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Manolo Inferno

2010 October 15
by Sarah Cook

We should have burned high heels instead of bras. I’m not sure why the bra was taken as a symbol of female repression: at least it serves a practical purpose. Bras allow us greater physical comfort and security – especially if you have larger breasts – protecting delicate nipples and posture, reducing the strain on the back and giving the freedom to do exercise without the fear of black eyes.

Ditching bras led to the hippy generation exposing their newly “liberated” breasts, much to the excitement of the male populous, but though the swinging sisters’ knockers were emancipated, their feet remained in chains. Brave souls fought the revolution from the floor up, rejecting those spiky torture devices in favour of Birkenstocks and Doc Martens. Rather than becoming a symbol of a new femininity, they were (and still are) decried as unfeminine, butch, ugly and a little bit silly. Aside from a core group of defiant activists, most women clung on to their high heels and attempted to teeter-totter their way to equality.

As anyone who has ever walked in high heels knows, it’s difficult, it hurts and you make slow progress in exchange for a bit of perceived power and some flattering glances. Which is a pretty good analogy for how women are hampered in general life, so why should we persist in adding to these problems by going along with something that limits us?

A sign reading "Proceed with caution if wearing high heels" by flickr user mvjantzen

It’s important to admit that I own several pairs of high heels, and have even worn them on a number of occasions. There is not a single instance of doing so where, at some point, I haven’t wished I’d worn flats instead. I am pretty certain that the only reason I ever wear them is because I think they make me look “sexy”. Yet, I know that I don’t always feel sexy in them. For the first few minutes, yes. Then I often feel footsore, annoyed, uncomfortable and insecure. Which is hardly sexy as I understand it.

Understand this instead – high heels make me feel sexy because I have been socially conditioned to believe that they do. There’s a lot of wibble that is spouted over how high heels emphasise the curve of the calf, or mimic the way the foot appears in orgasm (I actually know very few people who look at their partners’ feet during climax). These are all smokescreen attempts to try and make the high heels = sexy equation make sense. In reality, we (men and women) think that they are sexy because society tells us that they are sexy. Because of the hundreds of thousands of images and descriptions of sex and sexual arousal that involve high heels. In the same way that black lace, Haagen Dasz, the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny, red silk and feather boas are put in the big box of “sexiness” these are things that we have repeatedly conflated over and over and over again with sex until they are themselves signifiers of sexiness.

And who doesn’t want to be sexy? The problem is that high heels have become entwined with an idealised feminine sexuality that actually has very little to do with real women having real sex.

In order to be considered either feminine or sexy, we have to adopt these symbolically and socially appropriate signals to show off how attractive and womanly we really are.

High heels are a fetishised (often literally) and almost untouchably sacred shibboleth of accessing femininity: a litmus test for being a “real woman”. In fact, that act of wearing high heels for the first time, perhaps from our mother’s wardrobe, is almost a rite of passage. I never did this because my mother, also a tall woman, didn’t own any, which may go some way to explaining my perspective on heels. Being able to walk in high heels is a desirable skill, which women should learn in order to be “properly” sexy. Although it is also possible that if you feel you have to wear them in order to feel feminine then learning how to walk in them is a necessary survival mechanism to avoid falling over all the time.

The high heel, and walking on it, is part of the mask of constructed femininity, ways in which we contort our bodies into more socially-accepted shapes. Alongside corsets, padded bras, make-up and so on, the high heel is a tool in the Frankenstein workshop in which we create these fake shapes, themselves a distortion and extension of our own shapes to the point where our “natural” bodies look like failures, consistently being too big here or too small there.

We are addicted to high heels, and like many addictions, they are not good for us.

I have friends who adore high heels, including a friend who has several pairs she has never worn and dedicates a portion of her life to the process of breaking in new ones. The stock responses when I criticise high heels is that they make you taller, especially when compared with men, they make your legs look better and that they are pretty. I understand all of these points. I also understand that there’s a need to dig deeper into those reasons and appreciate that they centre more around feelings about power and self-worth than bits of leather and plastic on your feet.

Height is associated with power. We perceive “taller” as being better and physically attractive. It’s no wonder then that women, when they want to look powerful and sexy, try and be taller. Men too, but they have a genetic advantage, certainly over women, in that area, and a social constraint against trying too hard and fussing over their appearance.

