Along with curves and almond-shaped eyes, I inherited my mother’s small, stubby feet. Can a girl with inelegant Giselles dance her way to self acceptance?
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – My mother and I sat side-by-side in a suburban Colorado cineplex recently, bonding across generations as we watched “The Help.” The lights dimmed and we were transported back to the political upheaval, provincial prejudices and Southern Gothic of the United States in the 1960s.
As we munched on popcorn and sipped on bottled water, however, all I could do was stare at our sandaled feet, which we had propped up on a metal bar in front of our seats. Small, pinkish blocks of flesh with stubby toes that ended in pedicured nails, our feet were nearly identical. I chuckled in the dark as a lush panoply of Southern characters drifted in and out of scenes on the giant movie screen. Silently, I honored and accepted the fact that – along with large, dark almond eyes and a short, curvaceous figure – I had inherited my mother’s pies de campesina or peasant feet.
It was no secret in our family that my mother, my sisters and I would likely never become foot models or ballerinas. Our toes were all nearly the same length. My late brother Jay dubbed them “Flintstones feet,” and joked that our ancestors must have “kicked a lot of caveman walls.” As fate would have it, my beloved brother – who could transform himself in drag into a knockout woman desired by men of all stripes – was just the first of many males, both gay and straight, who would stare in morbid fascination or in open amusement at our homely lower extremities.
As I made my way through life, I began noticing men casting furtive, sidelong glances at my feet on beaches, in boats and at swimming pools. A tall corporate type I worked with in Los Angeles teased me relentlessly about my “Hobbit feet.” In my 20s, while living in South America as an American ex-patriot, I learned to keep my peasant patas out of sight, bringing them out only to bathe, swim or windsurf. I was living in pre-revolutionary Venezuela, the land of mythic beauty queens and lost worlds, where the average woman was bronzed and Amazonian – the girl from Ipanema on steroids. Venezuelan women didn’t just wear bikinis. They lived in “dental floss” tangas, tiny scraps of triangles that barely covered their nether regions. In contrast, my short, curvaceous Mexican-American body betrayed my North American indigenous roots, and my distant, circuitous Spanish peasant stock.
While growing up and coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, I – like millions of other baby boomers – had allowed advertising executives to convince me that a bouncy Breck strut and loud, decisive footfalls were measures of hard-won independence, feminine mystique, youthful vitality and all-American sexuality. As such, I pounded pavements on two continents in tight, narrow and stylish shoes and boots, trying to power my way into professional success. All the while, I pretended to ignore my painful ingrown toenails, shortened calf muscles, sore arches and peeling, weeping blisters. It was enough that people noticed me as I sashayed down city sidewalks in disco shoes and wrap-around dresses. Once, while striding to work in saffron-colored suede pumps, a woman slammed her brakes, backed up, rolled her window down and asked reverentially and pertly, “Where did you get those shoes?”
Sadly, I was never one of those sunny hippie chicks who could seduce men with flowing skirts and bangled, bare feet. I was never a daring diva in strappy sandals, with finger-like toes that spilled over soles and displayed tantalizing foot cleavage. No, not even toe rings and ankle bracelets could beautify my dogs. A mere glance at my practical little birdie feet and you knew they were designed for locomotion, for chasing buffalo around pueblos and chalky cliff dwellings, for trekking across miles of high-altitude deserts, for trudging up hard-scrabble mountains, and for plodding along rows of maize, potatoes, spicy green chili peppers and other pre-Columbian crops, with a baby swaddled tightly on my back.
My feet were not designed for dancing blithely through gilded European ballrooms or across stages lit up by footlights – or were they? In the ballet world, in fact, there’s a name for blocky appendages like mine: Giselle feet. As it turns out, they are ideally suited for dancing en pointe because feet with stubby toes can bear a dancer’s weight better than slimmer, more elegant foot types with longer toes. My life might have been easier had someone mentioned this years ago. Instead of scurrying away clumsily in clodhoppers or too-tight pumps, I could have laced up silken slippers and pirouetted around short people jokes and songs.
