If tennis shoes will do, are stilettos really necessary?
Watching Kamala Harris walking down the steps—in high heels as opposed to her traditional tennis shoes—to be sworn in as the Vice President of the United States, I felt pride and terror: please do not trip. Her husband gracefully and subtly stood by her side just in case the stiletto heel should waiver. As Kamala took each step deliberately, trying to avoid a slip, that moment led me to ask: why do we wear them? I watched our new Veep holding the arm of her husband, and on the last and final step, I cringed as she teetered.
Such a monumental day. The first female, the first South Asian American, the first African American to reach this height, and I am distressed by her footwear! High heels are lasting relics of an oppressive patriarchy hellbent on slowing women down–literally and metaphorically.
THE PHYSICAL TOLL
The potential consequences of a fall are obvious. Fitting our toes into triangular tips is painful at the very least, but the burden of heels on the body runs much, much deeper. Stilettos come in an array of added height and can go in excess of six inches, but the average is a three-inch heel. Is that good for our bodies to be raised above our foot’s natural inclination to stay grounded? This unnatural height forces muscles and joints out of their natural alignment. The imbalance of weight leads to hip and back tension, muscle fatigue and strain. The cumulative effects are proven. Wobbly ankles and slippery surfaces aside, these affectations of formality and sexuality can do long-term damage to the body.
In an article in Fast Company, Elizabeth Segran writes, “Is the high heel a tool of empowerment or a tool of the patriarchy designed to slow a woman down? That is a question Antonia Saint Dunbar, a serial entrepreneur, asked herself back in 2014 while rushing to work. ‘I was wearing my most comfortable pair of three-inch heels, but my feet were killing me,’ she says.
It’s a situation that any woman who has ever worn a pair of heels can relate to. Trudging around in most types of heels, especially stilettos, is a recipe for blisters, swollen toes, throbbing heels, a general sense of misery, and even long-term health issues like nerve damage. And yet, it’s a common part of women’s lives: 73% of women wear them, and 39% do so every day.”
According to the Spine Health Institute, “The perfect, pointy pair of 4-inch heels can make any outfit, but with this style comes much suffering. High heels have the stigma of being bad for health and comfort, but this barely stops women from wearing them occasionally and often daily. Women often make sacrifices for foot fashion, but at what price? Studies have shown that these towering shoes can be costly in more ways than one, taking their toll on your spine, hips, knees, ankles and feet, while altering your posture and gait.”
In 2013, infamous high-heel poster gal Sarah Jessica Parker revealed that she replaced her heels with sneakers on doctor’s orders, as her feet got deformed from years of wearing high heels on the television show, Sex & the City. Parker told Net-A-Porter’s online magazine, “I went to a foot doctor and he said, ‘Your foot does things it shouldn’t be able to do. That bone there … You’ve created that bone. It doesn’t belong there,’” she recalled. The symbol of high-heel elegance her character Carrie Bradshaw was known for was no longer as enviable once she admitted that wearing heels everywhere was a TV fantasy. The reality was she ruined her feet.
So why do women wear heels? Stilettos got their big kick in post-World War II society. During the war, women took jobs that were traditionally male jobs, working in factories and aviation. Women’s shoes required functionality, so they wore either low-heeled shoes or sturdy lace-up “work” boots. When men returned home, they didn’t want to see their women in their jobs or in sensible shoes. Husbands wanted to see their wives as sexualized objects–the pin-ups that had gotten them through the long, lonely nights of war. They wanted Betty Grable and not Rosie the Riveter.
Sexualizing and objectifying women, held captive by their footwear, dates back over a thousand years. During the Tang Dynasty, Chinese girls would bind their feet with strips of cloth to restrict the growth of their feet. The smaller the feet, the more attractive, but their mobility was completely thwarted.
In the 1950s the design of the fashionable “stiletto” heel through the insertion of a metal rod in a pointed-toe shoe was introduced, invented no less by two men: Roger Vivier and Salvatore Ferragamo. The stiletto was all the rage and essentially forced women to stand on their tiptoes, clench their muscles and throw their chest forward to compensate for balance. While regaled for their seductive qualities and the flattering position it placed the female form, it further mangled and restricted women’s ability to move quickly. On Vivier’s website, it refers to these heels as, “Tools of unstoppable seduction, they change the pace in the blink of an eye and give confidence to those who wear them. They are also objects of fantasy for some and continuously feed the imagination of designers and artists since its creation.”
However, just like the binding of the Chinese girl’s feet, these were all manufactured fictions of beauty.
What if we redefined what was fierce and what was sexy? What if wearing a shoe that has arch support and preserves the beautiful natural curves and arches of a foot was considered fashion-forward? When Kamala wore Timberland boots or her Converse sneakers she was, in my mind, fierce; she was in control and moving at a swift pace. It was powerful. There was no wobble or worry of a trip; Harris could walk reliably on a gum sole that was not going to skid, and there was no heel to cause her pain. It was a refreshing breath of air to see a powerful woman NOT caught up in the male fantasy of footwear. Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt a woman can get a ton done in her high heels. Nevertheless, imagine if you gave her the chance to do her work without also having to be uncomfortable, in pain, moving slowly and pleasing a man’s gaze. She would be unstoppable.
And that’s very likely what scares the male population.
As I reflect on that momentous inauguration day, I cannot help but think of another politician whose wardrobe came into sharp focus that day through countless memes. Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont, was at the inauguration dressed in a puffy parka, cozy mittens and laced-up Oxford shoes. Some felt this was not formal and respectful enough for the occasion. While others thought, it is cold and Bernie is just being his “authentic self,” I would counter–When do women get to be their authentic selves?
According to fashion site Glossy, because of the Coronavirus, “sales of dress shoes, including heels, went down 71% in the second quarter of 2020.” Will this trend continue when the pandemic passes? On most formal occasions, a woman is considered “unfinished” if she is not wearing a heel. To me, this is one of so many artifices women are expected to indulge in, regardless of the dual standard.
I hope this movement towards comfort will begin a new era of women being their authentic selves and not feeling obliged to cram their feet into a dangerous and deforming artifice of femininity. Wouldn’t that be nice …