Walk With Me: One mile in her (and his) shoes

As we get ready for the White Ribbon Campaign‘s third annual ‘Walk A Mile In Her Shoes‘ event Thurs Sept 29th 2011: Jeff Perera, co-chair of the Ryerson White Ribbon Campaign reflects on last year’s walk, and why we walk.

Photo by Char Loro/Lovehard (www.lovehard.ca)

I don’t know how you do it.

I don’t know how I did it.

Last summer I slightly tore my Achilles heel horsing around in the park. I love life but I don’t love my body, a deep secret that many men share. Oh, I’m not talking about loving the look or shape of my body, that’s a whole other conversation. I’m referring to actual ‘taking care of the vessel that is my body’ conversation.

How many of us can relate to the frustration of trying to convince a father, brother, friend or lover to go see a doctor, or maybe you are that man who refuses to go. I have been on both sides of that situation. We all know men who needed medical attention, whether its for a potential heart attack, to determine if it is cancer in their testicles, a sharp pain or a bad cold, and won’t go.

From childhood, young men are taught and told to ‘walk it off’, get up and show no pain, show no emotion, show them your cold steel. Sad over a break-up? Battling low self-esteem? Need to deal with having been abused or issues with depression? Walk it off.

The costume of manhood leaves many men feeling they don’t have permission to ask for help. Instead they stubbornly refuse any help, not showing weakness, staying stoic, strong.

Whether it is for directions, advice or support, many men don’t ask.

We can handle this…
We got this…
…and many times, we don’t.

A synonym for stoic is ‘resigned’…as in resigned to deny ourselves our own humanity.

Many men are raised to be the wrong kind of strong and don’t seek or ask for help,  If we are not raising men to value their health, and in turn value themselves, how then can we expect men to extend respect to the earth, to fellow sisters and ever fellow brothers?

Even someone like me who is consciously trying to role model a healthier concept of masculinity struggles with it. When I got hurt that day in the park, I went to a walk-in clinic the next day, got my tendon wrapped up and was told to start physiotherapy in a few weeks. I bought a cane and did nothing else about it.

I walked it off.

I’m fine
Its no big deal
Got lots to do

Despite my physical neglect, my Achilles ‘healed’ up and I participated in the 2nd annual Walk A Mile In Her Shoes event in Toronto hosted by the White Ribbon Campaign in 2010. The fundraising and awareness-raising event asks men to reflect on the everyday realities for women and literally walk a mile in her shoes. This event does not seek to suggest that all women wear high heels or that wearing heels for a moment provides a full understanding of what it’s like to be a woman, nor equates an understanding of the experience of all women here in Toronto, or worldwide.

…but its a step. A declaration to take a step…

We are in an era where a number of women do wear heels, either causally or to work everyday.
Whether it is the executive in the boardroom or the server about to work a grueling double-shift, I think of women who willingly or begrudgingly wear a pair.

I think of the many varied experiences and realities for women of all cultures, spaces and socio-economic status. There are not many universal forms of expression that exclusively define what it is to be a woman. One thing all women worldwide do have in common is the reality that they face potential discrimination, harassment and violence everyday. Half of women in Canada will face a form of violence, 600 Aboriginal women are missing, and 1 out of every 3 women will face violence worldwide.

It’s a reality women have to face, learn to live with, ‘accept’ or ‘get used to’. Walk A Mile in Her Shoes calls on men, calls on society, to take a moment and reflect. We hope to inspire and provoke people to reflect by wearing an element of gender costume. High heels evokes many of the gender roles and constructs we hope to de-construct. We need to engage folks in discussing the cost of imposed ‘gender’ limitations and the performance of gender including defining elements of costume.

So we wear a pair and walk a mile across the face of patriarchy.

We walk a circle. The circular mile starts from the busiest intersection in Canada, past the financial heart of the country and across Ryerson University, to cause folks to stop, look, point, ask…and reflect.

We cannot force others to change their perception of things, but we can provoke them to reflect in a way that grabs their attention. These issues are urgent and we need to shake men (and women) into personal reflection, awareness and action: internally, their inner circles and then within their larger everyday circles.

