After a month at home during winter break and an entire grade returned from studying abroad, it felt strange that as I joined the stream of students crossing campus for the first week of class, faces were an afterthought. My eyes could not rise above their shoes.
Not because I struggle with self-esteem issues, not because the "Which 'Sex and the City' character are you?" quiz on Facebook categorized me as a Carrie, not because I want to hear someone imitate the horrendous "Shoes" YouTube video ever again and not because anybody took the Features editors' suggestion to moonwalk through the Commons. What fixated me was the female footwear, and that it was all the same.
Fascinated, I looked from left to right, in the distance and behind me. Black, brown, tan, suede, leather, heeled, flat, mid-calf, knee-high, thigh-high. The details varied, but only slightly. With every girl marching to class in boots, we'd become an army.
Fascination turned to fear as I slowly turned my gaze on my own feet. I'd apparently joined ROTC during break as well. I plunged from my recent shopping high of finally finding the pair I wanted, embarrassed and disgusted by myself to have become such a follower. When did the 10-year-old whose favorite shoes were 5-inch, rainbow-striped, foam platform flip-flops sell out for standard Rainbow sandals and their seasonal equivalents?
Whichever song had been playing on my iPod silenced as Nancy Sinatra and, sadly, Jessica Simpson rang in my ears: "These boots are made for walkin' and that's just what they'll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you."
That day had come.
It's not as if this was new behavior. By sophomore year, I caved on UGGs. By junior year, I joined the razzle-dazzle rain boots parade. But I justified both by their utility. Although I would rather wear flip-flops every day of the year, UGGs are the warmest way to stomp across campus from October to March, and rain boots boast the invincibility of the Mario Kart star, making even the perpetually muddy Intramural Fields traversable.
This year's leather and suede boots, on the other hand, guard against no extreme weather. I would credit them as an aesthetic upgrade from UGGs, except that's the problem. It has gotten to the point where I am no longer able to separate my own likes from the ones forced upon me.
The first time I encountered the UGG species, I almost threw up. I was able to appraise them independently of social and commercial influence and see them for the clumpy, frumpy footwear that they are. The same for rain boots: a catastrophic collision of color and plastic - who did these girls think they were and were they aware Richmond was not a preschool? But after years of seeing UGGs and rain boots everywhere, I not only wear them but actually like how they look - or even scarier, have been made to think that I do, and will be made in two months to dislike and then re-like in seven years.
Meryl Streep's cutting lines as the editor of Runway magazine in "The Devil Wears Prada" capture the careful manipulation: "You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? ...
"... And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you, by the people in this room."
So I don't know whose love affair is more passionate: me and my new boots or the fashion industry and its profits? I suppose both could be valid, but not knowing frightens me.
What's scarier is that it's not just the fashion industry, which is probably the most harmless ... unless you're the 10-year-old whose limb gets eaten by a machine while working 20 hours for $2 per day in an Bangladeshi sweatshop. The food and drug industries gamble with our health to make a profit, and some even argue that whole wars are engineered by those who can make money off them.
"Josie and the Pussycats" might not have been the most profound film, but its plot about subliminal messaging in the media remains the only explanation I have for why I can't stand a pop or rap song on first listening, yet after constant exposure I suddenly can't get myself off the lodge stage when it comes on. Or for why I was dressed as J-Woww at a "Jersey Shore"-themed lodge party Saturday after becoming hooked to a show that embodies everything I hate about TV.
We even become the subliminal messengers when we join the boots brigade, advertising for less than free because we pay for the products we promote. I've never seen boots commercials, yet living here I've learned I have to have them.
How much of what we consume is because we like, need or could benefit from it? Or how much makes us mere pawns? More importantly, what are we missing while we're kept busy buying every type of shoe - flats, heels, clogs, sandals, wedges, moccasins, athletic sneakers, casual sneakers - in black and brown so they can always match your outfit, plus the selected color of the season, and at least three kinds of boots?
A solution could start with strengthening our own individualities and supporting others'. But the bigger problem is undoing the web in a world that doesn't let us and trying to find out why. I miss my rainbow-striped sandals - those I know I liked.
Contact opinion editor Maura Bogue at firstname.lastname@example.org