High Heels: 4 Inches Closer to Heaven
High Heels: 4 Inches Closer to Heaven
by Arielle Abeyta
"To be carried by shoes, winged by them. To wear dreams on one's feet is to begin to give reality to one's dreams."
Shoes of every make and style are loved by women across the globe but it is the heel, whether stiletto or platform that is coveted, adored, desired in such abundance simply in and of the shoe itself. They're everywhere. They run rampant in books, calendars, photographs, album and movie covers, dangling in miniature precious metal versions from earlobes and chains, women's closets and even their living rooms, and let's not forget their most important place of residence- women's feet. They're a constant obsession in pop culture, endlessly talked about and fetishized in television, movies, song lyrics, and seem to be worn without fail by glamorous celebrities no matter the occasion. The most notorious of the shoe loving pop culture media is of the smash HBO series Sex and the City, in which shoes are one of its main themes.
Cast of Sex and the City at
What's in a shoe? Perhaps it was originally intended to protect one's
feet from the elements but today the shoe has evolved from its
practical origins to grandiose heights, and at the highest level is of
course, the high heel. Heels are not something one simply wears on
their feet, but a passion, hobby, personal expression, source of
authority, sexual independence, staple of gendered feminine culture,
mark of flaunted femininity, psychologically empowering, and joy. Women
choose to wear high heels for many reasons; the key is that they indeed
are the ones who proactively choose to endorse the high heel, often at
the expense of their own physical comfort.
High heels have long been stigmatized as a crippling mechanism of the ever present and detrimental patriarchy. As a system of values, categorizations, lateral and vertical hierarchies, oppression, subordination, presentation and performance overlaying American society, meanings are infused in every aspect of life. It appears impossible to escape misogynistic values but as Judith Butler writes, "The law might not only be refused, but it might also be ruptured, forced into a rearticulation that calls into question the monotheistic force of its own unilateral operation." (Butler, 122) In other words, never underestimate the "range of disobedience;" (Butler, 122) because the possibilities of rejecting domination are endless.
The significance of shoes, feet and high heels have a history of masculine power and female fetishization. Opponents of the high heel often call upon fascist beauty standards and self destructive desires to please men as the culprits responsible for causing women to don back breaking heels which limit mobility and cause extreme physical harm not only to the feet but also the knees and back.
However, high heels are most often learned in a matrilineal context; whether one learns to wear them from watching and/or hearing their mother, their favorite actress or pop culture in general, the appreciation is taught by women. It is a conscientious decision made by women to participate in a crafted female culture. Little girls emulate their mothers and role models and the guiding women in their life, friends or relatives teach them. High heels are a way of passing on "the feminine" as a learned process.
Little girl wearing her mother's heels
Harmful footwear being perpetuated by women is nothing new; it can be seen in other cultures. Most notorious is Chinese foot binding in which it was seen as a rite of passage. Between the ages of 3 and 8, girls underwent "gin lien" in which, according to tradition, a mother gave her daughter a pedicure then folded the four toes forward and under the arch, bound them, only to unbind them thereafter to bath and bandage them further and tighter to the hopeful form of the rare and glorified three inch "golden lotus." (O'Keefe, 405) In Western society high heels are also damaging if worn frequently and like Chinese foot binding are self inflicted within the feminine realm.
A traditional Chinese "lotus" shoe. - http://www.silcom.com/~bevjack/03.html
Speaking of the high heel and specifically the stiletto,
Caroline Cox, author Stiletto, says, "Not for nothing do we refer to
stilettos as killer heels. These are shoes that blatantly contravene
the original purpose of footwear: to protect the feet and aid
mobility." (Cox, Instyle Magazine) There are earlier records of high
heel shoes that served a practical function such as heeled boots horse
riders wore to grip their stirrups better.
However, 1533 was the year that gave birth to the high heel that served no purpose other than beauty and vanity. Catherine de Medicis, aged 15, brought them with her from Florence to the French court when she wed the Duke d'Orleans where they were eagerly embraced by Parisian noblewomen. Up until the 1700s, the five inch heel was most popular amongst European women. However, when the French monarchy fell, so did the height of shoes. From then on heels rose and fell depending on current fashions and politics. (O'Keefe, 74)
The high heel returned to dominate fashion in the middle of the 1900s and in 1988 America's first heel factory opened, allowing for easier access and availability. However, the 1950's ushered in the era of the stiletto. O'Keefe says, "Of all the miracles of modern shoe technology, the stiletto may stand as the greatest." (O'Keefe, 120) The architecture is such that a women's weight is balanced on a heel the size of a pencil.
