One hour and six minutes

Pacific Standard reports on an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum called Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe.

I think high heels are one of the weirdest and most perverse customs we have over here in the putatively developed world. They’re temporary foot-binding, and if they’re worn long enough the damage becomes permanent. They don’t damage the feet as much as foot-binding did, but that’s not much of a distinction.

Now, they’re also “a choice,” and feminism is all about choice, and yadda yadda. But for one thing, they’re not a completely free choice, given all the contexts in which they’re more or less obligatory, and for another thing, I flatly reject the idea that all choices made by a woman are feminist simply because they’re choices.

“Fashion is a form of material culture that can reveal quite a bit about the personal, social, and cultural concerns of the era it comes from,” Lisa Small, the museum’s curator of exhibitions, told Forbes.

While all this may be true, heels also imply pain. In a sense, it’s kind of amazing that an item that exemplifies the fashion-over-function ethos so fully has lasted for so long. Indeed, research suggests that long-term high heel use can both “compromise muscle efficiency” and “increase the risk of strain injuries.” A recent survey conducted by the U.K.’s College of Podiatry found that, when in stilettos, most women’s feet tend to start hurting after just one hour and six minutes. Furthermore, one in three women admit to walking home shoeless due to the relentless throbbing.

Yes, fashion can reveal quite a bit about the personal, social, and cultural concerns of the era it comes from, and the fashion for grotesquely high heels reveal that for some reason we still think it’s ok and sexy and cool for women to be – temporarily or permanently – crippled by shoes. We cringe in horror at foot-binding but we take heels for granted. It’s bizarre – and revolting.

Despite all the suffering and creative lengths some entrepreneurs go to relieve it, the Wall Street Journal reports that in 2011 women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S., with more than half of those sales going toward stilettos over three inches high.

“You could just as easily ask men why they wear neckties, which aren’t particularly comfortable,” Small told the Daily Beast when discussing the complicated act of willfully wearing something that brings about infliction.

No. Ties are uncomfortable, and they are unsuitable for vigorous physical activity, but they don’t actually deform and lame their wearers.

“The necktie has a universal currency of power whereas the high heel doesn’t. It’s too bound up in sexualization and objectification. Yet many women enjoy wearing them because they want to look conventionally sexy or because they like the confidence that comes with extra height.”

And they live in a culture where shoes like that are coded as sexy and beautiful, and where being sexy and beautiful is at the top of the list of things women are expected to be.

So when and why did women start donning the accessory? Elizabeth Semmelhack, author of Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, believes the answer lies in mid-19th-century pornography, which used the recent invention of photography to disseminate images of naked women in heels. While this convergence of events infused the shoe with its erotic aura and modern feminine identity, these women didn’t have to stand in a pair of stilettos for very long or move around that much.

Which is apparently how we still like our women.


  1. ludicrous says

    Taller equals safer, less easy prey. I think there is an element of the universal threat of danger in almost every impediment (pun not intended) women face. Even such a tiny increase in safety afforded by small increase in apparent size will be taken up by women. And I have no idea if this a conscious choice or not, really doesn’t matter.

  2. Trebuchet says

    Ties do occasionally kill their wearers when they get caught in machinery, but I’m sure high heels cause just as many deaths. You’ll not catch me wearing either.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    I once read a book on photography that advised, when taking portraits of women, to have them stand on tiptoe, because it “makes their calves look better.” It flexes the muscle a bit, and raises it higher.

    Since then I’ve sort of assumed that the point of heels is to “improve” the appearance of women’s legs. No need to elaborate here on why fuck that.

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    Given that I am almost 5’11” tall, I’ve always had kind of a love-hate relationship with heels. Since I’m so tall, if I wear heels, I become freakishly tall. And when heels come in a larger size (I wear a 10), the proportions are not as attractive as in the “average” size (6-7). Plus, I’ve always had a thing for being comfortable – I’m weird that way.

    Still, look how many Hollywood stars have grotesque-looking feet – look up Katie Holmes, fashion icon the former Posh Spice, Jennifer Garner, Iman, Naomi Campbell and Michelle Yeoh, for example. Who can forget the images of a hugely pregnant Kim Kardashian stepping out in stilettos whose straps cut into her swollen feet and ankles? These women are all expected to make public appearances in sky-high heels, no matter how tall they are (I believe Katie Holmes is as tall as I am). Yet bunions abound! What are the odds that so many talented and beautiful women would all coincidentally have such malformed feet? It appears that the shoes are actively injuring their feet – and it’s not a matter of “strain”, they’re permanently deforming their feet to the point that nothing short of surgery will return them to normal. And even surgery’s a crapshoot.

    And yet this appears to be an occupational hazard if you’re going to be a woman in entertainment. Sure, Ellen Degeneres gets away with menswear and flats, but she’s pretty much the only one, and can attribute it to her sexuality, which she’s open about (though it should be none of anyone’s business). The general perception is that there is something *wrong* with a straight woman in entertainment who wears slacks (rather than miniskirts) and flats (instead of stilettos) – and the Hollywood gossips will turn her into a 3-ring circus of character-damaging speculations and aspersions.

  5. Anne Fenwick says

    I never wore heels and don’t intend to start. On the very rare occasions when hiking boots or trainers just won’t cut it, I wear ballerinas.

  6. says

    I once “did” a conference (on staff) in my stocking feet, starting approximately after the first hour. Most of the women I talked to that day, all wearing heels, mentioned that they wished they dared to copy me.

