Can you be a feminist and still like high heels?
Well, obviously you can. Plenty of feminists like high heels. A better question would be: Is liking high heels consistent with being a feminist?
The most standard feminist reaction to high-heeled shoes is that they’re oppressive and sexist. High heels hurt. They’re terrible for your feet: they can do real injury, both short-term and long-term. They restrict your movement. They’re hard to walk in. They’re hard to run in, making women more vulnerable to attack. And the cultural equation of painful, disabling, restrictive footwear with beauty and femininity is oppressive and sexist.
I won’t argue with any of that.
On the other hand… I like them. I don’t like wearing them all the time; but I like wearing them sometimes. I think they’re beautiful. I think they’re sexy. I think some of them walk an interesting line between fashion and fetish… a line that I find intriguing and compelling. I think some of them are works of sheer art. I think some outfits just don’t look right without them. I don’t want to wear them every day, or even every week… but for some special occasions, they make me really happy.
And as a feminist, my basic position on shoes is pretty much the same as my position on fashion in general, the same as my position on abortion and birth control and porn and sex work and weight management: My body. My right to decide.
So I read something recently that shed an interesting light on this whole question. It’s a piece about high heels in the Bitchslap column in McSweeney’s, by self-defense instructor and karate black belt Susan Schorn. Most of the piece is critical of high heels: specifically, it’s critical of how wearing high heels makes you look at the ground more, which makes you look (and possibly feel) weaker and less confident and more vulnerable. But she also says this:
Wearing high heels also shortens the calf muscle and Achilles tendon and stresses the toes. High heels contort your spine. They are bad for your body, especially for your feet. Of course, karate can be bad for your feet too. It has certainly taken a toll on mine. I’m currently re-growing the big toenail on my right foot for either the third or fourth time. I’ve lost count. I blew out the big toenail on the other foot once or twice as well. I’ve had a stress fracture in my right arch, and I’m pretty sure I broke a toe in my left foot at some point but I never got it X-rayed. I just know it hurts when the weather changes. Karate and high heels are probably equal offenders in terms of their impact on feet.
I wonder: How many anti-high-heel feminists would tell Ms. Schorn not to do karate because of how terrible it is for your feet?
So here’s what it is for me.
I don’t have an objection to high heels.
I have an objection to women being pressured into wearing high heels. I have an objection to the idea that you have to wear high heels to be beautiful or sexy or feminine. I have an objection to the fashion trends that make it almost impossible for a woman to be really dressy without high heels. I have a powerful objection to any expectation or demand whatsoever that women wear high heels in the workplace. I have a powerful objection to any social or economic pressures that make wearing high heels necessary for women to advance in their careers, or that give women who do wear high heels a career advantage over women who don’t. (As is the same case in some careers. And not just fashion.)
The reality is that, in a sexist culture, there is no way for women to win. It’s wrong if we dress too slutty; it’s wrong if we dress too prudishly. It’s wrong if we’re too feminine; it’s wrong if we’re too masculine. It’s wrong if we’re too pretty, we’ll get seen as trivial bimbos; it’s wrong if we’re too ugly, we’ll get dismissed on the spot. Navigating these impossible shoals, trying to express or even find your true self among all this noise, is baffling and exhausting.
So unless we’re doing something that actually and seriously hurts other people, then as much as possible, I want women to respect the directions that other women are taking when they navigate these shoals. If women say they love wearing high heels all the time, if they say it makes them feel powerful and commanding and generally awesome, I feel that I ought to take them at their word. After all, when I say that I love kinky sex, that I love watching porn, that I loved working as a stripper, I want other women to take me at my word. So it’s only right for me to return the favor.
I have no problem whatsoever with women choosing to wear shoes that hurt and damage their feet. Any more than I have a problem with women choosing to take up martial arts that hurt and damage their feet.
I just want a world where that’s really a free choice.
(Somewhat tangential side note, although it’s not really tangential: High heels weren’t always a marker of femininity, and weren’t always associated with women. They were originally created for men — specifically for soldiers to wear on horseback, as they kept feet more securely in stirrups. They then filtered into the aristocracy, where for a century they were worn by both men and women. A fascinating history, with lots of weird twists and turns.)