Barbie dolls styled as the cast of Madmen

The female dolls can't stand up without their high heels...

For women, no such luck – in fact, not trying enough and not “dressing up” properly for social occasions can sometimes cause offence, even amongst other women. In fact, I would go as far as to say especially from other women. Our heel addiction is something we push on other each other, like crazy drugged-up people giggling whilst encouraging our sober friends to try just one little inch. Then another, then another. There’s a tendency to blame mysterious (male) fashion gurus for difficult or challenging clothing that doesn’t suit or fit or just plain makes us feel silly. But the vast majority of the social force behind wearing heels comes from other women.

Which is actually a good thing. Because it means that we can stop it. We know that sexiness is something that is socially defined – certainly over time and across different cultures what it is to be sexy has looked totally different. And so too, what has been considered feminine. We can control it, by choosing to accept or reject these ideas. High heels have no more and no less control over about our femininity, our power or our sexiness than we, collectively, let them. In and of themselves, shoes are just bloody shoes. I realise that in saying this I am committing deep heresy and may as well hand in my women’s club membership card and will have any number of women ready to beat me to death with their precious designer spikes. This of course, only really goes to emphasise my point.

We need a heel amnesty. All of us, as one, should take them off and put on those beloved trainers that we only wear on a “scruffy” day, those boots that make us feel like we could kick the arse of the world, those flip flops that remind us of wandering along the beach, free for a day. If we all gave them up, we could all stop trying to compete in the height stakes and learn to accept ourselves – even just a tiny bit – for being the shape we are. Which is a natural, normal, comfortable and above all, powerful shape. Your shape: the one that you own and navigate the world in and which lets you run, jump and move like a human being rather than with the stiff gait of socially-conditioned sexiness.

Women of the world – buy comfy shoes! You have nothing to lose but a few inches!

And remember, it’s not height that it’s important. It’s stature.

20 Responses leave one →
  1. October 15, 2010

    At my most cynical, I wonder whether high heels = sexy because she can’t run away. *shudder*

    This probably isn’t most people’s experience, but I’ve had more pressure/positive encouragement from men than women about wearing heels. But maybe that’s just ’cause my female friends = awesome. Writer of this article included.

  2. Raven permalink
    October 15, 2010

    Not to mention the horrendous health problems they can cause.

    Having the back-up excuse of “Actually, I physically can’t wear heels or… [something bad will happen]” is a great way of escaping peer pressure with those people who don’t accept the primary excuse “I just hate heels.” And for that, I’m thankful that my body is damaged in such a way that heels are never going to happen because at least I’ll never look silly wobbling down the station concourse to work.

    Thank you, Sarah, for this article, it was a pleasure to read and reassuring that there are other people out there of the same mind!

  3. October 15, 2010

    Pretty much the only place I wear heels anymore is in the bedroom ;) And I say this as a 5’3 girl who probably could do with the slimming aid of heels. But ow. I wear sensible thick heeled shoes at work (no more than two inches) and keep them at work, so I’m never walking round in them. I don’t understand the women who totter in their three inch stilettos. Why? Who the hell are you trying to turn on at work? Using feminine wiles is all well and good, but not to the point of physical pain.

    Awesome article.

  4. October 15, 2010

    It feels good to be tall sometimes, especially if you
    a) need help ith it (eg. me, I am 5’1) – really tall women are already tall, what are you trying to do?
    b) are in some kind of competitive atmosphere where the whole subliminal height/power thing is helpful eg. particular kinds of worksplace.

    They’re good for standing in ocassionally and sitting down pointing them at people, not walking in. I can barely make it from my flat to the tube in them. For me they are to be carried – they were not actually made for walking (not any further than to the end of a catwalk and back anyway). I keep some at work and they stay there. Trainers, bicycle, arrive, change shoes. It works. I don’t walk around a lot at work. But when I do it’s nice to be able to see over the top of the filing cabinet.

    They’re show-shoes, like show-clothes – revealing outfits you can wear to exclusive parties but not in the street. Not practical but nice to look at. Trying to wear them in practical situations (I would never dream of going to somewhere with dancing whilst in anything but dead flat boots) is bizarre. If it doesn’t hurt because you’re THAT used to them, that is a bad sign about your future bone health.