A mere glance at my practical little birdie feet and you knew they were designed for locomotion, for chasing buffalo around pueblos and chalky cliff dwellings, for trekking across miles of high-altitude deserts, for trudging up hard-scrabble mountains, and for plodding along rows of maize, potatoes, spicy green chili peppers and other pre-Columbian crops, with a baby swaddled tightly on my back.
I’ve since learned that what I have admired all my life are “Egyptian feet,” narrow, elegant fronds with long toes that taper progressively and look amazingly hot in barely-there, spike-heeled sandals: feet that inspire fetishes. Instead, I spent years trying to escape my freakish Giselles, my genetic curse, by investing in shoes that I thought made my feet look slimmer, and made me feel taller, slinkier and sexier. In high school, I teetered around in hot pants and platform sandals. In college, I wrapped my muscular calves in lace-up, knee-high boots that peeked out from under my maxi-length winter coat. In South America, I squeezed my wide feet into narrow, pointy-toed high heels to dance salsa, merengue and cumbia, mesmerized by the chu-chu sound of hundreds of feet keeping rhythm on a nautical club’s concrete-floor patio, which had been turned into an impromptu, tropical ballroom.
My feet may look clumsy, but athletic and artistic movement have been constant threads throughout my life. I took up running and triathlons in my 20s as an excuse to kick off my dancing heels and power-strutters to experience the simple joy of a cushy pair of athletic shoes, and to remember the womblike thrill of propelling my body through water. When you are flying across pavements or swimming laps in a chlorine-infused public pool, no one cares about your ducky feet. If anything, the meditative qualities of repetitive movement through water, time and space have given me time to think.
Instead of obsessing over my imperfect feet, my imperfect body and my imperfect self, I remember the people who can’t run or swim because they have no feet or legs, or are confined to wheelchairs. I remember the people who are too old or too sick to run or swim, or those who are too poor, too hungry, or too busy earning a living or looking for work to exercise. I think of the refugees fleeing political persecution, and the immigrants crossing borders who don’t have the luxury of running or swimming for sport. When I’m feeling particularly sombre, I remember the sad piles of shoes in Nazi death camps, and the mud-encrusted chancletas in newspaper photos of corpses swept down hillsides during South America’s torrential rainy seasons.
Surprisingly, my quest for movement has not waned as I have aged. A few years ago, I took up flamenco at a Denver workshop run by a lithe española who followed the historical path of my conquistador ancestors, and emigrated from Asturias to Zacatecas, then to New Mexico before finally settling in Colorado. She coaxed out miracles from my peasant Spanish-Pueblo mestiza feet. I slunk around in sexy shoes and long skirts while stomping my feet in rhythmic, complex percussion patterns on the floor. I learned valencianas, golpes and step-clap combinations, and twisted my hands into heartbreakingly beautiful flower movements that drew the viewer’s eyes around each curve of my mature body.
When I put my left foot forward, arched my right arm proudly above my head and stretched my short torso toward the sky, I imagined myself taller and more elegant, more refined, and less stocky. More like a dancer, and less like a peasant. More like a gypsy, and less like an ungrateful, middle-aged American who was still struggling with self acceptance.
I’ve come a long way in trying to make peace with my purposeful, sturdy feet and my low-center-of-gravity body in a nation that sets impossibly high standards for women, and stubbornly holds up the tall, slim blonde as the universal standard of beauty. My puckish little feet and curves have served me well, and have taken me down many interesting roads. Now, when I look at myself, I see my history and my roots. I remember where my feet have taken me, and how much farther I’d like to go. Olé, olé, Mom. Olé, olé.
Deborah Méndez-Wilson (née Quintana-Vigil) is a fifth-generation Coloradan whose mestizo family roots in the United States date back to the early 1700s in Spanish colonial New Mexico. A University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication graduate, Méndez-Wilson spent nearly 20 years working in professional journalism for news organizations such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and publications such as Wireless Week, Colorado Outdoors and the now-defunct Daily Journal of Caracas, Venezuela. She also has worked as an ESL teacher and a public relations professional in state government, health care and higher education. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo., with her husband and son, and also shares her life with her adult daughter and grandson.