I wear only four different pairs of shoes: muffy house slippers for around the house (except when, being an absent-minded professor, I forget to change before going out), New Balance running shoes that I try to put a few miles on each day, Birkenstocks for the summer, and for everything else, my cowboy boots.
Now for those of you unfamiliar, a quality pair of cowboy boots is the most comfortable thing you will ever slip on your feet. I’ve had my pair of Lucchese Classics for about 14 years — far more expensive footwear than I could ever have afforded in grad school were it not for serendipity or plain dumb luck. They’ve been re-heeled each year and half-soled at least four times. They go with everything from my jeans to my tuxedo. They’ve taken me everywhere for any occasion: down to the corner and around the world, to many states and several countries — and I was even married in them (twice). But despite the best care I can give them, they’ve just about reached the end of their road.
It was with heavy heart that I finally decided to find a new pair. I like to support local merchants, so I looked around and found Nigro’s Western Store. I spoke with George, the owner, and he asked me to come in so that we could make sure he got it right. We drove across the city and, despite a bustling business, he took the necessary time to make sure I had the right boot order (and at a price that beat anything I could find on the web).
So in another five to seven weeks, my new pair of friends will arrive and, I’m sure, we will become comfortable and find many new adventures together. But as a sociologist, I started thinking, “what do our shoes say about us?”
Since I only really wear two types of footgear out of the house, my feet are only sending two messages: both cowboy boots and Birkenstocks have strong, and conflicting, cultural associations. Birkenstocks are the apex of “hippy-dippy” liberal association, and I suppose they match my hair, which has not been cut in more than a decade. Cowboy boots are the quintessential rural American footwear, and these do match my truck. Both have strong political associations: Birkenstocks are taken as liberal and cowboy boots are seen as conservative.
My sandals are also associated with my profession: my students have never thought it strange to see a sociology professor in Birkenstocks, but many have commented over the years on how strange they thought it was for a professor to wear cowboy boots.
On the one hand, this association speaks to the stereotypes we learn: why must sandals denote liberalism and boots imply conservatism? And on the other, it illustrates the shortcuts we all take to pigeonhole one another using the most superficial signs. All feet clad in Birkenstocks are not attached to bodies with liberal skulls, and all those in boots are not out to kick the “other.” Most of us are far more complex, conflicted, and middling. Yet it is easy for us to conveniently ignore these facts as we vilify those who seem different.
But since I am very aware of these associations, the deeper personal question is: how am I choosing to portray myself? I could just wear tennis shoes or loafers. But I don’t. It could just be that I find my boots (and to a lesser extent, my sandals) comfortable. And I do. But how much of that comfort is physical and much is mental? That I do not know.
What I do know is that I am not comfortably and consistently at home in either extreme of the political spectrum. It is true that I am most often on the “left” side of the chamber, but not for the reasons most would think. It is also true that I tend to see both sides of a well-reasoned argument, just as I am put off by unthinking cant from either end.
Perhaps my feet are a quiet testament to the conflict always raging in my heart — or perhaps not. I’m just looking forward to my new boots.