    Being short is really hard though. I once cried because I (as a fully grown teenager with no upwards growing left) I wasn’t being served at a counter trying to buy some chips or something – the staff just looked right over my head and served people behind me and I put off getting a job for so long from age 16 because I didn’t feel tall enough to be taken seriously, I thought I would grow more at some point but I never did. Then again this is all some kind of heightism rant which I’m sure is not very relevent to feminsm…

  5. October 15, 2010

    No heels for me, thanks. Oh, I own a few, but I generally only put them on for specific, brief, occasions (my rule: I will not wear heels for more than three hours at a time). Day to day? Birkenstocks, MBTs, Danskos.

    But while it makes a great lede, feminists never actually burned bras. Like hippies spitting on returning vets from Viet Nam in the US, it’s something made up by people slamming on the opposition.

    • Miranda permalink*
      October 15, 2010

      We couldn’t resist the lead, I think – the title was just too much fun :D

      The bra burning legend, as I understand it, came from the now-iconic images of women at a protest putting bras into a large bin, like an oil drum. I believe a radio commentator coined the phrase “bra burning” and it caught on… I’d post the bin pic, but I’m phone commenting.

      I am a danger to myself and other people in heels, as I’m clumsy as a bull in a glassware shop on a good day. I own several flat platform punkygoth style boots, though- they’re my version of stilettos. More practical for daily stomping!

      • October 16, 2010

        I’m familiar with the image. Actually, let me dig it up for anybody who isn’t.

        Burning bras would smell awful, since most of them have a lot of synthetic material.

        It really is a great lede, though.

      • kaberett permalink
        October 16, 2010

        It’s my understanding that the bras in question were longline bras i.e. corsetry.

  6. Weasel permalink
    October 15, 2010

    I never wear heels, always flats, but I have sparkly flats and glittery flats and flats with all sorts of pretty things on and a fair few pairs of sensible black flats too, and I can wear them all day long and live my life as fully as I want without being constrained by my own shoes.

    I can’t begin to put into words how much I’m enjoying this blog.

  7. October 15, 2010

    I find so many different kinds of shoes uncomfortable that I find it hard to fit heels into a special place. I have worn heels that are comfier than many types of flat and I find even spongy flat thong-type sandals to be a special kind of torture that should be reserved for the deepest pits of hell. I’ve been driven to tears by shoes that looked completely innocent cause they rubbed my little toe in just the wrong place. I have also never been in the unfortunate position of feeling pressurised to wear heels to work.

    I am a practical dresser, I was brought up that way. My mother rarely dressed up or wore makeup and to my memory I have never seen her in heels higher than about an inch. What I have noticed since I learned how to dress up is that flashy shoes get you attention and praise. But those don’t necessarily mean heels, though they often do. But I do feel sexier in heels, I feel more feminine. I feel like I’ve made an effort. But I only make that effort if I won’t be doing too much walking, or at least don’t plan to.

    As to height, I’d rather raise my height with heels than Docs (for example), cause I don’t like anything too heavy on the ends of my legs. And I do like the extra height sometimes, it does make me feel more powerful and it’s nice to be able to see over people.

    But there are many things I hate about heels, they restrict me in my comfortable seating positions, but then so do skirts. They send a jar up your leg when your whole body weight hits the ground over one small area. The shove your toes down into them so they are either crushed inside or protrude over the front of your open toe shoe. You can feel the bones inside the pad of your foot being shoved apart as your weight transfers onto the balls of your foot.

    But there are other inconveniences I put up with to feel feminine. I suit short hair, but I am not secure enough to deal with it. I don’t feel sexy, I don’t feel feminine, I don’t feel attractive. So I keep it long even though it requires constant maintenance and gets in the damn way all the time.

    We are an insecure lot in this modern world. Constantly told we are not good enough, busy enough, rich enough, clever enough, beautiful enough, fit enough. We need our props until we learn to fix our fear of just being ourselves.

    High heels are ridiculously over fetishised. But I think they are part of a look that will never fully go away. It will always be fun to dress up in a short tantalising skirt and unless you’re in a situation where you can wear bare feet very little goes better with long bare legs than shoes that make your feet look small and dainty.

