As a tall woman with long legs, big boobs, and a full behind, the appeal of high heels never really resonated with me (my proclivity for utilitarian fashion and propensity for clumsiness didn’t help their case either). But the thing that eventually gave them the boot was second-wave feminism. Once I learned about the sexual psychology of heels and their impracticality for women’s physical heath and safety, I was sold on sensible shoes forever—or so I thought at the time.
After settling comfortably into my sexuality, I decided to finally give heels a whirl. I bought a pair that added three inches to my already over six-foot figure, and practiced walking in them for hours to get the hang of wearing them without tumbling over. If you’ll pardon the cliché, my not-so-original idea was to greet my partner at the door for a little surprise afternoon delight. But the sexy scenario I’d imagined collapsed into a fit of giggles when he opened the apartment door and was face-to-face with my chest. Um, my partner is only 5’8”.
So, once again, I ditched the heels, but I continue to be fascinated by their significance in our culture. When the opportunity arose to speak with Leora Tanenbaum about her newly published book, Bad Shoes and the Women Who Love Them (Seven Stories Press), I quickly read the short yet informative exploration of the allure of faulty footwear. Bringing together women’s desire to be seen as beautiful and sexy with the history of the heel and a useful guide to better shoe shopping, Tanenbaum’s tome gave us quite a range of things to talk about.
How did heels gain in popularity and became a focal point in women’s fashion?
Shoes have the power to transform an outfit from mundane into magical, and high-heeled shoes literally change a woman’s body. Her bust is pushed forward, her behind is pushed backward, and the arch of her back becomes more pronounced. They also give the illusion of elongating the leg, which is slimming. When a woman wears heels, her posture and her gait change, and the effect is that most would say she looks sexy. When their heels aren’t uncomfortable, women report that they feel sexy wearing them, too. There’s a reason sex symbols wear high heels.
You write that the shoes we wear reflect the identities we construct for ourselves. How does this contribute to women wearing “bad shoes?”
As with all articles of clothing, what we wear on our feet is a big part of how we signify gender, class, race, and declare our personalities. Hippies wear Birkenstocks, punks wear combat boots, the cool kids wear the latest pair of sneakers, and sexy ladies wear sexy shoes. We all choose footwear to “represent” our view of ourselves. When we choose fashionable shoes, we want others to perceive us as being attractive, young, au courant, and hip. When we choose sexy shoes, we want others to see us as sexually appealing. Today, looking attractive is equated with looking sexy, and, according to this logic, the most flattering shoes are the sexiest ones. So whether consciously realized or not, women wear heels to look sexy.
Feet and heels are a common object of sexual fetishization for both men and women cross-culturally. Why is the foot so darned hot?
A fetish is an object mistakenly believed to have supernatural power. Freud persuasively argued that a woman’s feet (and/or shoes) may become fetishized because they can be seen as a symbolic substitute for her genitals. Cross-culturally, feet and shoes are very often associated with sexuality. In fact, the foot slipping into a tight shoe is suggestive of coitus, and a high heel is a phallic symbol.
Even though women risk serious physical harm from wearing of “bad shoes” they continue to wear them. Why?
Many women simply do not know that wearing “bad shoes” on a regular, long-term basis will cause irrevocable problems such as bunions and hammertoes. After all, if you wear jeans that are too tight and you develop a “muffin top,” you can just take them off and breathe again. But shoes are not jeans and feet are not love handles. If you wear high-heeled, pointy-toed shoes on a regular basis, you will suffer.
What about the women who are aware of the possible consequences?
Women who do know the dangers of wearing “bad shoes” make a cost-benefit calculation. It’s not an issue of being duped. They would rather conform to the beauty ideal than take care of their feet. If they are informed of the risks and they make that decision anyway, I will certainly not stop them.
A trend you explore that is becoming more and more popular is the use of cosmetic surgery to re-shape the foot, which has obvious comparisons to Chinese foot binding. Why are some women willing to go to such extremes just to be able to wear outrageous shoes?
Given the widespread acceptance and practice of cosmetic surgery in general, the trend is far from surprising. And it’s not just wealthy women who undergo cosmetic procedures of the foot and other body parts. Many save to enable themselves to undergo these types of procedures. But many women do not know—and their cosmetic surgeons do not tell them—that surgery on the foot is vastly different from surgery on the face or belly. If something goes wrong with the foot, mobility can be impaired. In the book, I offer several horrifying cautionary tales of women who underwent foot surgery and now suffer greatly. It’s my opinion that this type of surgery should never be done for cosmetic purposes.
What can women do to encourage the shoe industry to cater to their needs to remain both healthy and trendy?
The shoe industry has been responding to women’s desire for comfortable, cute shoes. There are many widely available brands that offer arch support, for instance, in shoes that are also fashionable, and the styles are definitely improving. Each season the variety increases and the cuteness factor goes up a notch. (Tanenbaum offers a list of manufacturers in the book.)
As for the other shoes out on the market, women need to protest with their feet. Don’t buy shoes that are too narrow and too flimsy. If you must buy a pair of “bad shoes” because they are gorgeous and you can’t help yourself, please do not walk in them and save them for special occasions. Wear them sparingly and judiciously.
You mention that the feminist concept of “choice” has been co-opted by the free market, and presently serves to increase consumerism by positioning the “choice” of buying (or not buying) goods as a political statement. What can shoes tell us about modern-day feminism?
Women face enormous pressure to appear feminine, and there is a narrow beauty ideal. So the “choice” to wear feminine or sexy shoes is not entirely free. After all, a woman who chooses only lace-up sensible shoes runs the risk of being mocked as not sufficiently feminine. On the other hand, it’s possible to be a feminist and also appreciate fashion and beauty.
To my feminist mind, it’s perfectly fine to choose to wear “bad shoes” as long as you are educated about the risk you are taking. I’m not opposed to “bad shoes” at all, and I enjoy wearing them myself. But I caution women to wear them for limited amounts of time and not to walk in them. Having said that, if a woman makes the choice to avoid “bad shoes” altogether, all the power to her!