Well Heeled

“We are each born into paradox: the paradox of the infinite-imagining mind and the finite, cause-and-effect body. So much of our suffering arises from the fact that we can imagine ourselves as gods-immortal, omniscient, impervious to harm-but we cannot be them.”

—Dana Levin, The Kenyon Review

 I was walking home this week along one of my usual routes and happened to glance up when a woman in her thirties and her friend were walking up ahead. There was nothing particularly unique about either woman, a brunette and a blond, the blond pushing a baby stroller. Normally I would dismiss even the most compelling woman pushing a child for the obvious reasons but on this day I happened to notice she was wearing four inch platform shoes. The irony was bewildering to me. I felt celebratory for her command of her sexuality and power post pregnancy but also simultaneously felt she was teasing at loosening her marital bonds. Obviously, I was drawn to the heels and their sexual undertones but it was how they were worn that really got me thinking. I kept walking wondering what it is about heels in particular that illicit such strong reactions in men and why women across a broad spectrum choose to wear them, despite their often painful commitment. Why is it they are such a loaded form of expression? Can high heel ever just be shoes?

Since 2000 I have noticed a marked increase in the height of women’s heels. Even more intriguing is the continued hyper sexualization of younger and younger women with high heels playing a powerful role in that. The photo above was shot this morning through the window of a store called Forever 21. Aside from the idiocy of the store’s name, it is obvious the store is making a clear connection between youthful vigor and high heels. Of course on a very superficial level, heels provide height to women who by pure biology are predominantly shorter than men. Even the term high heels is now a reference to a range of shoes from stacked platforms to stilettos. Karen Kay of The Guardian UK says; "A pair of heels allows me to view the world from a different vantage point. I can look people in the eye, so those who previously looked down their nose at me must view me on their level – a psychological benefit that comes into play socially and in the workplace."

I’m not interested in using this venue for a discussion on the legacy of feminism, the male gaze or a dialogue on ‘taste’. There has been much written on those topics. If you want to read about them a simple Google search will provide a plethora of background. No, my interest is very specifically on the nature of power. The history of high heels goes back to at least the Egyptians 3,000 years ago. The high priests, kings and queens wore ceremonial leather stacks that were arguably the first high heels. In ancient Greece heels were used in plays to provide a clear distinction between character’s social status. In the 18th century, Louis XIV established an edict that no person in France could wear heels taller than his own. As a show of  belligerence, Marie Antoinette wore 2 inch heels to guillotine in 1783. Power and the high heel are fused at the hip. Clearly, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest it is merely status, power or physical height extension that is at play for women wearing high heels. Sex and titilation are the obvious elephant in the room and where there is power there is sex.

In speaking with a female friend of mine the other evening I mentioned my love of heels on women. It is often said women pay close attention to shoes on men, but the first thing I generally notice about a woman is her shoes. An artful and highly stylized pair of heels will get my attention every time. I’m not talking about what men derogatorily refer to as “stripper shoes,” but noticing the difference between a pair of Christian Louboutin’s or Manolo Blahnik’s. In contrast a pair of Keds or ballet flats causes an immediate dismissal on my part. For the record, I'm single. The anthropologist E. O. Wilson has said,

Based on comparative animal ecology and behavior one would predict that males should be advertising through the display of their assets (physical or otherwise). And while males do advertise in Western society, females also engage in equally conspicuous advertising and sexual signaling. Not only do we have male-male competition and female choice, but we also have female-female competition and make choice acting simultaneously...

Increased heel height creates an optical illusion of ‘shortening’ the foot, slenderizes the ankle, contributes to the appearance of long legs, adds a sensuous look to the strike, and increases height to generate the sensation of power and status.[¹]

It’s unquestionably unfair and a clear objectification of an otherwise unique and possibly fascinating human being, but there it is. For me this is no different than noticing the difference between a man who knows how to accurately tie a full windsor knot or a cheap Men’s Warehouse suit and a hand tailored one. As Flaubert said, "Le bon Dieu est dans le detail" (the good God is in the detail).

We are keen in America to wave the flag and point out how different we are than our Muslim counterparts but the reality is we are much closer than we care to admit. One of us is trapped by a religion of consumerism and it’s formal constraints and the other by the Islamic tradition of the 600’s. Women of means who wear burkhas in Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E. will wear Christian Dior or Yves Saint Laurent underneath. Despite the constraint of their dogma, the individualism is there and the need to assert individual power remains. In America women live by the law of The Gap, LIMITED, H&M or Charlotte Russe. These popular clothing stores produce the same mundane fashions year after year. To see women on the streets or in offices is to see compliance to a consumer sameness. But shoes — shoes can be the one standout in an otherwise bland world. It is a way to compete as E. O.Wilson stated. Even a knock-off pair of Louboutins, with their Catholic-red underbellies is enough to establish a subtlety of power even if the rest of the ensemble is jeans and a tee shirt. This, I argue is the underlying push toward ever higher heels in the U.S., our growing sense of repression in an ever more ironic world that asks women to simultaneously exhibit hyper-sexualized behavior while being good domestic, child-rearing, church-going wives and mothers. Stilettos may be an expression of a collective post 9/11 PTSD.

On a deeper level of semiotics, shoes are a fetish. As Marcel Danesi states in his book Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things, “The fetish is a sign that evokes devotion to itself. In some cultures, this devotion is a result of a belief that an object has magical or metaphysical attributes.” Despite heels being painful, causing deformities or several other generally negative health conditions, millions of women in western culture wear them every day. The economic restrictions of the recession coupled with the complexities of daily modern life, likely elevates our need for some kind of magic. As Elizabeth Semmalhack has indicated, heel height in the US and economic depression are a corollary[2]. High heels are a socially acceptable form of sexual expression, unlike the limited possibilities of tattoos or plunging necklines. Think Sarah Palin in the last presidential election. Indeed women can be the biggest promoters of their own high heel wearing;

Zoe Mayson, a business psychologist, suggests that I am not alone in valuing the heel as a professional asset. "There are a lot of people who think women do themselves a disservice by wearing heels, but I'm not in that camp. They are a psychological asset, and we can use them to our advantage. I work a lot with men in suits around a boardroom table, and I would never lead a session in flats. Heels give me gravitas that I would not have in lower shoes.

"From an evolutionary point of view, natural selection favours traits that increase our individual reproductive success. Heels get you noticed and give you physical stature, which in turn, gives you power, without compromising your femininity. So often, women have to take on male attributes to be successful in the workplace, and this is a great way of digging our heels in and saying no."[3]

I have no interest in creating more pain or difficulty for women. I can’t imagine the daily complications and difficulties encountered by women from the glass ceiling of workplaces and the inequality of pay to the simple biological issue of menstruation. It is indeed true most men wouldn’t last a week in a woman’s shoes (sorry for the pun.) In fact there’s a hilarious movie by the late Blake Edwards called Switch where Ellen Barkin plays a man trapped in a woman’s body that comedically highlights this very idea. I do think that owning one’s own drives, desires and compulsions leads us all to a healthier outcome. I am looking forward to the day when this madness of derisive punditry that pits one against the other will end. Repression has persisted a lot of bad things in this country beginning with its birth and the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans by English Puritans. Perhaps heels will come down in height and I’ll become less emphatic about their distinguishing qualities on women when we grow more open as a society. In the meantime I continue my search for the woman with the perfect pair of Christian Lacroix’s.