While high heels have remained popular, in the last half century they
have been a controversial topic. Many second wave feminists rejected
standards of "feminine beauty," denouncing what they saw as women,
"being forced, by social and mass media representations controlled by
men, to see themselves in fragments through male eyes." (Gamman, 95)
High heels came under attack along with many other gendered aesthetic
objects at this time. However, in the eighties high heels were
reclaimed in the name of personal choice and women's empowerment.
"Dressing up, grooming, and playing around with identity could not be
regarded as a response to oppression or the 'male gaze' when sisters
said they were doing it for themselves." (Gamman, 96)
It was at this time that women really began to conscientiously reclaim the "feminine" as a personal and even rebellious decision. Nancy Friday, author of The Power of Beauty, writes, "We do it for the image in the mirror, the reflection of ourselves as hot and in charge, an extraordinarily satisfying goal that we can live with more happily than with a man; who needs him?" (Friday, 466) Today the arguments surrounding high heels fluctuate depending on style and popularity.
Much of the intense debate around high heels is generated by the harmful effects of high heels and especially the stiletto. More and more studies emerge everyday with resounding voices saying that shoes are physically detrimental. Foot doctors say that continual use of high heels with narrow toe space can actually lead to foot deformities. A clinical professor of orthopedics, Michael J. Coughlin says, "The deformities that often develop after years of wearing high-fashion pumps are similar to foot problems that were formerly seen in Chinese women whose feet had been bound." (Okie in Benstock and Ferriss) Additionally, long time wear of high heels is also being linked to knee arthritis in women, and most recently, back problems.
Women receive 90% of foot surgeries performed in the United States.
Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City says "You have to learn how to wear his (Manolo Blahnik) shoes – it doesn't happen overnight... I've destroyed my feet completely, but I don't care. What do you really need your feet for, anyway?"
While health issues may be the immediate issue of high heel detractors, another is mobility. "A feminine shoe imposes a new problem of grace and self consciousness on what otherwise would be a simple act of locomotion, and in this artful handicap lies its subjugation and supposed charm." (Gamman, 96) Whether nine inch heels preferred by strippers or three inch "kitten heels" being worn by teenage girls, they reduce mobility and physical ease to varying degrees.
The dangers are many; everything from side walk grating, stairs, slick floors, any speed faster than a leisure pace, any distance longer than a ten minute stroll, to the impossibility of crossing a lawn without sinking and being left to yank leg while balancing on the ball of the other sinking foot. High heels are the most challenging shoes one can wear if walking is the objective.
It is their paradox; heels are shoes that don't protect but harm, don't provide comfort but instead are more likely to be intensely uncomfortable, don't aid movement but restrict it. In dangerous situations, high heels hinder escape and have been denounced by feminist detractors for, "slowing them down when the need to run away from male violence and oppressors arose." (Gamman, 96)
However, mobility is not the point of high heels. In Allison Pearson's bestselling novel, I Don't Know How She Does, the protagonist is a professional woman who continually refers to the "armor" she wears into the office. When she has a particular need to impress, her suits get more expensive and her heels get higher. When asked how she can even walk she bluntly says, "Walking is not the point." (Pearson)
The question remains; what is the point of high heels? Their very existence and women's dedication to them is full of complicated innuendos, infused with meanings, drenched in politics and striking to the heart of what it is to be "feminine." High heels speak to women and society. They refuse to be considered just another accessory, but demand recognition of their complexity and power and feminine construction.
When wearing high heels, one cannot slouch or hang back. Linda O' Keefe, author of, Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers and More, writes, "Physically, it is impossible for a woman to cower in high heels. She is forced to take a stand, to strike a pose, because anatomically her center of gravity has been displaced forward." (O'Keefe, 71) This proactive stance, sexually enhanced posture, and added height provide psychological empowerment for the wearer and convey an autonomous and feminine message into society. Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney's in New York says "High heels create a level of authority." (Gamman, 98)
High heels infuse the wearer with a sense of power; more importantly feminine power, not an offshoot of some masculine aspect. Lee Wright, "points to the associations of the stiletto with symbols of 'liberation rather than subordination,' symbols that are 'progressive rather than retrogressive,' conveying 'rebellion and dominance'." (Kaite, 96) While men and masculinity also have an interesting shoe history that at times includes various heeled styles, today high heels are exclusively feminine. So often women in society draw upon masculine constructs and ideas of power, adopting them for their own instead of reclaiming the "feminine" in a powerful and authoritative way- but they do with high heels.
