Feminists Balancing on High Heels

On the heels of last week’s sartorial scandal at Cannes, we ponder the history of high heels.

by Candace Mittel

illustration by Grace Molteni

When I first heard the news from the Cannes International Film Festival last week, my initial reaction was that it must be an error, a hoax. No way, I thought to myself, that 21st century women of the western world were barred entry from a movie premier for wearing the wrong thing.

Their egregious error? Flats instead of high heels. They chose sanity over agony.

Comfortable high heels are a possibility. There are startups like Thesis Couture, an unlikely team of astronaut, engineer, doctor, and fashion designer all working together to reengineer the high heel to be healthier for the foot, and 34 Minute Shoes, another company trying to give women a heel they can stand pain-free in for more than 34 minutes, the average max-out time in most heels. But these companies are not yet mainstream; the majority of heels currently on the market are reckless and damaging for the toes, feet, heels, calves, knees and even lower back.

So when women choose comfort and stability over blisters and foot-cramps, and are penalized for it, we should be worried. When officials at the most prestigious film festival in the world tell women in rhinestone flats that they can’t enter a screening of Carol (which is, ironically enough, a film about a lesbian love story with feminist interest), we should make a fuss.

The festival has yet to comment about the incident, but they have confirmed that it is indeed mandatory for all women to wear high heels to red-carpet screenings. Film producer and scriptwriter Valerie Richter, who was one of the women stopped at Cannes, says she has been confronted four different times at film festivals this year about her flats. Richter can’t wear heels because of a partly amputated left foot

I haven’t always had so many qualms about high heels. In fact, I understand the appeal. Admittedly, there was a time in my life when I would do just about anything to get a pair of my own.

In seventh grade, I fought relentlessly with my mother on the subject of high heels. I know it was seventh grade exactly because seventh grade is when, in the Jewish community, you become an adult (what we call a bar or bat mitzvah). Looking back, the year is one big blur of glow-stick necklaces and co-ed dancing anxieties. And, of course, fights with my mother about my shoes.

Because I went to a Jewish school, I was attending at least one bar or bat mitzvah service and party per weekend—to this day, I haven’t experienced a more social time in my life. The importance of quality party outfits (dresses, skirts, shoes, hoops and bangles) cannot be overstated. How you looked was crucial if you wanted a nice pimply boy with blond highlights and braces, shorter than you but somehow considered hot by overwhelming consensus, to come up behind you during “Magic Stick” by Lil’ Kim (ft. 50 Cent) and brush his eager genitals against you. And even though this never happened to me (I only dreamed), I still tried my best to look like I was 18 when I was 12, to look sexy when I couldn’t fill my AAA cup-bra from Limited Too. Things like spaghetti strap black dresses, eye shadow, and high heels were all part of this facade.

At the beginning of the year, my mother and I went to the department store in preparation for this bar/bat-mitzvah season, and I tried to convince her that I could walk in high heels. I picked out an awful pair of black wedged sandals (early 2000s style), gritted my teeth and flashed a smile: “They’re really comfortable, mom!” My mother looked at me with a very familiar face, a face I hate because I know she has won, one that, with no words at all, says “I’m so sorry, honey, but that was a good try.

But I wasn’t done. I lifted my head, pushed back my shoulders and showed my mom how I could walk normally in the heels. “You’re walking all funny,” she frowned. “How about these?” she held up a pair of black flats. “Those are sooooooo ugly!” I cried. Shoppers stared, the saleswoman chuckled, and I was in tears.

I can’t tell you whether my mother was right or not to prohibit me from wearing high heels. You could argue that, at age 12, a girl should be able to make her own shoe decisions (price notwithstanding) and suffer the consequences if they don’t fit comfortably and hurt her feet. This could have been an ideal opportunity for my mother to teach me a learn-it-the-hard-way lesson.

But you could also argue that my mother was a strong woman who, in holding steadfast to her feminist beliefs, refused to give in to a very persuasive fashion industry and style that subjects women to unbearable pain, bloody blisters and calluses, dreadful bunions and ingrown nails. And for what?

“Beauty is pain”? My mother would disagree.

Jennifer Moses, of the Chicago Tribune, reflected on the absurdity of experiencing calf-cramps and toe-squishing pain at her own son’s bar-mitzvah: “It strikes me as bizarre that in the aftermath of feminism, American women, who are perhaps the most liberated women in the history of humanity, choose, of our own free wills, to cripple ourselves. Now we can barely stand at all, let alone march for our rights, in our 6-inch heels…” But Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers argues that heels aren’t inherently feminist (or not feminist, for that matter), but rather a choice and positive expression of free will: “Wearing heels doesn’t necessarily make you a good feminist — the point is that feminism has less to do with what you put on your feet than what you put in your head.”

I question my closet: the peach heels I spent days looking for so that they would match my junior prom peach dress but were on my feet no longer than an hour (they were impossible to dance in); the gold sandal heels now blemished with little stains of blood after a friend’s wedding; the black patent-leather pumps that blistered my pinky toes so badly I could wear nothing but flip-flops for the next few weeks.

High heels are a curious thing. We wear high heels to give an appearance of beauty, but what they do to the body is often quite the opposite. Heels are at once an ornament and a poison, an object of elegance and an object of distortion. Research shows that high heels ruin your knees, increasing your chance of early onset osteoarthritis; that they kill your muscle fibers, putting you at greater risk for strain, sprains, lower-body and back injuries and joint problems. It’s quite surprising that women haven’t said “enough” already.

