News your connection to The Boston Globe

The victims of fashion cultism

AND SO WE RETURN once more to Cinderella. Not to the Disney classic, but rather to the grimmer Grimm brothers fairy tale.


As we all know, the morning after the ball, the prince went searching the land for his true love bearing a single clue: her slipper. In the Disney version, the stepsisters tried to stuff a foot in the shoe. But in the original version, they went to an extreme makeover.

According to the Brothers Grimm, Stepsister One cut off her big toe. Stepsister Two cut off a bit of her heel. This cosmetic surgery was performed on the dubious advice of their mother who said: "When thou art Queen thou wilt have no more need to go on foot."

But the prince found the bloody evidence of their trickery, turned to Ms. Ella, and rode into history. The stepsisters limped into old age.

Cinderella has long been a cautionary tale about the prospects of living happily ever after with a princely shoe fetishist. It's been used to convince women that it's better to stand on their own two feet.

But I bring it up because standing seems particularly Grimm at the moment. We now have word of thoroughly modern women having their toes shortened and their feet reshaped. Not to fit the fantasies of Prince Charming but rather of designers such as Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik.

A number of pieces on a cult of fashion victims have appeared from New York to London. No one seems to know exactly how many women have had their feet cut to fit their shoes, but it's enough to alarm the various medical groups with the belief that we've crossed the line --and not in sneakers -- from cosmetic surgery to crippling surgery.

When I first heard about toe cleavage and deboning, I thought it was a drastic response to the incredible shrinking range of shoes sizes available at your local store. But one of the oft-featured doctors talks about it as style surgery: "simply fulfilling a need, a need to wear stylish shoes." That should make you raise your eyebrows, if your forehead hasn't been paralyzed with Botox.

Today, the "shoes-to-die-for" have toe boxes that are really toe triangles. The "killer heels" are actually suicidal stilettos in a direct line of descent from 16th-century "chopines" that required two servants to help the European noblewoman walk.

The style imperatives are the $500 shoes that Carrie Bradshaw invested in instead of her IRA. They are marketed on websites such as Choo's that double as soft porn and are displayed in every fashion magazine. They are referred to as "limousine" shoes by fashionistas and regarded as ambulance shoes by orthopedic surgeons.

Yes, I know, this is not the first time that women molded their bodies to fit fashion. And, yes, the foot fantasy goes way back beyond Cinderella, who at least danced in those slippers before she raced home, desperate no doubt to take them off.

The history goes back to 10th-century China. For a thousand years the ideal female foot was 3 inches long. Binding little girls' feet into "golden lilies" became the emblem of women's status in China. Unwrapping feet was a moment of emancipation greater than removing any burqa.

Similarly, in America, the demise of the girdle liberated more women than Betty Friedan. Now we've replaced girdles and corsets and falsies with nips and tucks and implants. In one generation we've gone from bra burning to toe shortening.

I may be suffering from snow blindness. The only thing you can wear in my storm-drenched city is a good pair of Uggs. But imagine what we would say if a cult of women in Kurdistan were found tottering on 4-inch heels and a sect in Sudan had bones removed from their toes to fit some cultural boot.

Do we need Amnesty International to force the designers to walk a mile in their own shoes? And for that matter where is PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, when you need them? Throwing paint at furriers? What about the toe cutters?

Devout followers of boot-ism will tell reporters that high heels make them feel powerful and that surgically speaking, women have the right to Choos. There's even a kind of female machismo in the stiletto.

But I keep remembering the line about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards in high heels. Anyone ever wonder what a woman can do forward in flats? Live happily ever after?

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

Globe Archives Sale
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months