High heels. They’re uncomfortable – often painful – difficult to walk in, and incredibly damaging to a surprising extent of the body. Every girl knows this. But there are very few girls out there who will not reach for a pair of heels when they want to dress up.
On my commute home from work every day, I will inevitably see at least one lady tottering in her ridiculous shoes while a row of men in business attire occupy all seats available in the train carriage. “I’ve worked hard all day, I’m tired,” I imagine they’re thinking. “Why should I stand just because some girl decided to wear stupid shoes?”
But is the choice to wear uncomfortable shoes really entirely up to a woman’s own volition? High heels are so pervasive in modern society that the wearing of them is less a fashion option than a dogma which leaves women feeling like they have little other choice. When people think of an attractive, well-dressed woman, they don’t usually imagine her wearing comfy footwear. And this is a bias that women are immediately hit with upon entering a shoe shop. Overwhelmingly, the most decorative, feminine-looking footwear is equipped with a high heel. Anything that isn’t is deliberately designed to be plain, often dowdy – as though women who want to be functional must therefore have rejected any aspirations to beauty.
But, I hear you say, what about ballet flats? Certainly, the recent explosion in the popularity of ballet flats may seem to be an indication that women are increasingly rejecting the heel in favour of more functional footwear. Ballet flats are often intricately decorated, undeniably feminine, and don’t twist and strain the body as high heels do. An improvement, I will admit. Woman-kind has stood up in flat shoes and said “I don’t have to be dowdy to be casual!”. But this is honestly as far as the ballet flat goes. Flat they may certainly be, but functional they are not. The majority of ballet flats have soles so thin as to fail to provide any support for the foot.
Furthermore, the social stigma around flat shoes is such that even highly decorated ballet flats are rarely considered appropriate to replace high heeled shoes for special occasions. They may have replaced the dowdy casual shoe, but they have failed to replace the torturous high heel as an option for formal wear. A woman who wants to look like she has made an effort will inevitably find herself reaching for those heels – no matter how well her fancy, feminine ballet flats might match her dress, they invariably give others the impression that she is ‘dressing down’, and therefore not wearing appropriate attire for the occasion.
Just as heels are still considered the appropriate option for formal wear, they are also considered the most appropriate option for a woman who wants to look sexy – to impress a date, or increase her own self-confidence, perhaps. It is said that high heels visibly define the shape of a woman’s legs and buttocks – and thus increase their sex appeal. In my experience women who look amazing in heels actually look equally amazing without them, but as a society we are determined not to recognise that many women are gorgeous and sexy even without ridiculous footwear.
Of course, there are plenty of women who reject the social pressure to wear high heeled shoes, for various reasons – myself included. But there are still an overwhelming number of women who seem to feel that the social benefits of wearing high heels far outweigh any physical disadvantages. I’m not proposing we burn all high heeled shoes, but I do believe that, as a society, we need to reject the dogma of ‘beauty is pain’. Rather than women putting all of their focus into resigning themselves to suffering through this situation, we need to focus on creating more ways to combine beauty and functionality – and to hold firm to make these functional alternatives socially valid options for any situation.
How do you feel about footwear options for women? If you have any theories, opinions, or stories you’d like to share, please use the comments section below.