I recently spent what felt like several lifetimes in the mall, trying on high-heeled shoes. I haven’t owned a pair of heels in years. I haven’t worn a pair in even longer. Martial arts training means that I spend a lot of time barefoot, and also that I have somewhat unorthodox toes.
There are practical reasons not to wear high heels. It’s hard to run in them. Traversing the mall parking lot with my five-year-old daughter in tow, I thought about what we tell women in self-defense workshops: Be alert when getting into your car, especially at night. Have your keys ready, know where your vehicle is, and know where you can run to reach safety if you need to.
Running to safety in a mall parking lot would mean a stiff 40-yard dash, easily. A physically active college-age woman can run that in a little over six seconds, in athletic shoes, on a track. How long would it take in high heels? Longer than I like to think about.
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.
In fact, karate and high heels involve some similar body mechanics. When we teach beginning karate students how to kick, we tell them to “make a Barbie foot.” Women automatically know what we mean: point the foot down and pull back the toes. This focuses the ball of the foot, the preferred striking area for most front kicks. Barbie’s tiny plastic feet are frozen into exactly this position, so girls can cram her tiny plastic high heels in place. A Barbie foot feels natural to me. Thanks to karate training I can, without any shoes on at all, walk around in this position for minutes on end. So my real problem with high heels isn’t what they do to your feet. It’s what they do to your eyes, and, by extension, to your mind.
The next time you are out walking in a public place, try this: Look directly into the eyes of each person you pass. You don’t have to stare. Just make brief eye contact. Then look down at the ground as you walk past. Repeat this a few times. Next, try looking at people, then looking away—not down, just away. Keep your eyes on the same level and look at something else. I don’t care what; use your imagination. There’s a lot out there to see.
You have just performed an exercise we often use in self-defense workshops when we talk about assertiveness and body positioning. People’s responses to this exercise are illuminating: Looking at someone and then looking down, they say, makes them feel “bad,” “embarrassed,” “weak,” “small.” Looking away, in contrast, is empowering. It’s a very simple thing to do, but it makes you feel strong. It makes you feel confident. And it signals to others that you are confident.
Guess where you end up looking when you wear high heels?
Now I know women in high heels don’t walk around with their eyes glued to the ground. But you have to admit, walking in high heels is tricky. Not only are you more likely to trip and fall in high heels, you’re more likely to get hurt if you do fall. So you have to watch out. You have to navigate curbs and cracks and all kinds of minor obstacles that you wouldn’t even notice in sneakers, but which could send you sprawling in heels. You have to take shorter steps, and thus, more of them. No matter how adept you are at wearing high heels, you look down more when you wear them. And when you look down, you feel more vulnerable, and you appear more vulnerable too. Is this merely a coincidence?
I suspect women are more prone to looking down than men. When men are embarrassed and don’t know where to look, they look all around, randomly, sometimes desperately. Women always know where to look: We look down. We’re trained, very subtly, to do so, and I think high heels may be one of the training aids. The ancient practice of foot binding made it impossible for women to walk freely. High heels are much less obvious. They undermine your balance and stability, yes, but they can also—by forcing you to look down—make you feel less confident. Worst of all, they make you display this visual cue of vulnerability to others. We may describe the body language of downcast eyes as shy, bashful, timid, coy, submissive, modest, demure or ladylike. Whatever you call it, it’s understood to be the opposite of masculine.
Which makes me wonder why, exactly, high heels make women look attractive. Because they make us look taller? Because they accentuate our calf muscles? Because they attest that we can spare a hundred bucks for some slivers of leather and wood?
Or because they make us look like we feel weak and small?
I know, a lot of women find high heels empowering. I know, they can make you feel elegant and I know, they make guys notice you. I know, they are fun and frivolous and they come in lots of different colors. I know, Stevie Nicks is great. I don’t think high heels are evil. They do for women what sports cars do for men, at a fraction of the price. But I know wearing heels has a definite effect on our self-confidence and our safety—an effect we might not be aware of.
