The trouble started the way so many kinds of trouble do these days – with an Internet meme.
I logged on to my Twitter feed a few months back, bored, and noticed that something called “heelconcept” was trending.
This particular meme, which has metastasized not only on Twitter, but also on Instagram, is post-modernly, abidingly bizarre: it involves arching one’s foot in pantomime of wearing a high heel, then using various food and household objects – seashells, pretzels, little bottles of hand sanitizers, to imagineer a “shoe.”
So I started clicking, and before I knew what had happened, I’d tumbled into a digital vortex of pure and unadulterated strangeness.
I soon learned that foot fetish specialists are among the many sex and kink workers who use Twitter to peddle their services, having lately been moralized off of Craig’s List by well-meaning idiots who just don’t get that sex workers require a safe anonymous form for seeking out clients. Twitter gets it.
The first thing to pop up was a photo of 10 freshly painted lady toes curled around a little scrap of paper with a phone number, and beneath that, the stark command: “Worship me.”
Next came a series of photos of a woman’s clean, bejeweled feet peeking out from a comforter, with the tagline, “Ready for bed.” As if they were her children.
Further and further down the foot fetish hole I tumbled, and something alarming started to happen. I began to feel vaguely titillated.
I watched a video of a woman walking around in ultra ultra high heels. And there it was again! A strange, undeniable twinge of fascination. Not sexual, exactly, but not non-sexual, either. Cue deep, instant shame.
What, exactly was going on here?
By her mid-30s, a woman has usually got a pretty good handle on her kinks and quirks. I’m straight but open-minded, “worldly in conquest” as they say in polite company, and recently married to a man with whom I enjoy a playfully exploratory sex life. I’ve always been curious about light bondage and mild exhibitionism, but that’s as far as my baser predilections have ever wandered. And I don’t really even notice feet all that much in daily life – men’s or women’s – unless it’s because they’re particularly gross or smelly.
My own feet have been, more than anything, a cause for chagrin in life. Oh, I appreciate all the places they’ve carried me. I’ve used them to run two half-marathons, even. They are sturdy. But they are not what you’d call attractive feet. They are big and narrow and bony, and punctuated on the ends by toes so long and knobby that look like little wiggly, fleshy exclamation points.
My older sister teased me mercilessly about those long toes during our adolescent years, and I must have internalized some of that loathing over passing time, because once I saw a photograph of my own feet and, failing momentarily to recognize the disembodied extremities as my own, scrunched up my nose in dislike and demanded to a friend, “OH MY GOD EW, WHOSE UGLY FEET ARE THOSE?!”
My toes are so long, in fact, that I have broken more than half a dozen of them over the course of my 33 years by snagging them in doorways, tripping on air, and falling up stairwells.
Once, on the eve of a cross-country road trip, I snagged my big right toe while scurrying down a set of stairs with a glass of water in hand. I may or may not have been drinking, and may or may not have had a male suitor awaiting me in my dank basement bedroom. The fall was epic and my big toe hopelessly mangled, but I’d become enough of a toe-induced accident veteran by then that I managed to tumble all the way to the bottom of the stairs without spilling a drop of my water. My toe, however, did not escape unscathed, and I was forced to drive from Missouri to Oregon in possession of a gas-pedal toe so swollen and purple it would only fit into a gigantic black flip-flop. Each time we got out of the car to stretch, use a bathroom, or purchase food and drinks, my strange swinging limp caused quite the stir. In a liquor store on the Utah border one mid-morning, a cashier almost refused to sell me a case of beer because she’d mistaken me for a sloppy drunk. I showed her my toe, as purple and swollen as a summer sausage, we both laughed, she handed over the beer, and I forgave her.
It’s been harder to forgive these feet of mine for all the trouble and embarrassment they’ve caused me. Putting it simply, I’ve got feet issues, and hardly seem a viable candidate for a latent foot fetish.
As for high heels, I’ve always detested the things. Is there really any difference between a high heel and a torture device except that a woman’s opted to don the instrument of pain of her own volition instead of being yoked to it by sheer force?
