“Kings’ feet? Well, kings’ feet are no bigger than anyone else’s feet.” That was the fragment of conversation I caught as I walked past a woman speaking to a boy of about six years. I wish I could have heard the rest of this conversation. Mostly, I want to know how they came to be talking about kings’ feet. The size of kings’ feet is something I have, literally, never thought about before. How would this come up in conversation? Were they talking about feet? Kings? The Sacramento Kings basketball team (in which case, I’d say Kings do probably have larger feet than normal people)?
Then I began thinking, what if we lived in a society that assigned a social rank to people based on shoe size? People with big feet could be kings, presidents, CEOs. People with smaller feet had to work for them. When you met someone, you could just look at his feet and immediately know where he stands in society (no pun intended). Then I realized that humans have, in the past, judged people based on foot size. In some areas of Asia where foot-binding used to be common, a woman’s small feet were considered a mark of beauty and a sign of her elevated social status.
Foot-binding seems cruel and absurd to us now, but truly, all we have done is change the parameters of the social status algorithm. Perhaps we don’t look at a person’s feet to determine his or her worth and status, but foot size is not a far cry from race. Or gender. Or sexual orientation. Or weight. Or beauty. Assigning people to a social class based on foot size is no more arbitrary than the assumptions and judgments we make every day based on a person’s appearance. Judging someone by the size of their feet, of course, seems ludicrous, but that is only because we did not grow up with big-footed kings, queens, and heroes and small-footed villains. We are not surrounded by big-footed people on billboards and TV. Our parents didn’t warn us to stay away from small-footed people. The kids at school didn’t make fun of people based on the size of their feet (usually). Instead, we grew up being taught that white people are superior to people of color, women are intellectually inferior to men, heterosexual is healthy and normal, skinny is more beautiful than fat, beautiful is better, all around, than ugly, and so on.
Thus, today, instead of binding their feet, women starve themselves to conform to our standards of beauty. Black men are arrested or just shot dead because they “look suspicious.” Men are given promotions more often than women. Ugly people are convicted of crimes more frequently than beautiful people. How is this any more sophisticated than judging people based on their shoe size? It is not. It is only more complicated, and decades or centuries of social convention have obscured the truth of what we are doing: crowning the people with the biggest feet.