Editor’s Note: High heels were on their way out before the pandemic, but now they seem almost like a prehistoric relic. All we needed for quarantine were some comfy slippers, which means loads of stilettos—maybe even some designer brands—are probably making their way to Goodwills across the country. As a tribute to the shoes that kept chiropractors in business for decades, we’re republishing this prescient piece.
In actor Bridget Moynahan’s new book Our Shoes: Our Selves, accomplished women tell the story of their most meaningful pair. I first noticed Moynahan when she played the young wife who Mr. Big left in Sex and the City, and I was intrigued that she wrote how black motorcycle boots from Barneys helped her walk away from her real-life public breakup with NFL star Tom Brady. Moynahan’s project was inspired when she texted a friend about getting rid of the crazy high-heeled shoes she never wore anymore. I could relate. For me, giving up my long, fulfilling relationship with heels was like a painful breakup itself.
The Start of My Love Story
As a curvy teenager perpetually on a diet, I first fell for a pair of borrowed Stuart Weitzman peep-toe four-inch-high slingbacks that made me taller and slimmer. I made sure Polaroid photos captured me head to toe. So taken with this instant lift, I stopped attending parties of a friend who asked us to leave our shoes at the door. I wouldn’t ruin my silhouette by giving up the loot from my favorite free store, my Mom’s closet.
I stopped attending parties of a friend who asked us to leave our shoes at the door.
“I’m not buying myself black heels anymore because they disappear,” my Midwest Jewish mom said after I took those four-inch shoes with me to college and then grad school in New York. “Just wait till you have a daughter who raids your wardrobe.”
Yet motherhood wasn’t in the stars for me. It took decades to even find a date with his feet on the ground. Feeling dejected after being dumped by a series of exes, I was skeptical when a girlfriend set me up with Charlie. Told he was hilarious, brilliant, and six foot four, I thought: At least I’ll get to wear my platforms, not expecting to fall head over heels.
Three years later, at 35, I threw off my new strappy black sandals to dance barefoot to our wedding song, “Runaround Sue,” spinning in a fun black dress, after his father, a judge, married us in Soho.
While our heights and hearts were well paired, our genetic makeup wasn’t. In my 40s, I gave up trying to be fruitful and multiply. I re-channeled my passions into work. I was ecstatic to land a guest spot on a TV talk show to discuss my debut memoir—about all the men who’d broken my heart before I wed.
Excited, Mom sent a new black outfit with fancy Givenchy hose from Michigan. Living in near Greenwich Village’s 8th Street—back then a row of cheap shoe stores—I checked out inexpensive black wedges, kittens, straps, and spools. None fit this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. I rushed uptown to Bergdorf’s, determined to splurge on spiky black shoes to make my legs longer and leaner, and my size 9 ½ banana boats smaller. In my own Sex and the City moment, a gorgeous six-inch high pair made of Italian leather beckoned, setting me back $600, the most I’d ever spent for shoes—or any article of clothing. But I just knew that wearing my shiny new high heels while exposing the low-life heels who’d hurt me would be perfect.
Alas, my three-minute on-air interview was a bust. I was a tongue-tied, nodding, bobble-headed doll. Worse, the news crawl on the screen’s bottom blocked my magical spikes. The overpriced foot failures, exiled to my closet, seemed to mock me. Demoralized and dumpy, I went back to sweats and slippers.
The Shoe Saga Continues
For the next few years, I revised a long-simmering fictional project set in Israel. When finished, I begged my pretty younger cousin Sivan to read it. She’d just moved from Tel Aviv to Brooklyn, and I needed her to make sure I’d nailed the details. Sivan gave me pages of smart notes and corrections.
“I owe you one,” I promised, when she refused the money I tried to pay her.
At 48, after I finally sold that first novel, two TV shows offered another shot at success and shoe redemption. I wobbled onto the stage of a short-lived cable show wearing a favorite pair of heels. Though a stylist over-curled my hair and pancaked too much makeup on my face, my stilettos got airtime! And on a different program, my well-shod feet were on display for almost a whole minute. I was thrilled by a Facebook stranger’s comment, “Look at those gams.” I was strutting tall again.
Saying “So Long” to My Love
Then I turned 50. While kickboxing for exercise, I tore two ligaments in my lower spine. I could barely teeter two blocks to class in sneakers. My young physical therapist said, “Kickboxing? At your age?”
“Why don’t I just kill myself now?” I joked.
He declared: “No more heels.” I was devastated to be demoted to flats with orthotics. Embarrassed and in pain, I felt old for the first time. It was hard to let go of my Carrie Bradshaw fantasy. Who was I when I wasn’t sexily shod and height-enhanced? I felt smaller and shorter in every way one could shrink.
Still, I tried to emotionally pump myself up to see my cousin Sivan, who was stopping by before her 30th birthday. I bought her a gift card, wishing I had a better present to thank her for the editing help and to celebrate the occasion. She seemed a little lonely, living far from her relatives. I hoped to be her generous American maternal figure.
“I’m wearing a black dress to a party this weekend,” she mentioned. “I need shoes. Want to go shopping?”
I glanced down at her trotters. Like other females in our family, hers were not petite. In fact, she and I were both a size 9-1/2. I realized that I would never have any children to raid my closet. The Shoe Gods were sending me a message: It was time to relinquish my past. In the back of my closet, I reunited with the fabulous black-leather stilettos I hadn’t worn in years. Like the Prince with Cinderella’s slipper, I bent down to slip them on Sivan’s foot.
The Shoe Gods were sending me a message: It was time to relinquish my past.
“Oh, they’re gorgeous,” she cooed.
“Keep them,” I told her. I wanted her to go to all the great places in life I’d already been. “They’re yours. I can’t wear heels anymore,” I admitted, letting the sadness sink in. Then I wistfully added, “But we did have some exciting times together.”
Entering Low-Heel Land: I Am Not Alone
I’m not surprised that high-heel sales dropped 12 percent last year while comfy sneakers rose 37 percent. Doctors have protested against companies that made their female employees walk in heels all day and noted that such shoes can cause problems from bunions to broken bones.
I was too busy focusing on being comfortable and able to move faster to think about glamorous shoes.
Like many women my age, I suspect, I became addicted to $36 flatforms at Aerosoles. Over the last few years, I’ve given little thought to glamorous shoes. I was too busy focusing on the thrill of being healthy, comfortable, and able to move faster. In Moynahan’s Our Shoes, Our Selves, nine of the 40 well-known women interviewed chose sneakers as their most important pair, including two female senators, an activist, a millionaire entrepreneur, a bestselling author, and a former first lady. I was in good company.
My identity and life have morphed, and so have my shoes. I don’t miss being afraid to run in those almost-stilts of my youth. Today, I feel blessed to have such a sweet almost-daughter with big feet to pass on my sartorial legacy. And luckily, both my marriage and career have legs, albeit ones now clad only in black Nikes.
A version of this article was originally published in May 2019.
Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing professor, is the author most recently of Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration out this week from Assouline Books.