  7. says

    I’ve never understood the appeal of high heels, neither for the wearer nor observer. It always seemed to me like a form of hobbling and constriction. Is it really a voluntary choice and sign of “power”, or conditioned expectation and submissiveness?

    I don’t want to delve into what I find attractive, but when a woman wears sneakers regularly, it tells me she’s active, and high heels tell me she isn’t. One type of shoe enables women to do things, one prevents them. Which is more appealing?

    As for the celebrities’ feet that BQ mentioned, I looked and now I wish I could unsee it. That’s horrifying. It makes me wonder if just walking with those feet is painful. I somehow doubt Victoria Beckham takes part in backyard soccer with her kids.

    I would imagine the same discussion applies to platform shoes, which weren’t women-only in the 1970s.

  8. says

    I’ve always been ridiculously aware, since my own feet hurt 24/7. I can’t even comfortably wear dress shoes, let alone the torture devices that people strap onto their feet. The best I can do is hugely clunky athletic shoes in a 4E width… and then an orthotic insert on top of that.

    And no, ties aren’t the same. A tie has never left my neck aching for hours after I took it off.

  9. chrislawson says

    I stopped wearing ties a long time ago — then it turned out that ties were a potential source of infection and health/medical professionals should not wear them (except bow ties, which don’t tend to fall into wounds) so my choice was vindicated by evidence! I’ve only worn heels once, as a dare. I would never do it again by choice.

    Frankly this argument makes me wonder why the author doesn’t also defend corsets or farthingales.

  10. AMM says

    Maybe everyone already knew it, but I’ve talked to some women who say that their job requires them to wear high heels. One woman in particular works at a job in NYC where she has to visit clients, and she is expected to dress “professionally”, which, when her employers say it, means not just pantyhose, suit with skirt, etc., but high heels. So imagine her walking on broken sidewalks, on and off subways, in and out of cabs, up and down elevators and escalators, in stilleto heels, 8+ hours per day.

    BTW, most working women in my area seem well aware that high heels are not healthy — you’ll see them wearing athletic shoes on the train and carrying their work shoes with them, changing at work or maybe even on the subway.

    There are plenty of jobs where men are required to wear ties, but though they may be uncomfortable in the long term, if the tie (and the shirt) fit right, they don’t do actual damage to the body. (The psyche we can argue about.)

  11. says

    AMM @ 11 – I know, that’s why I said “But for one thing, they’re not a completely free choice, given all the contexts in which they’re more or less obligatory” in the post. I know they are more or less mandatory in some jobs – semi-mandatory in some and just plain mandatory in others.

    The new US tv show Madam Secretary has been making some (mostly covert) points about those expectations.

  12. AMM says

    Ophelia B. @12

    I was pretty sure you knew. But I figured it never hurts to spell it out one more time in gruesome, graphic detail.

  13. says

    And I always thought the point of high heels is they make the wearer’s bottom wiggle sexily (if that’s a word) when she walks. Personally, I don’t find it sexy at all. But this is what I have been told. It definitely changes the gait, for sure.

  14. says

    That’s one point. It changes the walk in a lot of ways – makes it mincing, prancing, bum-wiggly, etc – also makes the woman off-balance and unstable, and extremely vulnerable to twisting an ankle. Like dancing en pointe, it makes women look fragile and delicate – aka weak and breakable.

  15. Kevin Kehres says

    I think that in today’s world, high heels are something of an anachronism. So are ties, FWIW. Both seem to be dying out. I see them less often even in those situations where women are supposed to “look professional”. Frankly, I think flats “look professional” more than heels do these days.

    But this is a recent trend — last 5 years or so.

    When I worked in NYC, every woman on staff at my company had a “shoe drawer”. They’d wear their comfy sneakers on the commute, then change once at the office. Even though they totally didn’t need to … there was no dress code or overt pressure to wear heels, and frankly, most of the time they didn’t have client contact (except on the phone!). It was the culture — unstated, but pretty rigidly adhered to. Like ties — which I wore every single day.

    I’m heading to a convention where there will be an exhibit floor…and if there’s any place where “look professional” is a job requirement, it’s an exhibit floor at a convention. I’ll do an informal survey — but I’ll bet flats outnumber heels 3 to 1 or more.

    Tl:dr — things are changing.

  16. ludicrous says

    Yes, things are changing. Its likely that widespread, long lasting clothing phenomena such as heels and ties would have multiple determinants. What are the cultural changes reflected in this diminishing popularity? What were the culture changes that gave rise to the adoption of these styles in the first place?

  17. cuervocuero says

    mment submitted:
    I’m baffled at the commentary of ‘high’ heels being from 19th century porn. they were around centuries before that, used as an upper class distinction for men and women.

    Wearing ‘frivolous’ footwear not only increased psychological heights but proved the owner didnt have to do anything so plebian as practical labour, while proving the luxury of being elegant.. An echo of which might be implied in pornoi images I suppose.

    Those class distinctions are still well in play, when women vie for *discounted* designer fashion heels at several hundred dollars a pop.

    What continually irritates me are action women cinematic roles where they all wear heeled combat boots while their male counterparts swan about in macho flat treads.

  18. Sierrakat says

    I don’t know – I honestly love my shoes. I wear heals mostly, in anything up to 3 inches. I’ve never hurt myself in them and they neither hurt nor damage my feet. Honestly, I find ballet flats much more painful and uncomfortable.
    Having said that, I pick shoes for my day sensibly. If I’m going to be standing and walking a lot, I don’t wear my very tall shoes.
    I don’t do any of this from the expectations of others. I just like how high heels make me feel. My partner doesn’t care and neither does my job. It is something small that makes me happy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *