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Breaking: Things Can Be Both Pretty and Functional

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I’m mad online about sneakers.

A person deciding what footwear to put on from choice of sneakers. Photo: Richard Newstead/Getty Images

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Racked recently ran an article about sneakers. More specifically, why running sneakers are so ugly. In a time when everything from toothbrushes to bidets are being redesigned, refinished, and repackaged to be part of your lifestyle, not just your life, why wouldn’t the clunky rubber casings that carry you from point A to point B be ripe for the same makeover? Or at least a couple of new color options?

The piece was well-received — running shoes are, after all, famously hideous — except for a strain of comments that arose on nearly every platform: the smug assertion that sneakers aren’t meant to be beautiful, or even pleasant to look at, because they are “functional.” “They’re a tool meant for function, not fashion,” wrote one Facebook commenter. “Running is not a fashion sport!” wrote another, which, okay, cool, but what even is that??

Regardless of where you stand on the great running shoes debate, you have to know that they didn’t spring fully formed from the earth in neon purple with army green. They, like basically every other product, were manufactured according to a series of tiny human-(emphasis on “man”)-made decisions, and those included what colors they would be. At no point would choosing to make something in a nice muted taupe, puce, or mustard yellow have detracted from the shoe’s purpose, nor would it have added any extra time to the whole process if they’d just been made that way to begin with.

There are safety concerns — many nighttime or early-morning runners like how bright colors make them more visible to cars, for example — and marketing ones too, as outlined in the piece, but that doesn’t mean that EVERY PERSON WHO WILL EVER BUY A RUNNING SHOE shares that concern, and it certainly doesn’t make those who might prefer a different look stupid or morally bankrupt. (Also, like, black and navy running shoes already exist.)

But this is an argument we hear a lot, particularly those of us who work in Lifestyle Journalism™. Fashion, and by extension the pursuit of beauty, is often seen as synonymous with frivolity, a waste of time and energy that would be better spent being productive, whatever that may mean. As weakening, as feminizing, as the removal of what matters in exchange for what does not, despite the fact that it was all fairly arbitrary to begin with. Not to mention how subjective beauty is: Several people wrote to tell us that they did like how their running shoes look, regardless of perceived function.

Beauty can be a weapon — it can be used to enforce uniformity, to cover or soften deceit, to inflate the cost of an item far beyond its actual value. Sometimes beautiful versions of objects are necessarily less functional (see: those fancy sculpture-looking humidifiers that can’t hold a candle to their clunky forebears), but so are ugly things, too (see: my former horrible utilitarian kitchen trash can that leaked dramatically until I replaced it with a pretty one that I like to Instagram all the time and that also works like a dream). It’s not a perfect zero-sum equation, where gaining three Pretty points means trading in three Useful points. This is especially the case when all we’re talking about is a dang colorway.

And beauty does have a function, however unquantifiable. It can lend warmth and familiarity and expressiveness, and it can help you enjoy something that’s generally rote and boring just a little bit more. I don’t so much mind changing the bag in my cute-as-hell trash can; I like the action of putting together an outfit that not only covers my body and keeps me warm but also communicates, in some small way, who I am. Sure, I could use that extra time in the morning to write or do chores or work out, but those 10 or so “wasted” minutes are worth it to me, just to feel like a tiny aspect of this chaotic and ugly universe is under my control. And besides, I have to wear something to work or I will be fired, so it may as well look how I want.

You could certainly argue that this is all part of the patriarchal capitalist scheme designed to keep me looking a certain way and bound to the relentless duties of labor, but IDK, man, as long as we’re all stuck here, I’d at least like the whole shebang to be visually appealing. And besides, if that’s your argument, then the whole idea of value tied to function must steam your clams even more than it does mine! So I guess what I’m ultimately saying is that I would like a nice sleek pair of mustard-yellow running shoes, and I will use them to run the exact same miles that I do in my current extremely ugly ones.