I want to role model to other men to be an ally: be an example in my everyday behaviour and inspire other men. The fear for some men to participate and put on a pair is real. It takes courage to be an ally, it takes a ‘real man’ to forsake that unearned privilege which we carry for a moment, and face jokes, comments, maybe ridicule and even face the de-valuation women face for doing things labelled ‘feminine’.

So I put on those 3 inch heels, ignoring a potential risk of further injuring my leg. Ironically here is the macho bravado at play again. Here is that disconnect, that fantasy of the ‘cloak of immortality’ many men wear. In time of need, we believe we can ‘will’ ourselves as men to be impervious to pain and danger, and sometimes that disconnect extends to the everyday. it’s a face off with our own health and reality, it is a disconnect from ourselves, to reality, to our humanity and to learning to truly love ourselves.  Many men love, but we are not taught to truly Love or express Love, or allow ourselves to experience and give Love. A raw, real kind of Love, not a possessive, but a nurturing Love. A Love for ourselves, for women, and for men.

That day many friends joined us at the walk representing as allies from different communities at Ryerson University ranging from the Ryerson Muslim Students AssociationWomen in ITMWomen’s CentrePositive SpaceUnited Black Students at Ryerson, RyePride to members of the Ryerson Commerce SocietyRyerson Engineering Student Society and Ryerson Students’ Union.

As we cross to walk south on the west-side of Yonge st, a Spanish brother crossed the other way staring at the spectacle in shock and disgust. The young brother is shaking his head as he looks at me with ‘yo, what are you doing?’ written all over his face. The Masculine headshake of disapproval. He looked at me especially, seeing that I was a racialized male.

The pressure on many racialized men is double, due to the imbalance of power and privilege, to act tough, be seen as tough. For some, it seems to be the only way, or at least the only way they know. I think of young brothers who squirm at the idea of being seen in public wearing costume associated with the feminine…some laugh it off and quickly assert their masculinity to preserve that fragile paper-mache armour of manhood. So much work to do with men of all racialized communities, any culture or community. Men feel a feverish pressure to maintain the image and perception they are Men, certainly not soft and weak,  and definitely not remotely ‘gay’.

I don’t just walk for the everyday reality my heterosexual sisters face, and the pressures patriarchy places on heterosexual men. I also for all the suffering that LGBT2S folks endure because of the searing shackles of binary concepts of gender that reach into every corner of the globe. They dig deep into the lives of our Gay. Lesbian, Trans and Two-Spirit people and communities. The narrow notions of how women and men ‘should walk, talk and act like’ force those who don’t fit in to face resentment, rejection, anger and even aggression.

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Halfway through the walk I joined, stride for stride, my good friend Shanna, A beautiful, dear soul who ‘traded in’ her heels, weekends & make up for raising her beautiful baby boy. She brought little Sebastien to the Walk & wore a pair of yellow stiletto heels as she pushed their stroller. We walked past so-called blue collar and executive women, mothers and daughters, younger and older.  I acknowledged their laughter, calls of “now you know what it’s like!’ and supportive nods. When I walked past a woman wearing heels, I’d exclaim “I don’t know how you do it”

The heels suffocated and engulfed my swollen feet. We were among the very last of many hundreds to cross the finish line along with a group of 5 huge cops in tall stilettos who stumbled and staggered to the end. Even Shanna was feeling the pain too. It’s not something you truly get ‘used to’, being subject to pain, facing discomfort, swallowing suffering. You can ignore it, brace for the pain or say you are ‘numb’ to it, but it always hurts.

I still don’t know how you do it.

I don’t know how we all do it.

So I say to men: ‘Walk It Off’. Let’s re-examine and re-define, truly embrace real strength, courage, respect and honour. Walk towards healing for all of us, women and men. We must walk toward change, one step at a time. It is time to walk it off.

As I look forward to the 3rd Walk A Mile In Her Shoes event, happening in downtown Toronto, Canada: my toes dread this moment every year, but the rest of me looks forward to it with purpose.The problems are widespread, embedded and deeply ingrained. There are a lot of steps to take. So, until the violence stops, we will do it every year, as we work towards change.

…cause we can’t just wait for change to happen.

 

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