Illustration by Gabrielle Conlon

Picture this: a crowd of rowdy teenagers, fresh off an overpriced and underwhelming supper of mediocre green beans and unseasoned white fish…

 Jumping up and down to a pounding remix of whatever is most popular on the radio station while a group of heavy-lidded adults sit in the corner in an attempt to block out the bass and screams.

Nothing compares to a high school dance.

One peculiar yet integral aspect of high school dances, at least in my experience, is the removal of the shoes (I call it ROS). Usually done by people in heels, ROS has become an integral part of beginning a wild dance. Once the upperclassmen have thrown their wedges, stilettos, and platforms into a haphazard pile, everyone else knows that the dancing has commenced. It only takes a few minutes after this ritual for the DJ to turn up the volume and take song requests.

ROS brings many benefits with it, including reducing the chance of blisters, easing rhythmic bouncing and jumping, and preventing a sharp heel from digging into another dancer’s foot. Even though this process contains these pros, there are always a couple of outliers to the unspoken rule.

One of those turned out to be me.

Sure, when I was but a young freshperson, I would participate in the ceremony with reverence, carefully lining up my strappy sparkly kitten heels into a corner and padding onto the dance floor with uncovered feet to join in the fun. The shoes weren’t that tall, but I still felt no need to leave them on.

Sophomore year came and went, with two dances and the same pair of one and a half inch black heels gracing each new dance floor wall. Although I enjoyed looking at the various styles of prom shoes in fashion magazines, no desire to wear them infiltrated my mind.

That is, until junior year Homecoming.

It’s important to note that, in high school, I was not considered desirable. No matter how much I wanted to deny it, I couldn’t ignore the inescapable feeling of inferiority when I looked at my classmates. To me, they appeared to all be perfect: beautiful and confident and outgoing, especially at school dances. I wondered what they had that I didn’t, and that wondering eventually produced destructive results.

One result of that, however, came in rejecting ROS.

Rejecting ROS wasn’t simply refusing to take off my shoes at a school dance. No, to do so, I needed a killer pair of shoes, a new dress, perfect makeup, and a fierce hairstyle. I needed to look utterly flawless to pull this off.

Two months before the fated October Saturday, I scoured the internet for the perfect dress, eventually settling on a bright red, rockabilly-inspired frock that puffed out with a large mass of crinoline underneath. Rather than style my hair myself, I ultimately decided to allow my hairstylist to take over. She delivered wonderfully, with a side swoop bang and a tightly twisted braid that made half of my head look shaved and quite punk rock. Red lips and classic winged eyeliner completed the simple yet stunning makeup job, as done by the Chanel makeup counter.

But the cherry on top of my fifties-style sundae was the shoes.

My philosophy for shoes is that the shoe is not yours until the shoe chooses you. All of my shoes have been purchased because of this philosophy, but this particular pair screamed at me from across the room in all it’s shiny glory. The call came in strong, and I answered it wholeheartedly. They were black like my first pair of heels but with a five inch platform heel instead of a one and a half inch. They exuded style.

For the first time in my high school life, I felt ready for a dance.

In only a few short weeks after finding those shoes,the fated day arrived. Taking my sweet time to dance, lip sync, and lazily get into my outfit, I prepared for the perfect deviation from ROS. When the time came for me to go to the dance, my father drove me and I sashayed confidently into the dance hall, standing five inches taller than normal. As I walked through the crowds, I noticed that some people were surprised to see me in that type of outfit, especially being a bit of a chunky-yet-funky girl.

Even though I should’ve felt flattered that people responded with the reaction for which I had hoped, more insecurities crept in. Why should anyone be surprised that I could pull off such an outfit? Am I not pulling it off? Is that why everyone’s staring? Maybe I shouldn’t have come, especially without a date for the third year in a row.

ROS still had to end for me that night, and I promised myself it would happen.

A couple of hours later, ROS commenced. Being an upperclassman for the first time, I should’ve lead the charge. That is, if I wanted to follow the crowd. Instead, however, I walked out onto the dance floor, towering over my classmates, and began to jump to the beat in my five inch heels. Minutes later, and everyone began to crowd onto the square of polished wood to bust a move.

Even though I had completed my task, even though I had planned this evening for weeks, even though everything seemed to have gone without a hitch, my confidence plummeted further. Rather than make me feel like I had accomplished something, wearing my heels on the dance floor only exacerbated my feeling of being different in a bad way. I wasn’t able to fit in with anyone, and these stupid heels only made me feel more alone.

My patent leather beauties eventually left my feet, and they stayed in their box for months after that Homecoming night. They stayed in their box because they had reminded me of everything dark that had ever consumed my mind: anger at my weight, fear of failure, my realization that I was the worst kind of different and unpopular that anyone could be.

The next two junior year dances were spent with my shoes strapped to my feet on the dance floor in an attempt to feel strong. You break the ROS once, you break it every dance. Still, my confidence remained low as my insecurities took over my body. Just like the previous years dances, I still went alone despite an overwhelming sense of inferiority and my five inch heels.

Senior year changed everything. I gained a small number of close friends, the groups that I led attracted new members and challenges, new parts in theatre productions opened new opportunities to perform on stage, and my fractured confidence began to knit back together. All the things I had done to mask my insecurities (excessive makeup and sky high heels) had only resulted in pimples on my nose and blisters on my toes.

Now that my confidence had returned, properly and of my own volition, I could enjoy those things without an underlying sense of pain or anger.

The Spring Formal that year saw me in a six inch silver wedges and a dark blue dress in reverence to David Bowie and how his music had helped me out of my slump. I ended up literally walking a mile to a choir concert in a long black sheath and classic black pumps. And senior year Homecoming (which fell on my favorite holiday, Halloween) saw me and my best friend dress as vampyres: him in a black tuxedo and white hair and me in a tight black lace dress and the same black heels that started the mess-turned-personal success.

Looking back, I can pinpoint the mistake I made in my choice to rebel against ROS: my timing. If I had elected to perform this rebellion senior year, my confidence would most likely have increased rather than decreased. Why? Because it was the overwhelming sense of inferiority, rather than my security in my worthiness, that made me want to become something through makeup, clothes, and especially shoes. When I was finally able to recognize that I was worthwhile, that I could achieve things, that I had value, I was finally able to express myself through those same means without covering my true self up.

Yes, I still dance all night in heels. I overcame the first disastrous ROS rebellion, and more people are following me even after I graduated. And yes, I still get blisters and sore feet every morning afterwards. The burn of the physical pain, however, means nothing to me. The thrill and the confidence that comes from towering over everyone and enjoying myself without judgement is worth every bit of that hurt.

I know that heels aren’t my identity. I know I don’t need to wear heels to be myself. But what I do know is that heels are forever a part of the journey that will eventually culminate in a completed, mature Jillian. Maybe that mature Jillian will never want to wear heels ever again.


But until that day, just let me wear red stilettos and be the last one on every dance floor.