First they came for the stilettos….
Just before Christmas the media were agog with an allegedly brand-new trend: women throwing away their high heels in the wake of the flurry of revelations of entertainment-industry sexual harassment. The idea wasn’t simply that women can run faster to escape from Hollywood predators if they’re wearing Allbirds Wool Runner sneakers instead of four-inch Jimmy Choos. It was that flat-heeled shoes enable women to “reclaim control,” presumably from men in general. “[D]itching heels can be a way to show that they value their own well-being over men’s desires,” Business Insider’s Kate Taylor wrote.
Taylor’s article, like many a piece of reporting produced in this pre-Yule anti-high-heel frenzy, featured photos aimed at proving that flat shoes can be glamorous, too: Gal Gadot in an evening gown and gold thong sandals (as if Gadot wouldn’t look good with her feet wrapped in cleaning rags) and some exceptionally ugly furry and wooden-soled Puma slides said to be favored by Rihanna (same problem). There was also the obligatory much-mocked photo of that princess of political incorrectness, Melania Trump, her feet clad in black patent-leather five-inch pumps as she boarded Air Force One with her presidential husband this past summer to visit Hurricane Harvey-ravaged Texas (never mind that Melania switched into more practical sneakers before she got off the plane).
In a similar vein, New York Times fashion reporter Bonnie Wertheim published a December 16 article, “Are High Heels Headed for a Tumble?,” that included photos of still more politically correct (and certifiably hideous) “comfort shoes” that are supposed to replace the high heel in this sexism-alert age: Crocs (yes, they’re still around), Dansko clogs (for just $135 you, too, can look like a medieval peasant), and Birkenstocks (you have to be Heidi Klum to get away with cork-rimmed hippie sandals that make your Size 10 feet look like Size 15’s). Wertheim quoted Northwestern University psychology professor Renée Engeln: “Why do the things we do for ourselves have to hurt? Why do the shoes we choose for ourselves make us less able to run away if we need to run away?…Why do the things that we do supposedly for ourselves cause us long-term physiological damage?”
And as if that campaign against actual stilettos weren’t enough, Florie Hutchinson, a self-described arts publicist in Palo Alto, California, has a campaign against stiletto emojis. Incensed not just at the teetering heel height on the virtual shoe that pops up on smartphones but at its “vixen-ish” bright red color, Hutchinson has asked the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit that approves standardized emojis across platforms, to substitute a ballet flat instead. “The high-heeled stiletto is highly suggestive,” she wrote. “[Stilettos are] most often associated with fetishism and seduction and made popular in the 50s during the era of ‘Mad Men,’ and most recently by ‘Sex in the City.’” Hutchinson complained to the media that the stiletto emoji promotes a “sexualized” image of women that could negatively influence her three young daughters. (The Unicode Consortium will release its decision on Hutchinson’s and others’ proposed emoji changes in January.)
If the point of all of this were solicitude for women’s comfort, it might make sense. There’s no doubt that wearing ultra-high heels day in and day out for extended periods of time can damage not just your feet but your kneecaps and the muscles in your calves as well. A 2012 article in the Journal of Applied Physiology reported that the long-term wearing of even two-inch heels (“kitten”-height) for forty hours a week could lead to muscle fatigue and greater risk of strain injuries. And that’s not to mention the pain of standing in four-inch heels for a couple of hours at that wedding reception. If you’re a chef or a surgeon or a scrub nurse who’s required to spend extended time on your feet, a pair of Danskos is obviously preferable to a pair of Christian Louboutins. Still, most office jobs for women—the kinds of jobs where a pair of modestly high-heeled pumps might be de rigueur for a professional appearance—don’t require a huge amount of standing, and there are entire brands of shoes—Aerosoles, Naturalizer—that specialize in dress pumps designed for maximum workday comfort. Contrary to what the photos in the recent anti-high heels media flurry suggest, women don’t really have to choose between spikes and Crocs when it comes to buying footwear.
The real goal of the war against high heels seems to be to make wearing them—or being required to wear them at workplaces—socially unacceptable. Hence the periodic declarations in the media that high heels have gone out of style (women are “ditching” them!) and Birkenstocks are in. Or the fanciful pronunciamentos from social scientists that wearing running shoes instead of Manolos could help you flee the Harvey Weinsteins in your life. There has also been a flurry of anti-high heel legislative bills that would ban employers from mandating dress codes for their female employees that include even two-inch heels. British Columbia now has such a law, and Ontario is considering one—although the British Parliament recently rejected such an effort.
The most serious obstacle to the anti-high heel campaign—and the reason that high heels keep returning to the fashion and office scene, as they did even during the early 2000s, when it was said that women wearing flats descended the burning towers of 9/11 faster than their sisters in heels—isn’t a male patriarchy leering at the hobbled gait of stilettoed females. It’s women themselves. Studies in journals of evolutionary psychology indicate that members of both sexes simply find women wearing high heels more attractive than women in flats. The heel height not only creates an illusion of longer, slimmer legs but changes her walking style and the tilt of her hips. As a 2015 article in Psychology Today explained, “What these shoes do is make women walk even more like women.” And the women who wear high heels regularly know that, and they’re obviously willing to put up with a certain amount of discomfort to get that effect. It’s going to take more than a ballet flat emoji or a breathless article in the New York Times to persuade women to stop wanting to look and feel like women.