For the past couple days, I’ve been hobbled by love for Bettie Page. And when I say “hobble,” I’m not being metaphorical: walking has been a tender experience. My toes, swollen, throbbed as if they had a heartbeat of their own. My calves hurt like I’ve been doing squats. I have a tiny perfect purple bruise at the Southern tip of each of my foot arch, punched in by the patent leather edge of the YSL Tribute pumps I wore Friday night. The bruise and the pain were a result of walking on those 5-inch heels the width of a tapestry needle for approximately six straight hours.
Friday night, December 12, 2008, I co-hostessed a party with my beloved co-pilot and RISD colleague, Jewelry and Metalsmithing professor Tracy Steepy, at her newly-purchased house. It was a belated official house-warming and end-of the semester celebration, but for me, it had a more somber undercoat. That morning, Bettie Page died after complications from a heart attack; she was 85.
Bettie Page was, for those of you who don’t know, THE pin-up queen of the 1950s. For me, she represents the 1950s. Fuck all of this fetishization of the 1950s as repressed suburban hotness (Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road; that AMC show Mad Men). Bettie Page was the orchidal opposite of that timid and boring feminine sexuality, which is only “hot” through boring nostalgic impulses. Bettie bared her body when the rest of the female population was caught up in looking like a lampshade or upside-down mixing bowl. Bettie Page is one of my prime personal idols of femmeness.
So dressing for the party, I also wanted to dress in tribute to Bettie: my version of “fifties” style is a hairy mohair cardigan, in dark purple, worn with a vintage Hole t-shirt and ripped back-seamed pantyhose. Before the guests arrived, I asked my friend Lori Talcott to take some Bettie Page-tribute pictures of me. I wanted to try to capture a smidgen of Bettie’s spirit in photo. This turned out to be quite difficult. I’m used to casting myself in self-portraits for this blog, and having another person photograph me unnerved me a bit. Asking Lori to take a Bettie photo of me, I felt less like Bettie than an actress playing Bettie—hopefully the great Gretchen Mol playing Bettie in the underrated biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page.
I’m quite shy, and when Lori played Bunny Yeager or Paula Klaw (two of Bettie’s great photographers who were incidentally also female) I found that I was not adequately Bettie. Lori arranged me on the sofa and as she got ready to push the button, she called out, “Make love to the camera!” As you can see in the above picture, I couldn’t. Unless you count the natural Korean alcohol-flush as sexy flush.
I was disappointed with myself. I felt like a femme-loser for not being able to replicate an iota of Bettie Page’s vibrancy and joy in the photo. But the night was young, and the pumps were on. Funnily enough, even before our party coincided with Bettie’s death, I had already planned on wearing my splurge for the semester, the said YSL pumps that I bought precisely because they reminded me of Bettie Page: black patent leather, peep-toed, mary-jane straps, 5-inch stiletto heels. Yes, they are YSL, but I will forever think of them as “Bettie Pumps.” I put the Bettie Pumps on around 7:30 pm, and didn’t take them off until the last guest left, around 1:30 am. I made a conscious decision to keep them on the whole night, as a tribute to Bettie’s passing.
I had tried on high heels before (I actually injured my foot once forcing it into a Chloe boot one size too small), but this was the first time I made a serious investment of my own. The shoes forced me to pick my body up and shake it down into a new form. I am and have always been a chronic sloucher—my mother used to threaten to bind a ruler to my spine if I didn’t stand up straight. I’m about 5’9”, and with those shoes, I’m sure it actually just compensated for the 5 inches lost by my usual slouch. But with this added height, one guest noted that I should push my chest out and stand up even taller. And I do admit that being 6 foot tall is quite fun. But that suggestion didn’t appeal to me somehow. I found myself slouching even more in those heels. I wasn’t wearing the pumps so I could tower over people; I was wearing them so I could feel like Bettie—or rather, to create what feeling like Bettie means.
Wearing these heels, the feeling that struck me more than height increase was the sheer pain in my feet. I’ve taken ballet before, so I know the specific pain of navigating a floor on your toes: this was not that pain. The pain of the Bettie Pumps was that I felt as though I had no feet: my feet felt as if they were chopped off, as if they were stumps. I wasn’t walking on my toes, I was walking on my ankles. The height of the heels forced my feet into a completely inhuman pose. Whereas a bare (or at least stiletto-less) foot forms a 90 degree angle with the ankle, the Bettie YSL pump forced the tops of my feet to create a smooth, straight line—a pefect 180 degrees—with my ankles. This was weird foot-binding: the heels of my feet were crushed right up against my Achilles’ tendon, which lengthened and slimmed out my legs but also made me feel as if I had no other body part but those legs.
Miracle of miracles after a few whiskeys: I didn’t once fall down the stairs while giving house-tours. In fact, I joked around with our guests as I hobbled and bobbled around: “It hurts so good,” and “You have to pay for beauty.” Yes, shamefully, all these clichés about the masochism of femininity. But the truth is, it really didn’t hurt so good. It just FUCKING HURT! But I didn’t kick the pumps off, I endured the pain, because I felt like Bettie. Pain is an inevitable part of any creative or creating process. A house-builder has to sweat to move lumber, a metalsmith has to hammer and anvil; I see femininity as just such a creative product.
This is NOT masochism. Masochism is a disorder by which the viscerality of pain is replaced with pleasure. A masochist who feels sensual pleasure at getting his or her bum whipped and says the pain is pleausurable is not actually feeling pain: “pain” as a visceral element loses meaning. Hobbling around in Bettie Pumps, I didn’t feel a warm glow of pleasure. This was pain. But the pain was in tribute to the passed Bettie, to create an elegiac gesture. When pain is used to accomplish something, to produce something, it is not masochism. That is simply process. So any tradition of thought that invokes masochism as a major tenet of femininity is sloppy theorizing. “Masochism” is just another way that men have used to denigrate the creative process that is femininity. What they say is: “Oh, women can’t possibly endure pain; they must actually and simply enjoy it.” Again and again, men want to naturalize women’s relationship with femininity as something simply sensual and orgasmic, rather than something calculated, aesthetic, designed, creative. When Bettie threw on her pumps and threw off her sweater, they figured she was simply “being herself.” Perhaps some of them gave her the credit of being “an actress.” But no: she was more universal that. Bettie Page was an ARTIST. She was an artist whose creative product was femininity. Bettie Page was a sculptor of XX genetics, a female fleshsmith.