In which we should say 'no!' to the hobbling woman

To be printed 19/05/11.

If this column was a Year 9 English essay (and to be honest I'm finding increasingly heard to tell the difference), it would probably start with a sentence like, "The Oxford English Dictionary defines blank as 'blankety blank blank blank'. So that's how I'm going to start today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines shoes as "an external covering for the human foot, usually of leather and consisting of a more or less stiff or heavy sole and a lighter upper part ending a short distance above, at, or below the ankle."

You notice there is no reference to heels in this. Nor to blisters, back problems, adopting a funny, clown-like stilts hobble, or blood. There is no sub-point that lists them also as 'an object to be carried ostentatiously while the owner walks barefoot, usually into a kebab shop.'

I'm feeling particularly sensitive about this issue at the moment, because yesterday I witnessed the worst bunions I have ever seen in my life. It was on the tube, and I was entirely unprepared. They were in flip-flops, but even those they seemed to be bursting to escape from. The lady they belonged to (because they were attached to a pair of human feet, not just perched on a seat reading the Metro) seemed oblivious to my horror, but maybe she's just learned to block out the gawping by now. Her big toe was almost at a 90˚ angle to the rest of her foot. I tried to take a surreptitious photo on my phone, but decided it was just too mean. Plus, I couldn't work out how to turn off the camera noise.

As a result of this encounter, I'm experiencing a fresh wave of bafflement at the women's footwear industry. I, like so many women across this nation and the world, have practised a slavish and occasionally masochistic devotion to Good Shoes for all of my pre-teen, teen and adult life. One of the earliest articles I wrote for this paper, aged 15, was about wearing new shoes 'through the pain' until your feet, and supposedly your common sense, are numb enough to cope.

But for years now, a niggling thought has plagued me. The thought is this: why have women come so far in so many ways, yet still are expected to buy shoes that wound us? We have fought for centuries to prove our rationality and intelligence as equal to men, yet we blow it every Friday night by forcing our feet into podiatric chastity belts.

The thought pipes up every time I see a hobbling girl on a night out, clack-clacking over some uneven terrain with the splayed legs and helpless expression of a baby gazelle. It's every time I pick up a pair of gravity-defying wedges to feel my feet scream "NO! PUT THEM DOWN AND PICK UP SOMETHING WITH SOLE CUSHIONING". It's every time I see pictures of Victoria Beckham at the Royal Wedding. Because the truth VB needed to realised was that when she stepped out in her brutal six-inch Louboutins, nobody was thinking 'Mama looks FIERCE.' No, we were all thinking: pain, pain, pregnant bladder, more pain.

I'd like to say that we should all rise up, clutching our inch-and-a-half Clarks court shoes, and simply refuse to be The Hobbling Girl. We could call ourselves the Female League Against Torturous Shoes (or FLATS for short - literally, for short). But the truth is, I'm probably not going to swear off heels any time soon. I love the aesthetic of a (non-stripperish) heel too much. At least though, my encounter with Bunion Woman has reminded me that we have a choice. A choice, ladies! Crippling shoes do not an evening out defineth. And the Oxford English Dictionary would probably agree with me.