Since a study came out about the long term effects of high heels on women’s health, I’ve noticed a slew of essays, blog posts, and editorials on the cultural implications of what we choose to put on our feet. After scouring the web for insights, it’s hard to determine exactly how women feel about high heels.
Buzzfeed reports that shoes were used to “immobilize women” starting in Imperial China and the Middle Ages. From torturous foot-binding practices to three-foot-tall platforms, women’s feet have served as a literal representation of female oppression. A popular second-wave feminist illustration includes the provocative phrase “American Foot Binding” beneath an image of a high heel.
Women are also pressured to wear high heels in order to be sexually appealing. Premier footwear designer Christian Louboutin has said some pretty misogynistic things about a woman’s choice to wear heels. Stand-out sexist statements include, “I never forget that shoes […] have to please men,” and “Being natural is like being unsophisticated […] ‘natural’ shouldn’t mean no makeup […] thank God, culture has elevated people to more than that.”
But high heels can also be a way for a woman to break free of patriarchal control. As reported by op-ed writer Chelo Aestrid, women in the Enlightenment turned to high heels to appear taller and more masculine; they found the shoes lent them a sense of authority. Aestrid claims that women today turn to high heels to appear “more dominating or powerful in work-related circumstances.”
Aside from exuding power, women’s heels can be a form of sexual expression. Buzzfeed explains that Puritans in Colonial Massachusetts went so far as to ban high heels, believing that they were lewd. For Shakespeare, women’s feet were vaginal symbols; Buzzfeed notes that for Sigmond Freud, “high heels were a vessel to a woman’s genitals.”
What do you think? Are modern high heels a site of female empowerment, sexually and culturally? Or are they symbolic of patriarchal and sexist social contructs? Let us know in the comments!