Who doesn’t desire (and sometimes demand) choices in life?

When considering all the products and services that are pitched to us in every means imaginable, how many offers present legitimate options, not mere illusions of choice? How often do we agree to something we don’t want instead of looking for alternatives or devising the solution ourselves?

Shopping for school shoes as a child left me with an eye-opening lesson in how a set of multiple-choice options can be a mind trick.

A Multiple-Choice Lesson from Selecting School Shoes

When my sisters and I were little, my mother often received compliments over how “beautifully” we were dressed. She was selective, choosing quality over quantity. Accordingly, I received many hand-me-downs in great shape. Also, unless we outgrew an essential item that had to be replaced sooner, shopping for clothes and shoes was a biannual event: at the start of the school year and when warm weather arrived.

Even though I grew up in the South, where the summer lingered well into fall, I couldn’t wait to don my new, long-sleeve dresses on the first days of school. After a week of suffering with body heat and perspiration, I’d reluctantly return to wearing my summer outfits. If only I could have continued wearing my flipflops instead of my latest pair of ugly school shoes!

From first grade into middle school, I dreaded shopping for school shoes. I was “free” to choose, but I never acquired a pair I liked. Here’s why:

Although we could have purchased our shoes from many different stores, my parents would buy only from a relative who owned a wholesale shoe company or from a family friend who owned a retail shoe store. Which one depended on who stocked our sizes that year.

Both carried expansive inventories. The wholesaler’s building contained an intricate maze of shoe boxes throughout; the retailer’s store had boxes stacked along the walls from the floor to the ceiling. While the sheer volume was impressive, it was deceiving. Our school shoes had to meet requirements that greatly narrowed our choices.

For one thing, school shoes had to be durable. The dainty, patent-leather styles I preferred as a little girl were not manufactured to withstand everyday wear at school, so they were reserved for “dressy” occasions. Every now and then, a rare jewel—a pretty, well-made shoe—would be unearthed, but the next hurdle of obtaining the proper size and fit would sabotage the sale.

I never found out why, but the attractive shoe always squeezed or cramped something, or it didn’t give adequate room for growth, and my poor acting skills kept me from faking it with an attentive adult pressing on every inch of the shoe and asking, “Can you wiggle your toes?”

Disdain for the ugliest shoes, in turn, produced a genuine look of pain, and reading my expression, my mother would say, “You don’t have to get that pair, but please tell us if they feel good to help him [my unfortunate uncle or family friend caught in the middle] find some nice shoes that fit.” That was a trap. Any pair that fit the same way would have a similar, ugly design!

By the end of an exhaustive session, the adults would have gaslighted me into agreeing that the last pair that fit were the prettiest of all. Later, when reality set in, causing tears, my parents always reminded me that I was fortunate to have new shoes. They were right, but 

At least I was not alone. Most of my classmates faced similar choices where they shopped, so their school shoes weren’t all that attractive either. Also, the girls who were allowed to wear dainty, patent leathers to school would have uglified them with scuff marks after a few weeks of hopping on and off playground equipment and grinding their toes and heels against metal desks.

As for all the fashionable school shoes available today, children (except for kids who face dress codes—too bad!) can thank my generation for designing and manufacturing their countless options. Our suffering ignited a revolution!

Indeed, when A, B, and C are equally unappealing, maybe “none of the above” is the right answer. In that case, the next step is to say and/or do something about it.

Also, when the shoe is on the other foot, let's not pretend to offer options that don't exist!

My best to you,


Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

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