High heels belong to the traditional feminine realm but do not subordinate. They instead radiate dominance; perhaps in a subversive and gendered form, but nonetheless it is dominance and most importantly – a woman's dominance. Patricia Field, a Sex and the City stylist used stilettos to "symbolize the characters' sexual power, as well as their independence." (InStyle Magazine, 346)
"I can't wear flats; I always feel like I'm walking uphill." - Anonymous
Much of this power comes not only from the physical aspects such as
height, posture and body inflections, but also from raw sex appeal.
High heels are a traditional wardrobe staple of every vamp and
streetwalker which makes sense since they cash in and use sexuality for
their own purposes and as Gamman says, "It's hard not to be sexy in a
pair of high heels." (Gamman, 98)
The high heel is the "zenith of the very feminine look," (Kaite, 96) and its contribution to the construction of feminine identity is blatant. Despite possible negative consequences, they have other physical effects on the wearer. Esquire writes, "They taper the toes. They arch the instep. They lift the calves. They tilt the fanny and bow the back and oil the hips and sashay the gait.... They make the foot look shorter and more precious and yet add the formidableness of extra height." (Friday, 463) They create the illusion of longer and more defined legs, more pronounced and curved breasts, and a rounder butt. High heels emphasize all the aspects that are considered to belong to the realm of women's physically sexual attributes.
According to Harper's Index, high heels
raise the buttocks as much as 25 %.
The alluring eroticism of women in high heels is recognized and even
feared. In the United States' earlier history, "The Massachusetts
colony passed a law: 'All women, whether virgins, maidens or widows,
who...seduce or betray into matrimony any of His Majesty's male
subjects by virtue of...high heel shoes, shall incur the penalty of the
law now enforced against witchcraft.'" (Benstock & Ferriss, 10)
High heels, most effectively stilettos, embody complex paradoxes and social innuendos. There is inherent tension between sexuality and danger. They constantly revolve and play with the masculine/ feminine dichotomy. The "The high heel is a weapon...and also a phallic symbol. And at the same time that it cripples a woman, it makes her seem powerful. In heels, the woman can be evilly subdued – she can't run very fast, she's off balance, her feet probably hurt – but she's also taller, wearing a spiked thing that could be driven into a man's body: It's called a stiletto after all."
"Stiletto" means "thin-bladed knife" - Kaite, 96
says that shoes represent the female body and in dreams, they represent
female genetalia . The "Shoe is symbolic of the vagina. Tension between
the "active" and "passive" components of the shoe...It is an economic
balance of two parts: a womblike enclosure and the phallic extremity."
(Kaite, 97) These are "heels with the potential of piercing and
penetrating, and thus have powerfully invasive qualities." (Kaite, 100)
With such meaning infused in every step a woman can take, it is no wonder that the shoe has become an object of fixation, obsession and love. In today's world of glitzy-glam consumerism and self-discovery, every accessory can be an attempt to encapsulate and define one's perfect self image. Ferriss and Benstock write that there is a "...satisfaction we take in having purchased a pair of shoes that 'is us,' that represents us... The fashionable dress of the Western world is one means whereby an always fragmentary self is glued together into a semblance of unified identity. Shoes serve as markers of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and even sexuality." (Ferriss & Benstock, 4)
Shoes have always denoted lifestyle and one's place both in the formal and informal sectors of society. As the famous Forrest Gump says, "There's an awful lot you can tell 'bout a person by their shoes --- Where they goin, where they been..." (Forrest Gump, 1994) In the case of high heels tend to say one of two things about a person, high class or sex worker.
Due to the sexual aesthetics and erotic accentuation of the body they are an ideal choice for sex workers. More importantly still is the many-layered sexual and fetishistic meanings infused into high heels. Feet and high heels are the number one most common sexual fetish. "The stiletto heel is a fundamental part of the contemporary pornographic code." (Kaite, 100) Let's face it, how often do we see a playboy bunny in sneakers?
"Ya makin' money Boys call ya Hell on high heels" - Motley Crue lyrics (2000)
In contrast, the other social realm in which high heels are pervasive is the upper class. Kaite says "The initial association between rank, wealth, and certain styles and fabrics is made: silk and the high heel are for the leisured classes, the bourgeois classes." (Kaite, 93) From Catherine de Medicis and the ladies of the French court to Manolo Blahnik's "limousine shoes," high heels proclaim wealth and status.