Women, of course, have different responses to this. One rebuttal is that heels are empowering, giving you height, elegance, a certain kind of sexiness and confidence. Moreover, the need to feel and appear powerful is not a new one, and it is not even unique to women. But to that I would challenge: why aren’t men balancing their throbbing feet on stilts?

Because heels are not actually a symbol of power. This wasn’t always true. In fact, the history of heels has its origins in male fashion. Consider the famous painting of King Louis XIV of France wearing high-heeled red shoes. In the 17th century, when heels were commonly worn by men, they conveyed nobility: “Height and elevation has always had something to do with indicating class, privilege, power,” claims curator Lisa Small, who created a high-heeled exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum this year.

Some historians suggest that the idea of elevated shoes first originated in Persia in the 15th century to help horseback riders’ feet stay in place and not slip in the stirrups. As curator Elizabeth Semmelhack from the Bata Shoe Museum suggests: “When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more easily.” Racked writer Jennifer Wright comments, “Heels were intended to be an instrument of war, rather than one of seduction.”

But heels did, eventually, become an instrument of seduction—for women. In the 17th century, female nobility wore high heels for the same reasons as male nobility—to convey their status and power. But toward the end of the 17th century, heels for women started to look different than heels for men: “Men started to have a squarer, more robust, lower, stacky heel, while woman’s heels became more slender, more curvaceous,” says Helen Persson, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Men’s heels evolved into a practical, grounded footwear, while women’s heels were dainty and tottery, and you wonder what this says about the expectations on the women themselves during this time period.

By the early 18th century, men stopped wearing heels entirely because they were seen as “foolish and effeminate.” Save a brief period during the late 18th century when flats were all the rage, these “foolish,” impractical footwear have ever since been the staple of women’s fashion, only getting worse (more damaging to the foot) as technology (namely, steel and extruded metals) in the 1950’s enabled the stiletto to become higher and higher. In Semmelhack’s book, Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe, she claims that heels eventually became an erotic symbol because of their prominence in pornographic photographs beginning in the mid-19th century.

It’s easy to imagine why heels were the chosen shoe in pornography—in heels, a woman’s stance is different; it’s unsteady. To cope, the butt and chest go out (in opposite directions) and the hips sway more prominently to keep the body afloat. In behavioral research, studies find that women in high heels are judged (by both men and women) as notably more attractive than those in flat shoes. One study, run by Dr. Nicolas Gruéguen, concluded that “high heels were associated with greater sexiness, overall physical attractiveness, breast attractiveness, beauty, attractiveness to other men, and willingness for a date.” Commenting on the study, French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann says, “in a relation of seduction, men are very attracted by a woman in heels as she looks taller, more sexually confident, sure of herself, with a lengthened silhouette and sensual, jutting buttocks.” If you want to attract a man, Kaufmann tells ladies, you best be wearing heels. 

I don’t know if Kaufmann knows just how harmful heels are to women’s bodies, but if he did, would it even matter? After all, most women know—it’s not like you can easily ignore the puss leaking from your toe— and still wear them. Dr. Michele Summers Colon, podiatrist and founder of 34 Minute Shoes, says that her patients beg her to fix their feet at any expense: “they ask me to operate on them and inject them—anything so that they can keep wearing high heels.”

If men were still wearing heels, then we could perhaps agree that these shoes are just another unreasonable signifier of power, like diamonds and Lamborghinis, as they were in the 17th century. But heels, for women today, have become a symbol of something else entirely. I’m not sure of what precisely, but the word submissive keeps coming to mind. With so many societal pressures at play—women were banned from the red carpet if they weren’t in heels!—and the link between perceived attractiveness and heels, the shoes seem much more like a symbol of subjection than of strength, even if women are choosing heels at their own “free-will.” Having freedom of choice in practicality doesn’t exclude someone from mental, personal, societal subjections. And many of us women are bound to the mindset my mother so disagrees with, that a bit of pain in the toes is worth it, that behind beauty must be a little pain. 

Sometimes I think that the high heel is treated as a “rite of passage” into womanhood. There’s always that scene in the bathroom at a cousin’s wedding where the women of the family gather; they remove their heels and rub their panty-hosed feet, taking pleasure in their shared misery. “What we do for beauty,” an aunt might say. “What we do for men,” another.

And that’s really the problem. A belief in physical sacrifice—to your health and well-being—because it’s sexy or appealing or feminine to others, to men, only perpetuates sexism, power dynamics, gender inequality, and all of the things we work so hard to overcome.

In seventh grade, I didn’t know many things. I certainly didn’t know that my mother was right. I didn’t know that my mother would never be found in the women’s bathroom massaging her feet with the others. And although I myself have been there far too many times recently, I’m starting to think that, from now on, I’m going to try to follow in my mother’s footsteps.

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Candace Mittel graduated in 2013 from Northwestern University, where she studied Mathematics, Jewish Studies and Creative Writing Nonfiction (and no, they are not connected, but she’s open to suggestions). She currently lives, teaches and writes in Chicago. Read more of her feature work for The Riveter here.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram or at her personal website.