High Heels, Low Status
As a feminist who argues that beauty practices are harmful to women’s equality, I have been accused of being a killjoy who spoils the fun women get from crippling shoes, depilation, revealing clothing, makeup, figure-hugging dresses and short skirts. But the wearing of high heels, for instance, is not just a harmless expression of personal choice and creativity. If that were the case, then more men would wear them. There is no evidence, either, to suggest that women have special female brains that cause them to love high heels. Harmful beauty practices serve political purposes. High heels signal women’s subordinate status. They make women look sexy for men, and thus provide endless free sexual entertainment for male observers in the office, in the chambers of government and on the street.
The connection of footwear to women’s low status may be easier to see in relation to girls’ shoes. This week there was an outpouring of outrage in the media against Clarks shoe company for sexism. Clarks calls its new girls’ shoe ‘Dolly Babe’. It is a Mary Jane with a pink lining covered in hearts, and is available in a patent leather version. The shoe for boys resembles a trainer, has no hearts, is not available in patent leather, and is called ‘Leader’. The criticism of Clarks is entirely justified. Girls should have shoes that are just as sturdy as those that boys wear. Girls need to run and climb trees and should not have to worry about their patent leather getting scratched. The names of the shoes demonstrate quite clearly the power relationship between the sexes. Girls are to be sex objects and boys are to be dominant. Shoes for girl children can be even more humiliating and sexualised, and may be directed at much younger age groups. There are a number of websites that offer high heels for girl babies of 0 to 6 months old. Their heels are soft, and they act as training shoes. Many observers would see these as inappropriate.
The puzzle is, that this good sense is not applied to the wearing of high heeled shoes by adult women. The majority of women in public life who provide role models for girls and young women, newsreaders, MPs, party leaders, businesswomen, female actors on television, wear shoes that signal subordination in an even more direct way than the ones that Clarks provides to children. Their high heels create problems for walking and standing and make running, including escape from male aggressors, impossible. Women in high heels suffer the constraints upon locomotion once imposed upon foot-bound women in China. Children see women in this degrading footwear and are likely to see the practice as normal if not exemplary.
Lest anyone should argue that high heels empower women, it should be pointed out that the women at the BBC who wear them earn considerably less money than their male counterparts, even for jobs that are pretty much identical. The social requirement that women should wear crippling shoes is not separate from their lack of earning power, but reflects it. The powerful do not choose to obey appearance and behaviour norms that undermine their dignity and mobility.
If there was not considerable pressure to do so, it is hard to imagine that women such as politicians and television personalities would choose to walk in pain and be unable to run for the bus. The dignity of women political leaders is undermined if they fall or lose their unsuitable feminine shoes, as Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, did on more than one occasion. Yet the way in which their fetish costume lessens their authority in public is never remarked upon, as if their apparel were simply a fact of nature rather than the effect of forces of power.
“Jon Snow, for instance, on Channel 4 News, wears a loose suit which means his body shape is not under scrutiny … His shoes are flat so that he can run for the bus if he so desires. The camera may linger on his feet, but only because his socks are attractive in colour, not to sexually excite the audience”
Highly competent women presenters on the television suffer not just the indignity and pain of wearing fetish shoes to excite their male viewers, but the practice of leering cameramen who focus on their legs and feet even if they are sitting behind a desk. They are subject to other dignity-destroying beauty practices such as wearing figure-hugging dresses, designed to demonstrate the shape of their breasts and stomachs and revealing parts of their bodies, arms and lower legs, areas which need to be depilated. This is in stark contrast to the way in which men, members of the dominant class, appear. Jon Snow, for instance, on Channel 4 News, wears a loose suit which means his body shape is not under scrutiny and he can move in an easy and relaxed manner. His dignity is enhanced by the fact that his arms and legs are covered. His shoes are flat so that he can run for the bus if he so desires. The camera may linger on his feet, but only because his socks are attractive in colour, not to sexually excite the audience.
The power relations involved in the wearing of high-heeled shoes are clear in the way that men who are shoe fetishists think about them. Those men who like to see them on women gain a sadistic sexual excitement from the way that such shoes alter women’s posture and gait. They include podiatrists like William Rossi, who explains that high heels cause women to look like ‘pouter pigeons’, as their breasts are thrust out, their backsides wobble and they are destabilised. Having both feet on the ground is an expression that bespeaks being sensible and practical. Losing contact with the ground, as in high heels, makes women look enticingly vulnerable and powerless. Women who walk in high heels look as if they are hobbled, Rossi explains, and this appeals to men’s cruel excitements.
‘Having both feet on the ground is an expression that bespeaks being sensible and practical. Losing contact with the ground, as in high heels, makes women look enticingly vulnerable and powerless”
When men wear high heels themselves as part of cross-dressing practice, they are sexually aroused by the pain, the hobbling and the masochism they associate with them. Many websites online cater to such men and make the meaning of their proclivities clear. Men’s shoe fetishism can be an extension of their foot fetishism and can be quite extreme. It is catered for by such useful artifacts as the ‘vagankle’, which is a silicone model of a woman’s ankle containing a vagina. In some models, the vagina is on the underside of the foot, beneath the arch. Women should not have to cater to such tastes in the workplace. The spectacle of ‘dolly babes’ and ‘leaders’ in public life demonstrates the extent of women’s continuing subordination and undermines the possibility of women’s equality.
Sheila Jeffreys is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West, 2014.