There’s a picture of me somewhere in an old family photo album of me dressed up as Annie Oakley. I’m probably around 7-8, which is the age at which me and my sister in succession would have fit into this costume my mother had sowed. The costume included a Western-style collared shirt, a fringed blue skirt, my mother’s old Red Ryder b.b. gun, and cowboy boots. Until just a couple of days ago, that was the first and last time in my life I ever wore cowboy boots. And if you’d asked me at any point in my life between that costume and about a year ago whether I would ever want to own a pair of cowboy boots, I would have laughed. Perhaps even sneered.
This is small confirmation of the piece of research currently making the internet rounds which suggests that though we can clearly see the way we have changed from our past into our present selves, we are firmly convinced that we will not be changing much in the future. So though my present self may find it hard to believe, in ten years, you may be reading about how I have become someone who wears stilettos. I sincerely hope not.
I cannot quite explain how I came to be someone who felt a desperate and pressing need for a pair of cowboy boots. It probably had something to do with playing the fiddle. And then the mandolin. And then the guitar. It probably has something to do with the idea that a person who does such things should also own a pair of cowboy boots. Here are some other theories to explain my route to cowboy boot ownership.
The path of race, social class, and community background
Yes, now I’m going to get all sociological on you (because as I explained the other day, it’s possible to do a sociology of anything), but I’ll get back to the cowboy boots. I grew up in a rural, small town in Kentucky that was in the process of becoming suburban. My family was upwardly mobile. My father was hardly in the majority among his particular generation of peers (male or female) in the community in that he went away and got a college degree. And then he got a job in Cincinnati rather than farming or finding work in town, which is what many of the men he grew up with did.
Now, keep in mind, this is certainly not the deep South here. Just Northern Kentucky. But while most of the people growing up in the United States along with me in the 1970s and 80s were living in suburbs or cities, I was still kind of out in the country. My grandparents on one side were farmers. On the other side, they owned a feed store. How did this matter? Well, my mother had memories of using an outhouse. She’s eaten pickled pigs feet and both of my parents have been to a hog killing. My father doesn’t really like to eat chicken much due to his childhood memories of the smell inside his family’s coop. I learned as I went to college and then graduate school that these were not experiences that many other people’s parents had.
This is all to say that though my nuclear family could not at all be described as “country” or “redneck” or, “hillbilly,” we were never as far away from all that as the people who had grown up in cookie-cutter subdivisions or cities were. And sociologically speaking, the group that will tend to make you most nervous is the stigmatized group that’s closest to home. I can be largely unaffected by the behavior of other racial groups. But the shadow of being seen as a hillbilly looms large. Once in graduate school, a fellow student found out my middle name, which is Rae. “Robyn Rae,” he said, smirking at me. “Like Billy Jo or Bobby Jean. Is that a Kentucky thing?” He didn’t know it, but he barely survived that interaction with his genitalia unbruised.
So starting pretty early, I developed a disdain for many things associated with poor or lower class, rural, white people. Mullets. Bad teeth. Beer (yes, BEER!). Hunting. Country music. Cowboy boots. Thankfully, I got over it.
The importance of social networks
I think it must be true that we spend the first halves of our lives running away from who we are, and the second half exhausted by the effort into surrendering to the inevitable. And so, eventually, I was going to have cowboy boots. But it helps to have other people who are supportive of your vision–in this case, the vision of myself in cowboy boots.
A few years ago, a team of researchers came out with their findings on the connections between social networks and health variables like obesity and smoking. They found that if your social network consists of more obese friends, family and acquaintances, then you yourself are more likely to be obese and to remain obese than you would be if your social network were composed of leaner individuals. The same seems to be true for smokers.
This is hardly surprising to sociologists, who can tell you all about the importance of the groups to which we belong. They are a very important source of our norms–our sense of what is right and wrong, proper and improper, okay and just really gross. So if your particular social network believes it’s okay to smoke, you’re more likely to be okay with smoking, too.
I can’t explain to you exactly why cowboy boots have become acceptable among white, boogie-type people like myself. One article suggests it’s George W. Bush and Jessica Simpson, but the idea that I’m aspiring to emulate either of those people is fairly apalling. Perhaps it’s the same trend that’s led to chicken coops being sold by Williams-Sonoma. No one in college thought it was cool that my mother had been terrorized in her youth by an especially malevolent rooster in her back yard. But now, whole generations of children will be terrorized by roosters who live in designer chicken coops. Such is popular culture.
Cowboy boots are valued within my particular social network less for their practical value than they are for their fashion statement ; none of my friends are actually cowboys, though some of them are farmers. They have become quite elaborately beautiful shoes, sometimes veering in the same direction as stilettos in their sheer impracticality. Nonetheless, it is true to say that with most of the people in my social network, there’s no need to explain why I want a pair of cowboy boots. And in fact, my desire for a pair of cowboy boots is generally met with enthusiastic encouragement.
The beauty of the boots
So after all of that plus a long and torturous delivery process, my cowboy boots are here. They are a thing of beauty, even with all my knowledge of the sociological origins of my aesthetics. Which is to say, I don’t find the boots beautiful in a void; I find them beautiful in part because of the particular “personal millieux” in which I find myself. That the boots are beautiful is socially constructed, but what do I care? It detracts from my pleasure not in the least.
In the end, cowboy boots are also physical objects. I like the way I can lean back in my cowboy boots and feel like they are holding me up. I like the subtle change they seem to create in your stride, which helps me begin to understand why cowboy boots might also be called shit-kickers; I feel tangibly ready to kick something when I’m wearing them. I like the way it feels to tap my toe in cowboy boots while playing Paradise on my guitar. It just feels right. And it has nothing to do with George W. Bush.