My daughter and I wandered though one department store after another in search of high heels that did not depress me. The women’s shoe sections were vast and busy. They contained myriad little tables glittering with buckles and straps and snakeskin and designer names. It was as if some unknown ocean had washed up a bounty of shoes on a softly lit beach. Women scuttered like crabs amongst the treasure, picking and despoiling. The clerks looked exhausted. My daughter was bored. She accompanied me to the mall because her soul yearns for escalators; ladies shoes, except for the pink ones, do not much interest her.
I saw one or two shoes I actually liked, but I couldn’t picture myself wearing any of them. The half boots were appealing, but the pair I liked best had four-and-one-quarter inch heels, and I knew I would look like nine kinds of fool if I wore them. Because what heels mostly make me feel is awkward, and I don’t need that from my footwear. Life makes me feel dorky enough as it is, especially the parts with a dress code. It’s not just high heels. Other basic elements of feminine dress force our bodies into positions that undermine confidence.
Here’s another self-defense exercise: Stand up and lean most of your weight on one foot. Put the other foot in front of you, or hook it behind your weighted foot, or cross your legs; in other words, stand like a typical teenager. This is an off-balance stance. In it, you’re easy to knock over or push around. Next, try putting your feet shoulder-width apart with your weight divided 50-50. Bend your knees just the slightest bit. Straighten your back. This stance is balanced and stable, and gives you a lot of options for moving or maintaining your position. It also looks stronger to an observer. It makes you a less inviting target.
Try this exercise in front of a mirror while wearing a skirt. Which stance looks ladylike? Which one makes you look like John Madden in a dress?
There’s the paradox. To look “nice,” you have to keep your knees together. To feel and be strong, you have to keep your feet apart. It’s pretty hard to do both without attracting unwanted attention. Most women’s clothing makes you choose. And I prefer to keep my options open.
So why am I buying high heels? I finally gave in to the patriarchy because I am tired of hemming things. Virtually every skirt and pair of pants I buy is too long. I’m not sure why, because my height is exactly average (5’ 4"), and I’m also short-waisted. By my calculations that means my neck must be around sixteen inches long. But regardless, I’ve decided that high heels will now solve more problems for me than they cause.
I look at hundreds of shoes and finally settle on a strappy little sandal with a modest heel. I flag down a sales clerk and ask if they have my size. “Taupe or bronze?” she asks, and I blink at her. I am a stranger here; I do not speak the language. But I point to the shinier of the two styles, and she brings the shoes, and then leaves me for a more fluent customer. I am relieved not to have to explain about my toes. The shoes are wrapped up lusciously in paper like a box of Christmas pears. They take longer to put on than my sparring gear. Compared to the boards I have broken with these very feet, they seem flimsy, the tiny buckles on the ankle straps unbearably fussy. When I heave myself up on the two-and-a-half-inch high heels, the world stretches. The air is thinner up here. I look down at my daughter, and she is even smaller and further away than usual.
My own childhood seems further away too. Funny how the gain of a couple of inches can still, at the age of 42, instantly make me feel more like a “big girl.” I feel oddly sophisticated, and kind of clear-headed, as if I might make better decisions this way, or think more profound thoughts. I don’t feel vulnerable; I feel important. I can look down at others; I can look down on them. It’s a cheap high.
Then I take a few steps, and Richard’s himself again. The shoes inspire the lofty ambition of a giraffe, but they make me walk like a foundered donkey. I manage to work up a little speed going forward. Then I’m not sure how to stop. I wonder if I will need ski poles to complete my ensemble. But they look OK, and—crucially—I am able to turn down the perpetual cuff at the bottom of my jeans. I’m sold.
I’m not sure why dressing up isn’t more fun for me; perhaps the fear that I might become what I pretend to be. And I can’t help seeing that as a challenge. Move away from danger, sure. But go into your fear, and find out. So I wear my new shoes out of the mall, to practice. On the way in, I held my daughter’s hand to reassure her among the crowds of shoppers. On our way out, her hand steadies me as I teeter along. I do look down a lot, and when I do, I see her. We ride one last escalator up to the parking lot, and arrive safely, with a new perspective.