LOOKS THAT KILL 
Why I Shed My Skins 

(c) Paula Moore <paula-m@erols.com>

"Are your shoes leather?"

When I tell people that I'm an animal rights activist and a vegetarian, that's often one of the first questions I'm asked. Instead of seeking my opinion on animal experiments or the use of elephants in circuses--or even the best-tasting brand of veggie burger--people are exceedingly curious about what I wear on my feet. Often my inquisitors pose their question with a certain smugness, as if they've "caught me," found a hole in my philosophy, because you can't have shoes without leather, right?

Wrong.

I haven't worn leather in years. If I have a style, call it "compassion chic." My motto: Sometimes, a girl's got to fake it. Take a look inside my closet. Mixed in with the eclectic array of crushed-velvet shirts and vintage dresses, faded black Levis, and baggy cotton sweaters, you'll find one constant: pleather (with a "p," please), and lots of it--everything from trendy Kenneth Cole purses to bargain-basement Payless shoes. I decided a long time ago that if I wasn't going to eat anything with a face, I shouldn't be wearing anything with a face either.

Sure, it was a little scary at first. The day I unloaded all of my leather--including a funky black jacket that was so new it practically "mooed"--at the local Salvation Army store, I thought I was doomed to a life of canvas shoes and hemp handbags. Nothing against the hemp brigade, but it's just not my style. I quickly learned that faking it is easier than you might think.

No matter what you're into, I promise you can find an animal-friendly option. Are you the athletic type? Then "just do it" in nonleather Nikes or Reeboks--and do it with Spalding's synthetic leather volleyballs, basketballs, soccer balls, and other gear. Punk rock girl? Don't ditch your Doc Martens--switch to the doctor's vegan boots and Mary Janes instead. Hippie chicks, pick up a pair of Birkenstock's Birko-Flor synthetic sandals or Deja Shoes--made from neat stuff like recycled plastic soda bottles and old tires. Biker babe? Rev up your computer and cruise on over to the Vegetarian Shoes Web site, where you'll find way cool "Real Fakes" like hot pleather pants and jackets. Fashionistas, you'll want to check out the fun and funky shoes, belts, purses, and more from the likes of Steve Madden, Sam & Libby, Nine West, Esprit, or my personal fashion god, Kenneth Cole. Get the picture? Just look for those four magic words: "All Man-Made Materials."

Now, you may be wondering, what would make an otherwise rational person suddenly dump hundreds of bucks worth of bags, shoes, and a barely worn jacket? Simple: I don't think looks should kill. Most young women today wouldn't be caught dead in fur, because they've heard about the nasty things, like steel-jaw leghold traps and anal electrocution, that animals encounter before they're turned into coats or bits of trim on collars and cuffs. What many people don't realize--or have never stopped to think about--is that animals suffer in the leather industry, too. It took me awhile to figure it out, but once I realized that leather is kind of like hairless fur, I knew I could never wear it again.

Here's what I've learned: A lot of the world's leather, even coats, belts, and shoes sold in the good old U.S. of A., comes from India. You know--where cows are supposed to be "sacred"? Well, they're sacred no more: India's thriving leather trade is one of the cruelest.

Killing cows is against the law in most of India, so cows marked for slaughter must travel, on foot or by truck, to the few states where it is legal. During these "death marches," cows trudge across hundreds of miles without food or water and with little rest. In order to drive the cows on or force them to stand up when they collapse, workers beat them mercilessly, deliberately break their tails, or rub tobacco and chili peppers into their eyes. By the time they reach the slaughterhouse, many cows' hooves are bleeding and worn down to stumps.

When transported by truck, cows are crammed together so tightly they are often unable to avoid suffocating each other or gouging and blinding each other with their horns. When they are unloaded, the cows who can still stand are forced to jump from the high truck beds; many break their legs or pelvises. Those who have collapsed are dragged from the trucks and are left lying where other cows are unloaded on top of them. Once inside the slaughterhouse, the cows' throats are slit, and many are skinned while still alive.

Whoever said fashion was pretty?

Cows in this country don't fare much better. Before being turned into belts and bags, cows suffer all the cruelties of factory farming--confinement, overcrowding, unanesthetized castration, branding, inhumane treatment during transport--and the slaughterhouse. During a recent news conference, USDA inspector Steve Cockerham admitted that he's witnessed slaughterhouse workers cut the feet, ears, and udders off of conscious cows after stun guns had failed to work. "They were still blinking and moving," said Cockerham. "It's a sickening thing to see."

Fortunately, the word is starting to get out. Last fall, vegan vandals sent a 10-story-high message to New Yorkers by redesigning the Gap's "Everybody in Leather" billboard in Times Square. The altered sign read: "Everybody in Death." Earlier this year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the world's largest animal rights organization, launched an international campaign against the leather industry, with help from one of the original "Rockrgrls," Chrissie Hynde.

Ready to shed your skins yet? You know what they say: Clothes make a statement. Wearing animal-friendly fashions is an easy way to let others know that you don't think animals should be fashion victims just because you look good in Guccis. No, you're not going to change the world by buying pleather pumps, but it's a step in the right direction.

So, it's my turn to ask: "Are your shoes leather?"


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