(Public domain image via)
Last week there was much discussion on the blog about the social ramifications of height, but what about high heels? The Women and Equalities Committee of the U.K.’s House of Commons recently found that employee dress codes that require heeled-shoes for women are violating laws banning gender discrimination. The Committee reviewed the matter after receiving a petition signed by 138,500 people and started by Nicola Thorp, a London receptionist who in December 2015 had been suspended by her employer without pay for violating the company’s dress code for women by showing up for work in flats.
I personally find high heels frequently quite becoming. I also personally find them physically hazardous. Pretty much anyone with any sort of orthopedic disability has been advised by their specialists again and again to limit the time they spend in heels to a minimum. While reporting on the U.K. ruling, NBC News let women in on “an essential secret — carrying a pair of trainers in your handbag.” This is cold comfort to those of us who know that back pain is also caused by carrying more than 5% of your body weight in your handbag. One twentysomething friend with an invisible disability was told by her spinal surgeon that she should wear heels pretty much never. Thorp was right to sue on the basis of gender discrimination because only women are required by some employers to toddle about on their toes, but a case could be made on the basis of disability discrimination as well.
That disabled women could be fired—or simply looked upon unfavorably in the workplace for “not making an effort”—is indeed a social justice issue. We in the West have come to regard heels as a sign of female beauty and professionalism not so much because they are inherently smart looking, but because they were invented to signify wealth.
Heeled shoes were designed to be painful and inefficient if you walked around much because the upper classes around the world have traditionally used their fashion statements—from foot-binding to corsets to flowing robes and fingernails—to prove that they were wealthy and didn’t need to labor to survive like the lowly workers. Prof. Lisa Wade offers a wonderful break-down of the history of the high heel at Sociological Images, pointing out that they were first considered manly because men were the first to don them to display social status. Women began wearing them to imitate this status, which led to men abandoning them. Wade explains:
This is a beautiful illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction. Bourdieu argued that aesthetic choices function as markers of class difference. Accordingly, the elite will take action to present themselves differently than non-elites, choosing different clothing, food, decor, etc. Expensive prices help keep certain things the province of elites, allowing them to signify their power; but imitation is inevitable. Once something no longer effectively differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it. This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the distinction).
Eventually men quit wearing heels because their association with women tainted their power as a status symbol for men. (This, by the way, is exactly what happened with cheerleading, originally exclusively for men). With the Enlightenment, which emphasized rationality (i.e., practical footwear), everyone quit wearing high heels.
What brought heels back for women? Pornography. Mid-nineteenth century pornographers began posing female nudes in high heels, and the rest is history.
In many moments in the history of many cultures, extra pounds of body fat have also signified high social status because wealth was needed to keep someone well-fed. The price of sugar and of meat plummeted in the 20th century in the West and were soon no longer considered delicacies only the wealthy could afford. This coinciding with the eugenics craze in the early 20th century brought about the birth of our modern preoccupation with not just longevity and bodily cleanliness but physical “fitness.” These shifts are why modern fashion dictates that those who wish to project high social status should dress inefficiently, like a traditional aristocrat, while remaining physically strong, slim and active, like a traditional laborer.
High-status men are now encouraged to wear expensive attire in addition to building and maintaining a muscular physique that can get down in the dirt – something the manly dukes and earls of yore would have considered horrifically common. High status women are now encouraged to diet and exercise to be “healthy” in addition to wearing heels to hint at sexiness in their physique via the historical association with both princesses and porn stars – at the risk of breaking down their bodies as they rush off to work and back like the peasant women of yore.
Indeed, our modern fashion rules for professional women are ever so young because upper class women who worked were an anomaly in the Modern Era until the 20th century. The First and Second Wave feminists successfully fought for our right to vote and become actors, bankers, flight attendants, and politicians, but we have yet to expunge the idea that a woman who suffers for beauty is admirable, rather than irresponsible. Nicola Thorp’s petition, however, has dealt it a blow.
Women should feel free to wear heels almost whenever they wish, but disabled women should not have to suffer social consequences for choosing to protect their bodies. True equality may also come when men can wear heels like Mozart and Louis XIV without fear of gay bashing, as long as such a fashion shift does not harden into a fashion decree. If it does, then disabled men will have to use their right to petition against discrimination.
No matter how you personally feel about them, just remember that modern ideas about fashion, gender/sex, class, and disability all meet whenever we consider a pair of high heels. That’s why we call it intersectionality.