Women in Heels: Power and Helplessness

Business Women in Heels

The high-heeled shoe embodies leisure, sophistication and sexuality. Throughout history shoe fashions have defined its wearers by gender, race, and social class. Murals have depicted upper class men and women wearing heels around 3500 B.C. in Egypt, while lower class citizens went barefoot. There were also several useful reasons for heels: Egyptian butchers would wear heels to avoid the blood of dead animals, while actors in ancient Greece and Rome would wear sandals with heels of different lengths to illustrate social class and importance of characters they portrayed. During the Middle Ages, both men and women would wear wooden soles that are considered to be the predecessor of today’s heels, and were attached to expensive shoes to keep them clean. For women specifically, the Chopine became a popular style to indicate wealth. The Chopine was a tall platform-type shoe that usually was so high that it required 2 servants. The term “high-heeled” meant that someone had lavish wealth. High-heeled shoes actually dropped in popularity through the 17th and 18th century for both men and women because high heels became associated with wealth and aristocracy. During the 1800s the high heel resurfaced, but this time the heel was a fashion statement just for women. Today it still appears to be a symbol of social class and wealth. In New York City, you will need to take lots of cabs if you plan on wearing heels all day. It is impossible to walk in those suckers for very long. To get a flavor of being part of a higher social class, you will see many NYC office women carry their heels in a bag while they wear their sports shoes on the subway. They don’t quite make enough money yet to pay for all those cab rides, but they desire that upward mobility. Then at work, they quickly change into their lovely heels.

Women Cleaning in Heels

Because cleaning is not quite hard enough on its own, we should definitely throw on a pair of heels to make cleaning just that much more exciting! I would be curious to find out what percentage of women actually enjoy cleaning in heels when no one else is around, but perhaps cleaning in heels is more a popular fantasy related to the power and sexuality of a woman that is controlled and degraded to a maid.

Heels are Sexy

High-heels force the body to walk differently and use muscles differently. High heels lead the wearer to tilt their center of gravity, which emphasizes a woman’s assets and highlights her sexuality. Heels also emphasize feet, which are often sexualized and part of erotic displays. Even though I believe heels are worn largely as social-status indicators, verbalized reasons for wearing high heels include accentuated calves, being taller, longer legs, and a more seductive gait.

Very Sexy…

In modern society, high-heeled shoes are usually used as a sexual prop to accentuate the sexuality of the object. This may also have some earlier cultural origin. Heels haven’t always symbolized wealth and power of the wearer. Chinese concubines and Turkish odalisques wore heels and in ancient Rome, female prostitutes were easily recognized by their high heels. Scholars have speculated whether sex workers wearing very high heels is not only a sexual fashion statement, but also a useful tool to control the women and keep them from escaping.  The Chinese lotus shoe, too, symbolized social status while at the same time inhibiting the movement of the wearer. The high-heeled shoe thus represents both the power that lies in femininity, as well as the submission of this power.

Women in High Heels Falling

As heels are a status symbol due to the resulting constrained movements, they can be quite dangerous. Some Chopines were as high as 30 inches, requiring a cane or several servants. Today, some heels are so ridiculously tall that the models can’t even make it down a relatively short runway! Imagine how difficult it would be to walk from the cab door to your office in those heels?

And Falling…

Models fall quite often because of their high heels! In fact, it happens so often that entire blogs are devoted to collecting images of models falling in heels.

Your Look is Dangerous!

There are many severe physical conditions that can develop because of heels. Heels increase the likelihood of sprains and fractures, and lead to tendon problems, rigid calves, foot deformities (bunions and hammertoe), and other conditions. Morton’s neuroma is one physical condition in which nerve tissue between the toes thickens. This condition is more common among women than men, though the exact causes are unknown. Experts believe that unnatural positioning of toes, bunions, hammertoe and wearing heals contributes to the development. Symptoms include tingling sensations; toe cramping, sharp, shooting or burning pains in the ball of your foot and pain gets worse over time. Treatments include changes in footwear, nerve-blocking and anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and surgery to remove the nerve (which leads to permanent numbness). Women who wear heels also have a higher incidence of degenerative joint disease of the knees because heels cause a decrease in the natural rotation of the foot, which in turn places increased stress on the knees.

After Looking Sexy? Bunions!

