“They’re either fake or you’re borrowing money from your daddy,” a colleague had proudly announced the day I walked into the office wearing my brand spankin’ shiny new pair of white shoes.
They weren’t any white shoes though: they were the highly coveted, popularly worn leather sneakers with the trademark green and red on the sides and on the backs.
At first, I was surprised that a 39 year old man was well versed in branded shoes. But mainly, I was offended that he had come to these two conclusions about my intentions mere moments after I’d stepped foot in our open space office.
Back when I was a university student, I had fully leaned into the idea of living “the student life”, despite coming from a fully fledged middle class family- a shameful fact that needed to be hidden in hippy Bristol.
I started thrift shopping and bargain buying; so much so that my graduation project, “Mindlessly Consuming”, was a photographic series condemning society’s over-indulgence in everything from alcohol to travel.
That’s why two years later, to me, buying that pair of branded shoes felt like both a step towards minimalism (one high quality pair will last you more than five so-so quality sneaks) and an act of defiance towards myself all at once. As soon as I’d hit that ‘Buy’ button on the pretentious official website, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and betrayal.
But I had been working hard- and saving harder- for over a year, and I had worn, torn and stepped into the urine of a drunk middle-aged man in A&E in my then-current white shoes.
So, I bought a pair of Gucci shoes.
(And with it, a slew of unsolicited opinions about who I am as a person).
So why did my choice of footwear suddenly change my portrayal to the public from Faux-Bristol-DIY-hobo to pretentious-Dubai-Daddy’s Girl? Why did I suddenly become that girl? The one that I had fought so hard not to be throughout my 14 years in and out of this plastic city?
As much as we would like to think that our actions and words define us more than our appearances do, the truth is, the eye sees way before the ear hears and thus, sadly, colours the words coming out of our mouths to fit the perception in our companion’s gaze.
Just as my branded shoes- now stained with the dust and dirt of the streets and people’s words- were a branding on my persona, so is your hijab. Your pair of shorts and crop top don’t spare you people’s judgements either. Your suit and tie grant you respect that your tattooed arms and ungroomed beard take away within moments.
After one too many comments on my shoes from people who had no business commenting on who I am as a person, I shamefully swore them off. I cast them aside and stuck to wearing my unoffending Vans, hoping to be nothing but another one of the thousands of feet you’d see in a standard BBC Vox pop on a Sunday evening.
But then I thought: my mother did not cast aside her headscarf after being turned away from countless jobs for not having the right look.
My university best friend did not shave his beard despite being told to go back to his own country (he was a white 19 year old from Cornwall, but racism sees little beyond a stereotypical beard). My friend did not shed her bikinis and mini skirts despite being taunted by thirsty men in the streets.
So why should I abandon my shoes in a closet when they’d done nothing but compliment my outfits and save my feet from the broken glass scattered on the sidewalks of Middlesbrough, and from the scorching heat burning up Dubai’s ones?
My shoes are not who I am. Your outfit, tattoos, piercings, natural hair, or makeup choices do not define you. You define yourself. Surround yourselves with people who will stick around long enough to let their eyes shed the preconceived colour they had painted you with to see the real you behind the physical.