The other day, I received an email for a women’s event that prominently featured a high heel shoe in its design. The mailing was for an event organized by The Center for Women & Democracy (a great organization) honoring top women in business. The ad featured an exaggerated high heel- a really sky high ankle-breaker. It struck me as an odd symbol for an organization and event meant to promote women being taken seriously, having power, and being treated equally.
So, that got me thinking about high heels as symbols, in general, and the shorthand they represent for women. I quickly realized that I am part of a “high-heel” women’s running group, and that logo is a cross between a high heel and a treed mountain side. I also follow an organization called the Red Shoe Movement that is focused on women empowering women in business, and they too use a high heel as their symbol. In short, high heels are everywhere. There is even a woman in the UK getting ready to run a marathon in high heels (she is a plain fool, in my view- even if she is raising money for charity).
Women’s feet and what they symbolize have been on my mind, in part, because I recently finished reading a wonderful historical fiction novel called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, that centers on a woman in China in the mid 1800’s, when foot-binding was still common practice. Like most, I’d seen the pictures of grossly deformed feet and heard the stories of the erotic appeal of these tiny “golden lilies”, but had never read a vivid description of the incredible bone-breaking torture that went into making that peculiar fetish an irreversible reality for women. I can’t imagine the suffering involved, much less having the will to inflict it upon your own daughter. And yet, it was a significant symbol of status and refinement for the women who were lucky enough to survive it (some estimates suggest 20% of girls died as a result of the gruesome process), despite being crippled for life.
Although high heels are not agonizing torture (at least not beyond the stretch of an evening out), they do share some characteristics with foot binding. High heels make your feet look smaller, sexier, and they limit your mobility. Yes, I have danced the night away in them, run after a taxi, and probably even carried groceries- but in real, measurable terms, they limit your mobility – and the higher they are, the sexier they are, but the more physically limiting too.
High heels also represent a right of passage into womanhood. High heels are inextricably linked to sex. Certainly when I was growing up, young girls and what we’d now call tweens weren’t allowed to wear them because they were perceived as “too mature” (which is just parent-speak for sexy), though the unfortunate trend to sexualize girls at ever younger ages is also breaking down this once clear delineation.
So, it’s fascinating to me that this conveyance of sex appeal & physical limitation is one that many women have chosen to embrace as central to their professional identity. Why have we done this? I have an amazing friend who leads both professional & women’s events and she always wears the most spectacular high heels- the kind that make my palms sweat just watching her walk around balanced on about 2 1/2 square inches of leather. I know women who would feel naked without their heels- it would be strange to them NOT to wear them.
This leads us with an interesting paradox. While it is true that high heels makes you physically less mobile and more vulnerable, wearing them makes you feel strong and empowered. Put heels on and you feel a surge of confidence and desirability. A good pair of heels, and you could walk- no, strut, into a room with serious swagger. A special outfit just isn’t complete without killer shoes to complete it- and killer always means heels. You need to rock an interview or presentation? Wear your most kick-ass heels and it’s like a power-up in a video game. You. Are. Invulnerable. No mousy ballet flat is going to cut it.
Despite my own love of a swagger-inducing pair of heels, something in me balks at it being such a prominent symbol of womanhood- particularly in a professional context. Yes- they are beautiful and sexy, but they are also confining, narrow, superficial. The desire to wear heels sets an often literally crippling standard that many women pay for with surgery later in life.
I have cast about for other symbols that are uniquely female. Bras, makeup, underwear, feminine hygiene products- oh lord, lets not go down any of those roads! It’s tricky, because ultimately, it’s our biology and physical attributes that unite us (or differentiate us from men, if you like). We definitely are different on the outside, and we can debate all day about what differences go deeper than that.
I am not arguing against the high heel or the feeling of empowerment that comes from wearing them, per se. But I do wish women had something else that symbolically united us. Something that speaks more to our hearts and minds. Something that does not have an explicit or implicit tie to our sexuality.
Maybe the take-away from this is two-fold. First, an awareness and recognition that the high heel holds a unique and complex position in a woman’s life and in our culture. Just ask Cinderella. Whether you eschew or adopt them, there is a choice to be made about high heels. As a woman, you cannot be ambivalent in your relationship to them.
Second, let’s strive for something more meaningful to represent us. What image can replace the high heel on the next mailer for a women’s event? What shorthand can we use to represent women, particularly in the professional world- that doesn’t also have an undertone of sex appeal? That includes women who don’t wear heels? I think we can do better.
I’d love your feedback! Share how wearing heels (or not) has affected your personal or professional life?