This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Knowing the Body
2004 Second Web Report
Gus Stadler and Anne Dalke
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender
Five Page Rough Draft for Final Paper
November 24, 2004
For the Love of Shoes
As I watch a fellow student teeter down the stairs in the campus center, her normally flamboyant bounce is no where to be seen as she tensely grips the guardrail. She lowers herself delicately down, each step carefully calculated. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot- and she makes it to the bottom without mishap. The culprits encumbering her normally wild grace are easily discerned; her shoes. Her feet are wrapped up in four inch- plus a one inch platform to make for a total of five inches- fire engine red heels. They're strappy sandals that lace half way up her calves with a silk ribbon and have effectively made walking an ordeal. Why do we do this? Well darling, because "Shoes are hot!" (Benstock & Ferriss p1)
That's right, shoes are hot, and the hottest ones of all are high heels. They're
collected, worn, and loved by women across the globe. They're everywhere. They
run rampant in books, calendars, photographs, album and movie covers, dangling
in miniature precious metal versions from earlobes and chains, and let's not
forget the most important place- women's closets.
Shoes are no longer something one simply wears on their feet, but a passion, a hobby, one's personal statement, a source of authority, sexual independence and joy. 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 in the City, in which shoes are one it's main themes.
Physically high heel shoes, and specifically the stiletto, are the source of much debate. More and more studies are emerging 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.
While health issues may be the immediate issue of high heel detractors, another is mobility. Whether the 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. Anyone who has ever worn a pair of stilettos knows the dangers that can ensue- everything from side walk grating, stairs, slick floors, anything 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. Caroline Cox, author of the new book 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." Not to say that many don't master the art of leaping up stairs or strutting full stream ahead down an urban street, but really it's an art form and one to be sincerely admired.
Advocates however focus on different aspects of the high heel. Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, coeditors of Footnotes: On Shoes write, "The high heel elongates the leg and increases the arch of the foot, making it appear smaller. It raises the buttocks (as much as 25 percent, according to Harper's Index) and curves the back, pushing the chest forward." In other words, high heels lend curves, length and muscle definition (especially in the calves which are in a perpetual flexed state) in all the right ways to accentuate constructed feminine sexuality.
Many second wave feminists adamantly condemned high heels for this very reason of constructed sexuality and conformance to male dominated ideals of beauty. (Gamman) However, at the end of the eighties, reclamation of female sexuality and desire swept through feminism. Suddenly women were, if not taking a stand in the name of feminism, seemed to be taking a stand for themselves. They wanted to wear stilettos, they wanted to feel sexy, and they enjoyed their stilettos and all the nuances that went along with them.
Along with this physical aspect of sexual power and autonomy, high heels can create feelings of authority. 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." (p71) This, along with the added height, can automatically function as a psychological boost. Suddenly a woman is no longer walking; she is upright and strutting, wearing an accessory which physically seems to propel her forward in life. Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney's in New York says "High heels create a level of authority."
Many women attest to this. In Allison Pearson's bestselling novel I Don't Know How She Does It, the protagonist is a professional woman who continually refers to the "armor" she wears into the office. Whenever she has a particular need to impress, her suits get more expensive and her shoes get taller, she pointedly says "Walking is not the point." The point is power and autonomy.
Furthermore, in today's world of glitzy-glam consumerism and self discovery, one is often found trying to match ones outside accessories with one's perceived self. Who am I? Who are you? Ferriss and Benstock write that there is "...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." (p4)
The idea of piecing ourselves together with our things can be applied to any accessory or article of clothing, but I argue that shoes are more than that. Power, sexuality and sheer aesthetic pleasure contribute to a love of shoes. Janet Lyon reflects upon the mystery of the love of shoes writing, "How is one to account for this hypnotic allure, for so many generations of modernity's women, of the impractical, foot-deforming, outrageous shoe?....For fabulous shoes are indeed a joy." (Benstock & Ferriss p273)
This is what my research and ideas has thus produced. In my final paper I plan
on elaborating more on the ideas of women's love of shoes, mentioning Imelda
Marcos and other cases of extreme adoration. As I focused much of my last performance
on the idea of pleasure I would like to bring that element into this paper discussing
women's enjoyment. I will also explore the simple aesthetics of shoes, and how
they are pleasing to the eye. Furthermore I will elaborate on the idea of shoes
and identities and I hope to delve deeper into the roles shoes play in the realms
of class, race and gender. After more research I hope to be able to write much
more in depth about the aspects of power that high heels seem to have. At this
point I do not have my bibliography written out. I can either do one for this
paper or wait until I have more sources and do the complete one for my final
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