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?
Emma Watson recently gave a speech to the UN General Assembly, as part of a new campaign aimed at re-energizing feminism- a simple (and to some of us, self-evident) idea that women and men should be treated equally and should have equal access to things like education, employment, health care, representation under the law, and property. The campaign is called He For She. As soon as she said the name of the campaign, my heart sank. A campaign for women’s equality where the male pronoun comes before the female- what could go wrong with that?
Emma is smart, talented, and a worthy representative of women. I am thrilled she is taking up this important work. Throughout her speech, she spoke with sincerity and shared her personal experiences as a young woman growing up in an environment that threw her the “softballs” of gender inequality- being called bossy, friends that didn’t want to look “too muscular,” while cocooned in the support of parents and mentors that encouraged her to set her own boundaries and define her own versions of success and “womanhood.’ She readily acknowledged that she had it pretty good, relative to many women around the world. She spoke about the need for men and women to come together to support the advancement of women’s rights; and she talked about a world where men are also being constrained in a tight web of masculinity and suffocating gender stereotypes. It was a fair, balanced speech- but as she wrapped it up with a call for unity and action, I felt a wave of disappointment. That was it? That was what jezebel called a “badass speech?” Whoa- our standards have dropped.
Hell to the yes- men need better mental health care, men and boys need more diverse role models, and we all need to put down the pink and blue branding irons that seemingly come out at birth these days. But- can we get back to the actual issue here? You know the part about women around the world being systematically discriminated against in ways that range from the horrifyingly blatant and brutal to the sinisterly subtle? Women remain underrepresented, underpaid, underserved, underinsured, and under appreciated. Just TODAY, I was in a meeting where a woman was described as too brusque, as the type that might “ruffle feathers”. And oh yes, it was a woman that said this. I wanted to stick my pen in my eye.
I applaud what Emma and the UN are trying to do, but why does it have to be done with such a tone of supplication and entreaty? It felt like a lot of cottony, non-threatening, anti-inflammatory words were being used, as if she was told not to ruffle feathers. Did someone say, “Speak up, darling but don’t shout. You’ll make the men uncomfortable.” Suffragettes did not get what they wanted by asking if they could pretty please get the right to vote. Sure, you get more bees with honey, but they aren’t going to split the hive with you.
I agree that we need to enlist men in this effort, but to “extend a formal invitation,” as Emma stated in her speech? What is that all about? I don’t think we should “ask men” to join us- this isn’t a picnic and I’m not wearing a bustle.
Women, especially those of us who have enjoyed many of the same supports and opportunities to push for equality that Emma has; need to demonstrate through our words, actions, and by leveraging the mountains and mountains of data that show that when women are more equal in society, WE ALL BENEFIT. That’s right, every last one of us- man, woman, and child.
Women need to link arms, first and foremost, with each other, and then with our brothers, husbands, fathers, and sons- and make it straight up UNACCEPTABLE to allow feminism and equality to be ideas controlled by those who don’t believe in them.
Emma- I love what you have started, but next time let’s lace up those trainers and make a real run for it!
This week, I got high. It was brief, it was exhilarating, and no, it wasn’t my first time. This drug, though powerful and addicting, is easily accessible. It’s usually just a headline or a sound bite away. Ah yes, that sweet, sweet hit of self-righteous indignation goes down smooth!
It all started innocently enough- ordering school supplies for my daughters for the next school year. Pretty dull stuff (unless you are a kid- because my lord, I LOVED new school supplies) and as I went out to the website, I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to see the school supplies listed by grade AND gender.
School supplies- Girls, School supplies- Boys. Wait, what?!
The school is forcing the kids to have different school supplies based on gender?! In first grade?! Bastards! I incredulously clicked back and forth between both offerings, but only saw lists that appeared identical and a generic picture of crayons, pencils, folders, and blunt-tipped scissors. Thus, not seeing an obvious difference, I assumed (oh yes, taking another hit of that drug) that the differences must manifest themselves in the packaging. I immediately imagined a pink box with bows and sparkles for the girls and a green box with a bold swoosh and a soccer ball for the boys. How dare they! The nerve! So, caught up on my high, I went to my favorite social media platform for knee-jerk reactions- Facebook and furiously shared my outrage. And yes, it felt good.
I posted about how *shocked* I was and “No wonder the gender gap persists!” Then, I reveled in the likes and supportive comments that came in- my fiery indignation simultaneously soothed and stoked. I considered writing the principal. I considered emailing the school supplies vendor. Luckily, I had ACTUAL work to do at work, so wasn’t able to do more than tell a few more co-workers about my outrage.
A busy evening followed. I made dinner, discussed the days events with the kids, did all the evening chores and dropped thankfully into bed- still mentally composing my thoughtful yet outraged email to the principal that I’d send the next day.
Well. Next day dawns. New comment on Facebook. Barely out of bed, I eagerly click through. A friend and fellow Mom posts that she has solved the mystery! One set of school supplies has tissues, the other set has wipes. It’s just a way to get half of an item for the classroom (since all the supplies are communal). Oh. That’s so logical. And obvious. And not AT ALL gender related. Shit.
Fortunately, as good as I am at getting high on self-righteousness, I’m also pretty good at admitting and making up for my mistakes (practice makes perfect, right!). So here it goes. In addition to an all-you-can-eat buffet of humble pie, I set down to examining my assumptions and reaction. And thus, I am reminded of two incredibly powerful axioms:
Seek first to understand. Although I did a cursory check of the items in each pack, I did not carefully read the list; nor did I actually email and ask the simple question. Oh no, my righteousness had already been triggered and I was flying high.
The simplest explanation is usually correct. Did it make sense that my children’s wonderful, thoughtful school would be foisting some awful gender stereotypes on the kids or that there would be some institutional plot to undermine the confidence of girls? Seems silly when you put it that way. Downright loony. A conspiracy theory, practically. Geez. Or, does it make more sense that rather than needing 20 boxes of tissues and 20 boxes of wipes, maybe they only need 10 of each in the classroom, and since each class is roughly an even split between boys and girls, this would be an easy way to accomplish that split. Well, yes- that does seem like a simple and non-controversial way of accomplishing that. Why didn’t I think of that?
Finally, and hopefully, this little refrain that I like to share with my children is also true- “It’s not the mistakes we make that people remember, but how we recover from them.” I am completely and totally fessing up to my overreaction, my terrible assumptions, and my abuse of a readily available social media soapbox (Facebook). I. Am. An. Idiot. (At least sometimes.)
I hope that I will carry this lesson close and the next time I get a whiff of that intoxicating blend of indignation (it so exhilarating to be offended!) and self-righteousness (who doesn’t love the pure high of being right?!), I will reach into my toolbox and pull out that lens of truth-seeking and that engineers friend (KISS- Keep it simple stupid) and measure the situation and my reaction carefully.
I see many parallels in my reaction to the actions and reactions we see in the media all the time. It’s such an easy and accessible high- it’s addicting to be on the side of the righteous and to wave the flag of indignation. I’m grateful for this small reminder not to rush to judgment and to be wary of any path that is paved with assumptions.
Finally, I’m appreciative of all the support I received for the first FB post (particularly those wise friends who sought to understand the “why”) and for your willingness to learn with me as I stumble through my own flaws.
PS- Is there pie in my teeth?