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I didn’t have princess fantasies when I was a little girl. I loved reading about their adventures and watching Disney movies, but I never wanted to be them. When I started growing up and certain parts of my body decided not to join me on the journey, though, I began to envy Cinderella’s life. Not her rags-to-riches transformation or her fairy godmother, necessarily. Not even her prince or her adorable army of chore-performing animal minions. Just the part where she tried on a beautiful, age-appropriate shoe… and it fit.
I first realized my smaller-than-average feet were becoming an issue when I tried to put together an outfit for my eighth grade graduation. Most of the other girls at my school, having long since graduated into women’s shoes, were celebrating this big step closer to adulthood by getting their first fancy, grown-up pair of pumps, and I so desperately wanted to join them. Unfortunately, a teenager’s first attempts at sartorial maturity didn’t really come in a children’s size 1.5 (which was a 3.5 in women’s sizes, if you could find it). After an exhaustive search of every department and shoe store in a 15-mile radius of my hometown turned up nothing but clunky quarter-inch heels, oversized bows, and cartoon characters, I settled on a $3 pair of plastic flats with knockoff Little Mermaid decals from the late Canadian discount chain Bi-Way that I would wear “as a joke.” It wasn’t the worst choice I could have made — it was the mid-‘90s, so jelly shoes and irony were both in style — but every time I looked at another girl’s feet during the ceremony and the dance that followed, I felt like I’d somehow been left behind.
Four years and one final growth spurt that bumped me up to a kids’ 2 and a women’s 4 later, I tried again for prom. After a near-miss with the single pair of size 4 heels that I was able to find on a downtown Toronto shopping trip — they ran large and I nearly wiped out while trying them on — I settled on a too-large pair of 14-hole Doc Martens that didn’t slide too badly if I tied the laces tight enough across my shins. While my selection and my choice of backup footwear had improved, though, my shoe-related insecurities remained. I had this beautiful, fully grown image that I wanted to show the world, but I still felt like a child playing dress-up and clomping around in her mom’s shoes.
As I moved from trying to look like an adult to needing to prove that I actually was one, my tiny feet continued to thwart my efforts. Size 4 shoes remained almost entirely out of my reach for most of my 20s. The few higher-end brands that made my size were mostly out of my price range, and the few that weren’t didn’t ship to Canada. That left me with two options: try to doctor or stuff size 5 shoes in an effort to make them stay on when I walked (which was mostly an exercise in developing lifelong callouses), or scrape by on the least garish kids’ shoes available. The latter option was much kinder to my feet, but hard on my self-image.
Unlike children’s clothing, children’s shoes remained entirely controversy-free and G-rated in the ‘00s. This was good for actual children and parents, but it did nothing for twentysomething me. Even the best designs — like the cool pair of low-heeled Mary Janes that I picked up from Kenneth Cole Reaction Kids — couldn’t completely hide the fact that they were made for 8-year-olds. It can be hard to feel sexy at a club or put-together at an office when your best shoes have a stumpy heel, a stumpier toe, and a lot of Velcro. (At least when that’s not the look you really want to be going for.)
My collection of kids’ shoes also started to effect the way that people perceived me, leading to all sorts of assumptions about my style and my maturity. In casual conversation, acquaintances would joke about my baby shoes. I once ended up in a conversation with a stranger who told me that she thought that overly rounded toes “infantilized women.” She didn’t appear to be referring to my shoes in particular, but as I looked down at the pair of children’s flats that I’d told myself looked “just like real shoes” and realized that their toes were more blunt than those of the woman I was talking to, I started to worry that my attempts to look my age were actually having the opposite effect. In one particularly mortifying interaction, a prospective employer made a sneering reference to my choice of footwear during an interview. I didn’t get the job.
I felt like I was missing out on a minor but vital cultural experience by not being able to buy shoes the way that other adults did, too. I liked shopping! Everything from Sex and the City to Kelly’s “Shoes” made the process of looking at footwear and then actually purchasing a pair look incredibly satisfying! I wanted to experience that for myself. But when I dragged myself around Toronto on my never-ending quest for size 4s in the flesh, I mostly felt demoralized. There were never any on display or in the back, and salespeople could only offer me apologies, pity, and the occasional shocked laugh. “The way you feel about shoes is the way I feel about clothes,” a plus-size friend once concluded during a trip to Toronto’s Eaton Centre mall shortly before we gave up and went record shopping instead.
Just as I was about to give up hope and resign myself to a lifetime of casual footwear with Pokémon on them and formal footwear designed for flower girls, a few things conspired to improve my life and my closet for the better. First, online options for petite shoes significantly expanded in the early days of this decade, as did international shipping options. Second, I was finally in a financial place where I could start to take advantage of this whole new world without starving. I went from pining over Stuart Weitzman slingbacks that I could neither afford nor manage to get across the border to being able to treat myself to a pair for my 30th birthday.
As thrilled as I was to be able to piece together a small but functional collection of booties, sandals, oxfords, and flats with non-infantilizing toes thanks to the relatively robust online inventory of places like Nordstrom, ASOS, and Naturalizer, though, there was still a part of me that longed to walk into a normal store and shop for shoes like a big girl. But I was also scared to even attempt it. I didn’t want to be laughed at for asking for such a rare size again, and I definitely didn’t want to risk another near-wipeout.
Then, during a 2014 Las Vegas trip with my husband, the perfect opportunity presented itself when I won a tiny jackpot at the Wynn. Armed with the funds from my win and the liquid courage from the pair of complimentary cocktails I’d received while gambling, I turned to my partner in crime and declared “There’s a Nordstrom across the street! And I think they stock my size! Let’s try to buy shoes!”
I waltzed into the Fashion Show Mall, set my sights on a pair of Jeffrey Campbell flats, and, when a salesperson asked me if he could help me, I said the magic words: “Do you have these in a 4?”
He didn’t laugh. He didn’t even flinch. He just went to check. And when those particular shoes weren’t available, he returned with other options. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that shoe in your size, but I brought everything else we have from that brand. See if there’s anything you like,” he said before leaving me to ponder my newfound bounty.
After seriously considering buying all of them, I settled on one beautiful and entirely age-appropriate pair and bought them. In person. I was just a half-drunk woman sitting in a department store, surrounded by three whole pairs of potential shoes. But for a brief moment, I did kind of feel like a princess.