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Anthropology in Practice

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From the Archives: Power, Confidence, and High Heels

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ed. Note:  During 2012, I thought I would use Fridays to share some of my favorite AiP posts from the archives—and this one definitely tops the list. It was selected as a Research Blogging Editor’s Selection. And I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

Can heels do more than raise your height? Creative Commons Image by wenzday01, 2008. Click image for license and link.

Cinderella got the prince and Dorothy was envied. Why? They well shod. What’s the deal with women’s relationship to their footwear?

Watch Me Walk Away

Click. Click. Click. Click.

With each measured step, my heels echoed with a finality that emphasized my leaving, which was important: I was angry and I wanted to be taken seriously. The sound of my three-inch heels striking the tiles spoke volumes—and did so much more eloquently than I would have been able to at the moment.

I had just had my first turn-on-your-heel-and-walk-away moment. A meeting with a senior vice president at a leading digital agency in New York City had gone horribly wrong: Her team had asked me to consult on a project they were considering, but within a few minutes it became clear that we would not be able to work together. She was rude to her staff and made two disparaging remarks about anthropologists. Annoyed, and believing that her behavior toward her staff spoke volumes about the sort of relationship we would have, I decided I had had enough. So I picked up my coat, turned on my heel, and walked out. It was empowering. It was a moment I’ll likely not forget soon. And it would not have been the same had I been wearing flats.

Many Western women make high-heels a part of their daily wardrobe. The relationship women have with their shoes often becomes the butt of jokes and a point of dismissal, often on the following points:

  • Do women need to own so many shoes? Many men admit to have having 3-4 pairs of shoes: boots, sneakers, and a pair or two of dress shoes in black and brown. Women on the other hand can easily have 3-4 times as many.
  • Do they need to be so high? Culturally, we’re primed to note the Buffy heel and the red sole of Louboutin, but it defies logic: High-heels can damage feet, which were not meant to be crammed into too tight quarters for eight hours a day (at least) or be balanced precariously on skinny supports.
  • Is it really sensible to spend so much on shoes? Forbes reports that women spent $17 billion on footwear between Oct. 2004 and Oct. 2005. More recent data seems to suggest that women aren’t spending quite so much—though popular opinion disagrees (1,2).

I’ve been thinking about this moment with the SVP and my relationship with heels recently. And so it appears have others around me—been thinking about my relationship with my shoes, I mean. I’ve only recently joined the ranks of the well-heeled. I was actually schooled in the “sensible shoe” philosophy, and will admit to be being more at home in sneakers than in three-inch heels. But I’ve found that when you stand at 4’11” in flats, the world tends to overlook you—a point that a few friends have disagreed with, but then again, they’re all taller than 4’11”. Apparently, my rising heel has elicited some commentary between a subset of friends who are rather surprised that a smart, sensible woman such as myself would subject my feet to such a tortuous experience. But I am not alone: on the subway and on the street, on their way to the office or a night out, there appears to be any number of women for whom shoes are an important aspect of dress. While it’s true that an individual woman’s presence is so much more than the footwear she has chosen for the day, shoes can influence our interactions with others: they change how we walk, how we stand, and how others perceive us.

A Short History of the High-Heel

Our early ancestors didn’t concern themselves with stilettos or the spring collection of Manolos. In all likelihood, they went barefoot. Shoes in the form of sandals emerged around 9,000 years ago as a means of protecting bare feet from the elements (specifically, frostbite) (3). The Greeks viewed shoes as an indulgence—a means of increasing status, though it was a Greek, Aeschylus, who created the first high heel, calledkorthonos for theatrical purposes. His intent was to “add majesty to the heroes of his plays so that they would stand out from the lesser players and be more easily recognized” (4). Greek women adopted the trend, taking the wedge heel to new heights that the late Alexander McQueen would have likely applauded, although being unshod was the norm in Grecian culture. The adoption of shoes, and the heel, for Greeks appears to coincide with Roman influence, and ultimately Roman conquest. Roman fashion was viewed as a sign of power and status, and shoes represented a state of civilization.

