An online brouhaha has erupted over women’s shoes. Well, not real shoes. Emoji shoes. The red emoji stiletto, to be specific. The semi-controversy was sparked by public-relations expert Florie Hutchinson’s campaign to persuade the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee (yes, that’s a real thing) to add a ballet flat emoji. Why should women be limited to a sexy red stiletto — the only official “women’s” shoe currently available in emoji-land? As Florie argued in her proposal, “A FLAT SHOE would help pave the way to a more gender non-sexualized pictorial representation of the footwear category.”

Given all the serious things that are sapping women’s energy and stealing our attention these days — reports of powerful, serial sexual predators; full-time Twitter trolls; the regular offhand misogyny that occupies our day-to-day lives — maybe it seems silly to talk about red stilettos or any other aspect of women’s wardrobes. But women’s fashions exert legitimate power over women’s lives, and too often, we pay a steep price for the shoes and clothing we’re expected to wear. From a young age, we find that female fashion regularly limits our ability to move, and the stiletto, which keeps us in pain and keeps us from catching that bus, embodies this idea.

The problem starts early. University of Michigan sociologist Karin Martin observed more than 100 children at five preschools and concluded that the way young girls were dressed inhibited their ability to move around. Turns out it’s hard to crawl around in a dress. The girls also had to monitor how they moved in their clothes. Wearing a dress meant you couldn’t follow suit when your playmates propped their feet up on a table.  The girls’ clothing was a continual source of distraction. Tights had to be yanked up. Bows had to be straightened. Martin watched 5-year-old girls playing dress-up in a pair of women’s shoes. The girls practiced walking, their steps small as they imitated how adult women move in heels.

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