How I Entered the Cult of TOMS Shoes
First off, let me just start by explaining that I’m morally opposed to the entire concept behind TOMS shoes.
In case you weren’t aware of the TOMS scheme, the idea is that every time you buy a pair of shoes, they give a pair to a kid in Africa. Which seems okay at first, but seriously? Shoes? If you’re going to give something, why not give money? Why not hire and support local shoe companies instead of blowing money on shipping so you can have your logo in tear-jerker videos? Instead, they just perpetuate this image of Africans as constantly impoverished and helpless, which I find kinda racist. Are they trying to tell me that Africans don’t know how to make shoes for themselves? To me, the idea of saving ‘Africa’ with your credit card is one step above that ridiculous ‘change your Facebook profile to a cartoon character to stop child abuse’ meme. It’s a lazy sort of activism that lets you pat yourself on the back in public for doing absolutely nothing, and it bothers me. So my long-held dislike for TOMS has nothing to do with fashion, really. I just don’t want to be associated with them. I’d rather wear a KONY 2012 shirt, because at least that would be ironic now.
But one day, I ducked into an Urban Outfitters to get out of the rain, and saw a pair of beautiful TOMS.
The heavens didn’t exactly part or anything, but I found myself drawn to this particular set. I’d always thought TOMS were sorta boring, but these actually looked pretty good. They had red, green, and black stripes, and looked vaguely ‘ethnic’. I also look ‘ethnic’, as do lots of my friends, so we were off to a great start. The colors were loud. Another plus. And they were on sale for six dollars. I had seven in my pocket.
‘Okay, Tom,’ I thought. ‘You got me.’
I wasn’t sure if Tom was the actual guy that made the shoes, but as I handed over my cash to the lady behind the counter, I had this brief hallucination where she morphed into a Tom. In this hallucination, Tom was a white dude with dreadlocks, a scraggly beard, and a tattoo of the Chinese symbol for ‘harmony’ on his arm. I’m pretty sure the lady said ‘thanks for your business’ or something like that, but all I heard was ‘Namaste’. Tom-lady bowed. I gave her the black power fist, mumbled a quick ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’, and rushed out the door. I had things to do.
As soon as I got home, I pulled the shoes out of the bag and immediately got to work. I got a pair of sharp scissors, and cut off the tags on the side. I carefully de-stitched the obnoxious ‘TOMS’ logo on the back with a sewing needle. Five minutes later, I had a beautiful set of logo-less, colorful footwear.
But then I went outside, and realized how futile my efforts had been. Everyone recognizes a pair of TOMS, even without the tags. Also, you know how motorcycle owners will strike up conversations with other bikers they’ve never met and just chat about bikes?
Well, that happens with TOMS.
It started when I got to the bus stop. A lady smiled at me, and said, ‘Nice shoes! TOMS, right?’. I grimaced. Then I got on the bus and a handsome guy about my age sat down next to me, only to immediately start talking about my shoes. ‘Hey dude, nice TOMS! They’re a great company, you know. They save Africans and stuff.’ I looked at his feet. Birkenstocks. He wasn’t even wearing his TOMS that day.
It was like I’d been accidentally inducted into the Smug Liberal Illuminati. My shoes had become a secret handshake that let fellow SLI members know that I was fully committed to the mission of saving barefooted Africans, one pair of canvas-wrapped sandals at a time.
I seriously considered throwing the shoes away. But I’d paid six dollars. Plus all of this fretting over my image was making me feel like I was in seventh grade again, except instead of getting made fun of for my tight jeans (which would be cool now, by the way), I was making fun of myself in my own mind. I had somehow created an internal alt-fashion panopticon # in which I fantasized that the entire world was persecuting me for wearing a particular brand of shoes.
In other words, I had finally become a hipster.
Eventually, though, I learned to stop worrying and love my TOMS. I mean, as shoes, they’re not bad. They’re comfortable, they’re easy to pack into a carryon bag, and they’re surprisingly decent for skateboarding. The northeast is going through an apocalyptic winter right now so I’m stuck with my Palladium snow boots (has anybody made a pair of shoes that will stop climate change?), but as soon as it warms up, I’ll probably break out the TOMS again.
My current pair are getting pretty worn, though.
So will I replace them when the time comes?
For the average retail price of $45+, no. But if I ever find another pair of six dollar bargain-bin joints in a wild print, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to resist brother Tom’s call to save the third world through free footwear.
Until then, shoutout to all my real Africans.
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