My Achilles’ Heel: In Summer, Vanity Extends to the Toes

I have ugly heels. I didn’t know this until a few years ago, when the fashion gods, in their wisdom, condemned to death the part of a woman’s shoe that once concealed this area. As far as I can tell from my extensive research, this shoe part doesn’t have a name. Whatever you call it, it’s rarely seen on our sidewalks these days, as the backless-shoe forces march on.

If I lived in the suburbs—where feet travel in cars—maybe I’d stop looking down. But summer in Manhattan is one endless heel parade. How the hell do other women keep their nether parts so pink and creamy while tromping around all day in the barest Jimmy Choos? And their skin never gets dirty. I soak and soak and scrub and scrub, but after five minutes in flip-flops, my feet look like twin street urchins from a casting call for Les Misérables.

Perhaps you find such cosmetic concerns petty. Welcome to 21st-century New York, a city bent on bodily perfection. It wasn’t always this way; back in the mid-80’s, I knew only two people who belonged to a gym. In those days, this particular use of one’s leisure time was considered bizarre and uncool, on a par with joining the Shriners and zipping around the sidewalk on weekends in a tiny car. Sure, people preferred to be thin, but that’s what smoking was for. Anyway, in an era when everyone wore head-to-toe black and Lycra was reserved for leotards, flawlessness wasn’t required. Certainly not for feet.

If only I could return to those innocent times. I’ve lived here for 25 years, and for 20 of them I’ve felt totally comfortable with minimalist grooming practices—wash hair, shave legs, occasionally tweeze eyebrows. This was New York, after all, not L.A. I made it to my 40’s without one professional pedicure. But as backless sandals gentrified my closet, I happened upon a short story (by the British author Helen Simpson) in which a woman’s heels were likened to “hunks of Parmesan.” For the first time in my life, it occurred to me to look—really look—at my own heels. Omigod. Parmesan. Aged Parmesan, exposed to the world in a new pair of mules.

Off I raced to get the first of many, many pedicures. There was no going back. But does anyone stop to consider the social cost of this insanity? This city was once vibrant with storefront psychics, Chinese laundries and bodegas. Now all we have are spas and salons tempting us with herbal foot soaks. In my neighborhood alone, there are enough of these joints to make Starbucks jealous.

I guess we could fight back by staying home to soak our feet in the bathtub, but that would hamper our multitasking. Try exfoliating your own heels while yakking on a cell phone or, like the woman next to me at my last pedicure, cradling a Chihuahua.

No, resistance is futile: With no backs to secure them, our shoes snap against our soles and cause calluses, so we run to the nearest day spa. A half-hour later, we emerge in strappy sandals to show off our rosy appendages, and the whole vicious cycle begins again. Before we know it, we’re pedicure junkies.

In desperate need of a last-minute baby-sitter for a recent evening out, I phoned a normally eager young woman from our roster of starving artists. Airily kissing $80 goodbye, she declined. “I’d love to,” she said, “but I’m going to the beach tomorrow and I have to get a pedicure.” Who needs food money? That was her jones talking.

Most straight men remain oblivious to this addiction. You’d think they might catch on. When I walk down the street with a guy who asks me, in tiresome fashion, whether a passing woman’s breasts are the ones she was born with, my reply is always the same: “I don’t know.” I was looking at her feet.

I think my husband may suspect something, though. Recently, he’s begun teasing me about my shell-pink toenails. To which I say: Get with it, buddy—we New York women have dumped our inner earthy Janis Joplins and embraced our outer plastic Jessica Simpsons. We stop at nothing: dermabrasion, bikini waxing, Botox, laser hair removal (speaking of which, it’s hard to believe I used to shave my underarms with a twinge of guilt for succumbing to arbitrary standards of feminine beauty; these days, I grimly annihilate any unwanted hair that asserts its right to exist on my body).

Summer is here, and I’ve returned to the pedicure circuit. A stubborn crack has appeared on the edge of each foot. My heels are once again whispering nasty things about me behind my back, and I’m sure the entire town is listening.

But I refuse to despair: A change of shoes, I believe, can change the world. I dream that somewhere deep beneath the earth’s surface, thousands of cast-aside loafers and pumps are gathering to prepare for battle. One day soon they’ll emerge, joining forces with a band of sturdy lace-up oxfords who survived by hiding in a nursing home. Then this army of sensible footwear will storm the shops, driving those evil mules back into the slipper department where they can’t hurt us anymore.

I pray the revolution comes before global warming removes any excuse for wearing boots. And before—heaven help us—the podiatrists wrest this city from the shrinks.