Ugg-hating isn’t reserved for ergonomics-purists. Sure, the boots betray common sense and physical health on several counts, but that’s hardly unique as footwear goes. They’re also one of the most visible players in a bizarre modern trend that’s a direct challenge to classical aesthetics.

Sarah Royce

Let’s take that iconic image of romantic womanhood: the goddess Venus as she appears in Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” The tall blonde stands on a seashell on the ocean’s surface, waves pushing her toward shore. With her hands and a lock of hair, she covers (more or less) select parts of her naked body. Her pose is a prime example of contrapposto, where, due to the angle of her shoulders and hips, she seems to be shifting her weight. Visually, contrapposto gives us the sense that she’s about to step forward.

It’s her stance that makes this one of the most recognizable images in art – you could dress as Venus in a hazmat suit and still the reference would be recognizable.

If this Venus embodies, as the test of time would suggest, something essentially appealing and perhaps even essentially feminine, what are we to think when other icons take this position and directly invert it?

Scarlett Johansson at an awards show, Harajuku girls trailing Gwen Stefani, fashion spreads in Vanity Fair — women stand with their weight thrown into one hip, their knees angled in and down and their toes pointing at each other. They stand pigeon-toed and off-balance, baffled by their own bodies.

Botticelli’s Venus welcomes our gaze, gesturing modestly while allowing us to see the good stuff. That in itself is not terribly progressive, but look how momentary this indulgence is – she’s about to step onto shore, where a maiden waits to sheathe her in cloth. Her tender look is a small liberty she allows us. We are a privileged and barely worthy audience for her nudity – and she’s about to take it away.

Far from stepping lightly onto fragrant shores, the best that some of today’s women could hope for is to recover quickly after tripping over their own torqued feet.

The most grotesque perpetrator in the media of this cartoonish pose is the Steve Madden company, whose ad campaign showed its models as imps with proportions adjusted according to marketability. So the company lampooned advertising while banking on the same methods it ridiculed to be effective advertising. Fine and savvy: when an aesthetic that alien is possible only by digital manipulation, it stays safely ridiculous.

But if disabling postures are obviously satirical in shoe ads, what do we call them when real women fall back on this stance, or when they wear shoes that force them to shuffle and drag their feet – which, in the ads, were as deliberate aesthetic choices as tiny waists and glossy hair?

Not only are they going nowhere fast, they seem unaware of their ability to adjust themselves. This aesthetic is easy enough to find in American popular images, and it’s all over the place in their Japanese counterparts. Trends in fashion, theoretically a kind of feminine armor, now draw attention to how handicapped girls allow themselves to be.

While the Renaissance Venus reinforced a beloved aesthetic for the feminine form, one 19th-century painter’s reimagining of Venus is notorious for the ire it provoked. Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” shows a prostitute reclining on an unmade bed. Like Botticelli’s Venus, she comes off as self-possessed and in charge of her presentation – which is of the greatest importance. Writings from the time show that this self-possession was both apparent and objectionable to his contemporaries. They describe the image as “cynical,” and say that the woman’s straightforward, unwavering gaze is “provoking the public.” Unlike her visual predecessors, including various Venuses, she’s neither come-hither nor clueless.

Both the Venus and this prostitute hold the cards – Venus whets your appetite before stepping away, and Manet’s figure holds her ground. She’s not going anywhere until she decides to. We see that in the steady look that made her viewers so disgruntled and in how she positions herself not without feminine appeal – crossed legs and nudity being generally appealing – but with a heavy dose of decisiveness. Ankles crossed, knees together, and that’s what she has chosen to do. As opposed to leaving the decision of what happens to her physical person – whether she will walk or be tipped over – up to someone else.

– Colodner’s feet are priceless. Ask her about them at abigabor@umich.edu.

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