Badly fitting shoes can cause a bony swelling at the base joint of the big toe, called a bunion. This leads to the big toe angling inwards, toward the second toe which in turn causes a bump on the edge of your toe that can become swollen, painful and unsightly. Bunions again occur more often in women, and can have a genetic component. Bunions are most associated with wearing heels and other narrow-toed shoes. Treatment includes changing shoe type, or wearing spacers, which separate the first and second toe at night. If the bunions get worse, surgery can help realign the toe and remove the bony bump.

The Bunion & The Shoe

Here you can see how tight-fitting shoes may lead to the development of bunions and hammertoes.

Flats look good too!

It is always your choice to wear heels or not. There are many social benefits to wearing high heels, such as indicating a higher social standing (by increasing your helplessness), and heightened attention to your sexuality. The many physical costs include back problems, knee joint degeneration, and foot deformity and pain. Research has shown that practicing moderation can make a big difference. Wearing heels just a few times a week – instead of every day – can significantly decrease the chances of developing some of the physical consequences. Many stars will attend photo shoots and premieres in high heels, but definitely are smart enough not to wear them every day (including Sienna Miller). Heels are just a status symbol, but don’t necessarily need to be part of your daily look.

About Claire

I grew up in both the Netherlands and the US. When I moved to America at age 10 I was confronted with conflicting social constructs of gender and class. As a student of the social and cognitive sciences, I gained a greater understanding of how human decision-making can lead to unintended system-wide consequences in the interdependent world we live in, especially when you throw stereotyping into the mix. Having struggled as both a poor and female American citizen, I am quite aware of what it means to blame a victim for their circumstances. I feel that I have a voice, and responsibility, to stand up for those who are currently silent.

13 thoughts on “Women in Heels: Power and Helplessness

  1. Thank you for your perspective on social class, that is new to me. However, rather than purely about status it may be about being from a class in which women need not work, so if a woman is hobbled and alive, she must be of a higher social class that the family won’t die if not every member of the household works. It’s like tans now, proving that one has enough recreational time to be vain and health insurance to handle the later squamous cell carcinomas, without getting a farmer’s tan.

    But did you see this “tight-fitting shoes may lead to the development of bunions and hammertoes”? Not high heeled shoes, ill-fitting ones.

    If a high heel doesn’t come in a D width, it doesn’t get near my foot. There are getting to be more companies that have noticed, and I tell the ones who haven’t. There are not enough WWs in high heels yet. A C width would help a lot of people who normally wear Bs.

    At the same time, once some women reach an age at which they’ve had a chance to try things (say 18-25?), if they continue to attempt to buy things that cripple them, they have lost the right to walk. You can get 5″ heels, you can’t get 6″ ones with a super pointy toe and toe cleavage. I would suggest accidentally dropping a concrete block on your best friend’s little toe should she continue to try. Only took twice to fix me.

    However, this is the third wave, baby. I won’t wear an agonizing bra on these 36F weights, but don’t take away my heels (and the pair of high arch birkenstock clogs for slippers with what’s saved from bras)!

    1. Most people are genetically predisposedto the development of structure-related foot conditions, including bunions, hammertoes, and plantar fasciatis. They’re not just caused by heels. They are exacerbated by any ill-fitting shoes.

  2. Wearing high heels will make you look trendy and fashionable but it can cause painful bunions. Hope people understand that they should not wear ill-fitting shoes if they want healthy feet.

  3. How patronizing. I love a great high heel shoe. I love pretty flats. I love looking sexy and I choose to do so on my terms. BTW I was in the Army 15 yrs, whore mostly boots. I hate to read judgemental post like yours. Maybe we should all wear burlap sacks and leather flat sandals just to make certain we are not pandering to “The Man”…

  4. There are lots of gender specific activities that can cause harmful physical side-effects. For instance, I work as a construction worker and suffer from back problems. Does it bother me that only men are out there with me manning the shovels or carrying lumber? No, I’m a man, this is part of being a man. Does it bother me that sometimes my wife asks me to wear work boots and a tool belt when she wants the sexy time? No. I’m sorry if wearing heels is seen as one of those horrible, dreadful things that “the man” forces you to do. You don’t have to, it’s a choice. You can wear your sandals or your Uggs. Your choice. But if you want a date (with a man) you might consider those pumps instead.

  5. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up.

    The text in your post seem to be running off the screen in Firefox.
    I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to
    let you know. The style and design look great though! Hope you get the issue
    solved soon. Cheers

  6. The bottom line is, women are born to wear high heels and it’s no wonder that they all have bunions or hammer toes. Yuck!

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