  8. AnnaH permalink
    October 15, 2010

    I feel a song coming on (courtesy of The Poozies)…

    Cro-Magnon women did her stuff
    With hand and foot both hard and tough
    And unencumbered thus she ran
    Alongside her cro-magnon man

    Les femmes chaussées, les femmes chaussées
    les femmes chaussées, les femmes chaussées
    les femmes chaussées, les femmes chaussées
    les femmes chaussées chaussées

    The ancient asian thought it neat
    To bind his baby daughter’s feet
    A hobbling woman stayed at home
    While husband’s feet were free to roam


    To Louis Quinze the honour goes
    For donning heels with pointy toes
    But when those shoes began to vex
    He passed them to the other sex


    Victorian woman hid her looks
    Laced up and bound by buttonhooks
    And bloomer girls who made the news
    Took off the skirts but left the shoes


    Now modern women has a choice
    Politically she’s found her voice
    But she’ll have podriatic woes
    ‘til she’s free from heel to toe


    Now all humanitarians
    Know heels are for barbarians
    Lets add this to our list of goals
    We’ll kick them suckers off our soles


  9. October 15, 2010

    Actually a night with me in heels sometimes ends with my boyfriend having to carry me the rest of the way home. Which is not a very feminist need.

  10. Holly-Rae permalink
    October 15, 2010

    I wear heels if I’m going to a formal event but the day afterwards is always spent hobbling around, complaining about how sore my feet are. That said though, my feet have been broken by more than a couple of pairs of Doctor Martens in the past! You just cannae win.

  11. October 15, 2010

    I … have nothing to add, except I love this article. It’s bloody brilliant.

  12. Daniel permalink
    October 17, 2010

    I successfully subverted gender stereotyping by reading the entire post on shoes despite defining as straight and male. Go me. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of high heels and this made my incomprehension feel entirely justified while contextualising it rather nicely.

    However, I think something similar could have been written about any of a number of socially generated mechanisms for sexiness. What appealed most was the well-articulated dismantling of the reasons behind such constructs and the appeal to resist them. Such things need to be said loudly and often.

    Many thanks for a well-written and well-argued post.

  13. Maire Smith permalink
    October 18, 2010

    I was with you until you suggested trainers as an alternative. The false dichotomy of ‘dress heels or casual trainers’ is one of the reasons some women wear heels. There are formal, and dressy, and (really amazingly) sexy shoes out there that don’t have heels.

    Or rather, that have about the same (comfortable) amount of heel as the usual men’s shoes. (Totally flat shoes are far too often the main alternatives one sees in shoe shops, and they’re just not as comfortable as ones with about a half-inch heel like a man’s dress shoe, so women decide flats aren’t that great.)

  14. L Dub permalink
    October 18, 2010

    Actually, this whole article offends me on so many levels.

    I’m genderqueer, and some of the time, I love rocking a pair of heels. Other times, not. But this whole bit just smacks of an air of superiority. Only teetering to equality while wearing heels? Oppressed by societal standards of beauty and gender? Certainly it couldn’t possibly be because a woman or female identified person had their own reasons or motivations for wearing heels. Of course not! Silly women just can’t think for themselves, can they?

    So judgmental and gross.

    • Daniel permalink
      October 18, 2010

      L Dub, I’m not sure I understand your point. The author quite clearly outlines some of the reasons individuals choose to wear heels, including herself. This is contextualised within societal pressures, not blamed on them outright.

      Your post seems to imply that socially constructed notions of beauty and gender don’t matter and don’t oppress people. That would be a quite radically conservative, even anti-feminist stace to take, but I don’t think it’s what you mean. I’m just not sure what you do mean. Apologies if I’m just missing the point.

  15. Pet Jeffery permalink
    October 18, 2010

    Nobody seems to have noticed any connection between heels and age. I own several pairs of heels, which I used to be able wear without too much discomfort. But I haven’t forced my feet into them for years because the older I grow the more the shoes hurt. Surely I can’t be the only person to have had this experience. It seems to me that heels = sexy has some link with youth = sexy.

    • Custard permalink
      October 19, 2010

      That hadn’t occurred to me while reading but I think you’re right, just as young people are more likely to have some degree of free time and disposable income to devote to other forms of constructed beauty like hair styling that as you get older you are less likely to prioritise. Aging also ties in to fashionable clothing styles, as revealing styles become less socially acceptable or just less comfortable (I recently debated whether I was too old for short shorts). So the older you get, the fewer options there are for adopting the conventions of attractiveness and sexiness, making it harder for the unenlightened around you to recognise your personal attractiveness and sexiness.

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