I first realized my body was not “normal” when I was in preschool.
I blame jelly shoes for shattering my positive body image. In the 1980s, there was this fad where all the young girls wore these plastic cutout ballet slippers, affectionately called “jellies.” They had pointy toes and sharp edges (despite being made of squishy plastic), and were unforgivably narrow. Their bright, candy colors remain vivid in my mind. All the girls at preschool had them and I imagined all the princesses wore them as well. Jelly shoes were the embodiment of spring and happiness. I knew I had to do everything in my power to get some. Naturally, I started harassing my mother for a pair.
My mother was reluctant. Not only did I probably not need a pair of shoes (if these plastic creations could even count as shoes), but I imagine she was trying to spare me the pain that would surely ensue. She countered my pleas with disparaging comments about the shoes—they are ugly, they are cheaply made, they are a waste of money. But this just made me mad at her. What did she know, anyway?
Eventually, she broke down and had a talk with me. “You know, Elizabeth, those shoes you want so badly are not going to fit you.” I didn’t know what she meant. Couldn’t we just buy my size? “No,” my mom said flatly, “They are going to be too narrow and I don’t think you’ll even be able to get them on. You have very wide feet … they just won’t fit you.”
I was in disbelief. What was she even talking about? How could the shoes be too narrow? I had wide feet? How did the shoes fit EVERYONE ELSE? My preschool brain was overloaded and confused. I pushed all this nonsense out of my head and continued my quest for the shoes. Eventually, my mom broke down and took me to the shoe store. Jellies of all colors and sizes stacked the shelves. I wanted hot pink. We found my size and I tried on a pair. Or I tried to try on a pair. I couldn’t even believe my mother was right. Of course I took out bigger sizes and finally found a size so big that I could actually force my foot into them. They were incredibly painful to the point where I couldn’t even walk. The plastic did not give at all and the edges of the cutout designs dug into my skin.
In all honesty, that is all I remember about that day. But I can still experience the emotions that came over me when the shoes didn’t fit. I felt more than just sadness and disappointment—this was my first experience with loss. I couldn’t be like all the other girls. I would never be a princess. What was wrong with me? Why weren’t my feet dainty like girls’ feet are supposed to be?
I can’t remember anything in my childhood that I ever wanted as much as I wanted those jellies and everything they symbolized. After what I think was a long mourning process, I finally moved on from the jellies.
How did I learn to make peace with my monstrous feet? I wish I had been told at the time that it was okay to be different. I wish I would’ve realized earlier that other kids had similar experiences with not fitting into the ideal mold. But what helped me was putting my feet to good use. When I was in the second grade I started competitive swimming and found that I had an extraordinarily powerful kick for my age … which I attributed to my big feet! It was like I was wearing a set of flippers (which help you swim super fast) ALL THE TIME. Once I realized that my feet were actually beneficial, I remember feeling much better about myself.
My feet will never be dainty and I will never be a princess, but that’s okay. Don’t get me wrong, my wide feet still make it annoying to find shoes that fit well, but at least I got over that sense of inadequacy for being unable to conform to societal ideals.
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