On the other hand, " 'Sensible shoes'- from moccasins to work boots- identify the wearer as a member of the laboring classes, feet planted firmly on the ground." (Benstock & Ferriss) In sensible shoes one can plow a field, pave a road or simply walk as a means of transportation. In heels one is clearly going "somewhere" in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
Since their Venetian birth, high heels have been markers of the privileged. In the sixteenth century, both men and women of the leisure class wore heeled shoes as high as thirty inches. In order to walk a servant on each side supported them. Tamsin Blanchard, author of The Shoe: Best Foot Forward, speaks of the similarities of foot binding and high heels. For like the high heeled Venetians, Chinese women could hardly be expected to do much but recline in luxury on their ideally sized three inch bound feet.
When looking at high heels and the upper class connotation of today she says, "A similar psychology of wealth and status may still be operating, the richer you are, the higher the heels, and the more likely it is that you only have to walk a few short, painful steps from you limo to your destination." (Tamsin, 11) Today this upper class connotation remains, after all, "Women may 'wear' slippers, 'put on' sneakers and 'slip into' loafers, but they 'dress' in high heels." (O'Keefe, 72)
Another important factor speaking to the nuances of class and femininity is foot size. With 88 percent of surveyed women wearing shoes that are too small, there is clearly a remaining obsession with small feet. The high heel tapers the toes and arches the foot giving the appearance not only of eroticized curled toes but also the illusion of being small and delicate.
Perhaps the woman with the feet most renowned for their small size is the fabled Cinderella. Even though she had been delegated to a servant's position, the prince of the kingdom fell in love with her at the ball. However, when she fled at midnight she left behind one impossibly small glass slipper. The prince then searched his kingdom for the woman whose feet were small enough to fit the slipper. He was in essence looking for the most refined, most feminine woman in the kingdom- and all of this from the size of her feet.
Toomey wrote that the heel is "slivered to the slimmest shapes to make us all look as dainty and delicate underfoot as a Cinderella." (Kaite, 96) Modern women still go to great lengths in pursuit of their Cinderella charm. A study by the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle society estimates that the average woman has size 8 wide feet, "but the best-selling women's shoe size is 7 ½ medium, suggesting that the average woman...is hobbling around in shoes that are both too short and too narrow." (Friday, 465)
With so many gendered implications, it is clear that patriarchal values still permeate society dividing men and women into masculine and feminine worlds and furthermore into hierarchal categories. But the end result does not have to be submission or devaluation. Women, and others, can refuse degrading victimization and reclaim that which is ours both within and without overarching systems.
"How tall am I?
Honey, with hair, heels and attitude I'm through this damned roof."
- RuPaul (O'Keefe, 125)
In wearing high heels women can choose to empower themselves –
yourselves – ourselves – myself and own the power surrounding these
dangerous, sexual, authoritative, proactive gendered objects- high
heels. Women are often looked at skeptically for certain behavior such
as donning sexy stilettos, as if they certainly don't really want to
wear those shoes but perhaps have just mistaken their own desires for
misogynistic beauty standards and imposed systemic values.
The truth of the matter is that we all do live in this system, is it possible to ever disengage our desires from our experience or infused cultural innuendos in and of the body? Perhaps yes, perhaps no; but the decision to wear high heels is one way to rebel within a system. Women who wear these tall heel it because they like to, for their own pleasure. Whether they like the erotic connotations, excitement, height, delicate structures, dangerous points, phallic penetrative qualities, royal history, haughty independence, aesthetic beauty or a confusing combination of all of that and more, women who love high heels do so of their own volition and desire.
Manolo Blahnik, the "high priest of high heels" (Benstock & Ferriss) sums up the patronizing idea that women should be pitied for their chose and love of high heels. He was once asked if he, "ever felt sorry for all those women teetering through their lives on the spikiest of high-heeled shoes," to which he responded, "Oh, my God, how could I feel sorry for them? Sorry. Sorry for who? They love it." (Specter, 388)
06/22/2005, from a Reader on the Web
I am a m2f crossdresser who is totally enthralled with high heels. They represent the ultimate in feminine sexuality to me. When I slide into a pair, they absolutely make the transition from Paul to Lexy more than any other single item. I totally love wearing them, and I feel VERY sexy in them. Paul
I read somewhere (but I cannot find the book) that the origin of high heels goes back to caveman days when groups of cavemen raided other cave dweller's areas, took their goods and took it in turns to pack rape the women. While the men were waiting their turn (to rape) they observed that as the women being raped achieved orgasm (These were earthy times) they pointed their feet uncontrollably as part of the orgasmic response (this occurs even today although current positions may make observation of this phenomena difficult) . This image was burned into mens brains over the years and so today the real reason why women wear high heeels is put their feet into this orgasmic position and raise the (sexual) interest of men. I would be interested if anyone el;se has also read this and can indicate where is can be found ... Peter Bate, 24 December 2007