High heels give joy and pain to fashionistas worldwide. Trainer-devotee Emma Fite-Wassilak trades her Converse for stilettos for a week
Accused of female stereotyping, viewed as constructs of a patriarchal society and even compared to the painful practice of Chinese foot binding, high heels have certainly tip-toed that proverbial line. But is slipping on a pair of stilettos really succumbing to subjugation by men? Granted, wearing heels seems geared towards attracting male attention; they simply make women look sexier – lengthening the legs, lifting the bum, making your hips sway – you get the picture. However, I know plenty of men who dislike heels (though most of them, admittedly, are vertically challenged) and the recent trend for flats has quashed any claims that women are expected to wear heels.
They may be painful but they’re also, quite simply, beautiful – and this, in my opinion, is why so many women stockpile hoards of unworn heels. I myself have seven pairs of heels sitting in my wardrobe – and exactly the same number of pairs of Converse, which I live in. So I undertook a week of ‘training’ myself to walk in heels, wanting to test my opinions and others’ attitudes towards me – and finally decide whether these beautiful yet painful shoes are worth the trouble.
Aside from comments about my newly-imposing height (I’m 5’8” normally, so in stilettos I’m about 6ft), the first reactions from my housemates all focused on how good and “leggy” I look. Not a bad start.
Imbued with confidence, I head for my first serious stomping ground – Fulford. Immediately I feel uncomfortably conspicuous. As well as towering over the majority of sensible shoe-wearing pedestrians ambling by me, I’m far from used to the resounding clack emanating from my feet and I feel as though I must be – literally – putting my foot in it.
Since the shoes force me to take tiny, deliberate steps, I feel more dithering than dainty and to top it all off I’m suffering from the internal turmoil of being more frustrated with myself than the packs of tourists in York city centre. While blushing furiously at my ineptitude, I notice another girl in heels walking at a normal pace, and suddenly I can empathize with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, watching Marilyn power past. Not quite how I envisaged it.
Despite my trusty Converse stashed in my backpack, I am determined: I teeter slowly on, simultaneously concentrating on keeping my heels on and attempting to hide the look of consternation on my face. Regardless of whether or not they are, any passing person seems to be judging me and laughing. On my way, I notice I get a lot more stares from the male population than usual (or maybe I’m just more aware of it in heels). Forced to scamper (that’s right, not strut) across a road to avoid a right-turner, I eventually get to Aldi. Even though my feet twitch when I stand still, I feel proud. (Until I almost fall over a display, and remember that this is just the beginning.) On the way home I start to acquire a slightly halting, but consistent, rhythm. The next day my arches and calves ache ferociously and I’m suddenly aware of muscles I never knew existed.
I envisaged heels as a male invention for the lazy men who didn’t want to bend down for a kiss and the leery ones who couldn’t chase their victims.
My next attempt is shorter, to campus. Though I thought I’d got the hang of it (or at least of avoiding the embarrassment of spontaneous falls), I still find myself halting awkwardly to re-insert my heels back into my shoes. Remembering that you’re supposed to walk heel-to-toe, I attempt it – and catch myself repeating “heel… heel… heel” in my head with each step. Of course, as soon as I alert myself to the fact, my foot pops out of the shoe. On campus I tend to get startled looks. Could it be: a) I look too dressed up -heels are worn by most women on nights out, after all, b) my imposing height, or c) my stunning beauty? I decide it’s option c ) and accordingly adopt a look of confidence in my own aura of cool. It may be an act, but in heels like this, who can tell?
Next up, ankle straps (the days of my foot popping out at inopportune times are no more!). Now stepping more confidently and less gingerly, I can’t gauge whether the difference is in me or the staring eyes, but I definitely feel less judged and more respected. The height feels like a pedestal, empowering, and the sounds of my footsteps reverberating against the concrete no longer embarrass me; instead, they seem to be a audible testimony to my power.
Things that made me nervous about heels now seem to be the best bits. The major issue, the pain, is still present. That too, however, diminishes with practice and a little Panadol. By the end of the week my calves no longer ache, and the only reminder of the so-called torture of wearing heels is a slight tenderness of the balls and the arches of my feet.
The power (and problems) connected to the wearing of heels is partially from the physical elevation – you can’t use body language to hide yourself. In part, however, the elation comes from a feeling of raw sexuality connected to heels: it’s not for nothing that pole dancers, street walkers and even Egyptian belly dancers all wear them. Perhaps it has something to do with the power that the sexuality of heels gives women, the knowledge that manipulation is possible by highlighting ‘feminine virtues’. It can’t have been for nothing that seduction by the use of heels was punished in the same manner as witchcraft in Puritan Massachusetts.
Admittedly, I used to envisage heels as a purely male-serving invention, specifically for the lazy men who didn’t want to bend down as far for a kiss and for the leery ones who didn’t want to chase their runaway victims when they tried. (Trust me, Carrie Bradshaw is the only woman who can run fast in heels, and that’s only after multiple takes.)
The invention of heels for vanity’s sake actually turns out to be female. Does this mean that women are subjugated to such an extent that it is just ingrained? Maybe in the old days, but for the modern woman, it’s a matter of harnessing the seductive power of femininity and stomping rough-shod over patriarchal conceptions and expectations. Since the 1980s women have been using heels as a means of repossessing the ‘feminine’, of playing with identity as an act of rebellion. ‘Power dressing’ is a common concept, although these days it’s mostly associated with the drab suits of female politicians. Heels are a means of expressing authority and independence: if you can conquer the pain of walking in stilettos, what can’t you do?
On the other hand, the persistent choice to wear heels may permanently wreck your feet. The entire experience of feels like a performance. Interestingly, it was Greek actors who donned the first platforms to improve visibility for their audiences.
Maybe that explains my elation, mixed with acute embarrassment, at wearing them; it requires huge consciousness of self (and banishment of self-consciousness in the conventional sense) and feels intensely self-preening. This is not to mention that the attention makes me feel somewhat dirty, as if I were somehow prostituting myself.
But it’s that very charged attention that brings so much power to the experience and makes it so enjoyable. Despite getting slowly accustomed to walking in them, I won’t be switching my everyday Converse for heels. Now that I can walk in them, however, I’ll savour the power whenever I do decide to unleash it.