I’ve only owned a single pair of heels, ever, which I was required to purchase for my older sister’s wedding almost a decade ago. A feminist girlfriend of mine had accompanied me to Nordstrom Rack to search out something workable, and perhaps to commiserate, but instead she’d cackled in glee as I stumbled around the shoe section in agonizing pain.
“This isn’t funny,” I shrieked, finally settling on a low-slung pair with little silver circlets near the pointed toe. I looked like a business woman from 1986, and I recall feeling distinctly resentful that this might be the admission price to looking put-together.
I hated the way the heels made totter about like a baby lamb. I hated the idea that the ability to withstand pain was considered sexy. Hated the cultural reference points they made, all the way back to feudal China and traditions of foot-binding. Others could do what they pleased; I would not be deforming my own anatomy in order to excite a man.
Some women look at a stiletto heel and see power, hear the one-two click of a heeltip tapping down a hallway and see raw, no-nonsense sexuality. Personally, I’ve never connected with the high-heels and red lipstick set. Sure, I admired their chutzpah, but my “look” tends more toward yoga mom as I stroll flat-footed and bunion-less into middle-age.
I feel sexiest when I’m comfortable and done up in little more than Chapstick and a flowy scarf. I’ve stopped wearing makeup most of the time and I shave my legs only when I feel like it – and all of this at the encouragement of my new husband.
Although I know that he sometimes fantasizes about exotic beauties doing evil things whilst attired in sky-high footwear, my husband also genuinely digs my pared-down look. As do I.
Now, though, in light of what happened between me and the Twitter Foot Fetishists that fateful afternoon, I feel duty-bound to question everything. Because there it was, glowering back at me from my laptop screen: a sudden, unbidden, and entirely unwelcome twist in my predilections.
I’ve never been ashamed of my sensory or sexual quirks – we’ve all got ‘em – but now I’ve started to wonder: are my inner workings hopelessly calibrated toward misogyny?
I’ll admit it: really good foot massages occasionally give me a little tingle in my nether regions, but I’ve never been perverted about it, and really, why should I feel weird about that?
But I’ve refused to wear high heels because I’ve deemed them painful, impractical, and even slightly demeaning; a product that invokes discomfort in women, created for the pleasure of men. So why would I get rocks off over other women being subjected to the same unfortunate fate, especially when I DON’T EVEN REALLY LIKE FEET!
Is it because I’m secretly a foot fetishist? I am deeply horrified by the notion, but I don’t think that’s quite it.
Once while watching an episode of “Law and Order” about a criminally insane foot fetishist serial killer, I learned that the part of the brain that’s wired for sex rubs up against the part of the brain that’s wired for feet, which is why the twixt do occasionally and naughtily meet and teenage boys find themselves hiding in their friend’s mom’s closets sniffing purple pumps and white tennie-runners, or later end up seeking out dates on Craig’s List and Twitter with other people’s finely manicured toes.
But the better angels of my nature tell me that it’s a wee bit reductive to attribute my own experience to pure anatomy, to a simple quirk of cerebral cross-wiring. Sex, politics, identity. These things are so culturally freighted that at a certain point it gets tough to sort out who you really are from who you’re pretending to be from who everybody told you that you ought to be. Loathing can sometimes feel a lot like longing, depending on the angle at which your computer screen is slanted.
I’ve never revisited the Foot Fetishists of Twitter since that strange afternoon. I honestly don’t feel a desire to. Is it sublimation or simple stubborn self-recrimination? Is it a longing to unknow, or has my own sense of feminist revulsion truly and permanently killed the joy? I hope with all my might it’s the former, but who knows, really?
Because here’s a terrifying truth about these big, dumb animal brains of ours: they like what they like. And what they like is occasionally completely twisted.
To acknowledge this can be liberating. It can also be disturbing and intensely humiliating. But either way, once you ring that kinky bell, it ain’t never, never getting unrung, friends.
Consider yourself warned.