I otherwise kept stashed in the brown paper bags in which they came through our door: Evil eye be damned, I placed a pair of rabbit-eared booties on the nightstand next to my bed.

Tiny and surreal next to the growing stack of pregnancy books left unread, the shoes seemed a stand-in for the hope lodged in my swollen belly, the embodiment of a promise that by some miraculous combination of effort, modern medicine, and fate, my 40-year-old body would bear fruit.

It did. And when my twins arrived and it came time to buy them footwear, I chose a pair of Stride Rites. Determined to be the practical mother, I felt proud of my decision to forgo the far cuter models that the saleswoman confessed had no arch support. I loved my twins’ first shoes almost as much as I loved my twins. Those shoes were pure and durable, confirmation that my kids had survived infancy, and that I had too. Those four brown leather stitched foot containers spent their first night home lined up on my nightstand, where I stared at them, sang a little Shehechiyanu, and marveled at the fact that, together, we had arrived here.

When I see children’s shoes, I see embodiment. I see the soul, not just the sole, of a kid.

Flash forward almost three years to just the other day, when I was shopping for fall sneakers with my now nearly 4-year olds, helping them get ready for school. A loyalist, or perhaps just lazy, I reached for the same trustworthy brand that had delivered before.

But as any gender progressive parent who wanders into any contemporary kids’ shoe store now knows, there’s a certain age at which fashion and ideology collide. For preschool-aged girls, the same shoes that once promised support suddenly come laced with “princess gems” that light up and encourage their wearer to make a wish when the light turns pink. “Sparkle with every step,” the advertisement blares.

The equivalent boy pair encourages the wearer to channel the power of Darth Vader, spin webs like Spiderman, or jump.

The gendered messages, as fellow feminists points out, are obvious and old–boys move and do things while girls sit pretty and hope for things to happen.

I felt betrayed that even the most practical of brands, the one that met my needs a few years back, offered so little this time around.

There comes a time when we, as parents, face choices and dichotomies we may not wish to abide. We may look forward to a day when basic footwear is designed to let our children become, instead of dictating, with every step, who, and what, they are. We may rattle the cages and scream our desires for alternatives. But too often, ever practical–and often tired–we choose our battles. We acquiesce. It’s no longer about us, we reason, but about what they want to wear.

Or, we turn the battle within. I seem to do a lot of that, of late, wondering when to steer fashion choices and when to follow, forever debating the impact of nature and nurture and Disney pink.

Meanwhile, those initial sturdy brown pairs still sit atop my dresser. I gaze at those originals, now, nostalgic for that earlier moment, when my children’s shoes were just a blank leather canvass against which identity, personality, and unmediated personal preference would emerge.

To learn more about what people are doing to advocate for alternatives, including a crowdsourced campaign and a billboard in Times square, see #BraveGirlsWant.

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