Line drawing of chopines. Creative Commons. Click on image for license and information.

In Europe, it was common for women to use a patten to help keep their skirts and soft slipper shoes clean as the streets weren’t paved. Pattens were slightly elevated platforms that were worn over the slipper-type shoes that were common at the time. Heels served a functional purpose. However this begins to shift during the High Renaissance, when the Venetian courtesans began to wear chopines: extremely high platform shoes. Chopines could add 30(!) inches to a woman’s height, and were quickly adopted by the wealthy as a means of showing status—the higher one’s chopines, the higher one’s place in society. They were so difficult to walk in that women often needed a female servant to help keep them upright, and were ultimately banned for pregnant women as a number of women in Venice suffered miscarriages after falling (5). Chopines remained in vogue, however, because they proved effective at keeping clothes (and feet) clear of the muck that covered the streets.

The widespread popularity of the heel is credited to Catherine de Medici who wore heels to make her look taller. When she wore them to her wedding to Henry II of France, they became a status symbol for the wealthy. Commoners were banned from wearing them—though it’s doubtful that they would have been able to afford them anyway. Later, the French heel—predecessor to the narrow, tall heel of today—would be made popular by Marquise de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. These shoes initially required women to use walking sticks to keep their balance until the height of the heel was reduced.

In the US, the French heel was popularized in the late 19th-century by a brothel, Madam Kathy’s, where the proprietor noted that business boomed after she employed a French woman who wore high-heels. So she ordered shoes for all of her girls—it seemed the “the leggy look and mobile torso derived from wearing high heels was of considerable interest to patrons,” who then ordered these French heeled shoes for their wives (6). Heel height would fall and rise again through the subsequent decades leading ultimately to the various options available today, As we turn our attention to the next section, it should not escape the Reader’s notice that heels have been linked to “professional” women as well as the aristocracy. Hold onto this thought, Readers, as we will come back to it.

Suffering for Fashion … and Sex Appeal?

Nine out of ten women wear shoes that are too tight for them. And eight out of ten women admit to wearing shoes that hurt. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, women are nine times more likely to develop a foot problem due to improperly fitting shoes when compared to men (7). These statistics are high because our feet weren’t intended to be slaves to fashion.

The human foot is one the most intricate structures in the body: it contains one-third of the bones in the body (26), has 35 joints, and more than 100 ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Our feet absorb at least 2.5 times our body weight when we walk, were designed to help keep us upright, and bear striking differences when compared with the feet of other primates (8):

  • The big toe projects beyond other toes (generally, though the exception known as the Grecian toe is noted, where the second toe tends to be longer than the big toe), and is bound to the other toes (non-grasping), which has been linked to the development of the ball of the foot, and is connected to the human stride.
  • The arch(es) of the foot supports weight, absorbs the shock of walking, and enhances balance.
  • The heel of the foot is home to an enlarged muscle that helps lift the body up and forward, shifting weight to the ball of the foot, enabling us to walk and run.

High-heels place undue stress on feet, directing pressure to the toes instead of distributing it evenly between toe and heel, and the arch loses its ability to absorb the shock and help us balance. (Take some time and watch a woman walk in heels. While much attention is given to the sway of her hips, actually look at her feet—most women wobble just a little as their feet attempt to keep them stable.) Over time, these pressures can deform the foot creating major problems for women later in life. Some of the damage resulting from high-heels includes:

  • fractures
  • bunions
  • lower back pain and posture change
  • shortened Achilles tendon
  • reduced mobility and heightened targeting in unsafe conditions
  • and increased energy demands (heart rate and oxygen consumption increases with heel height (9).

The costs associated with high-heels have caused anthropologist E.O. Smith to further the argument that heel-height may be related to mate attraction—a case of sexual selection:

Based on comparative animal ecology and behavior one would predict that males should be advertising through the display of their assets (physical or otherwise). And while males do advertise in Western society, females also engage in equally conspicuous advertising and sexual signaling. Not only do we have male-male competition and female choice, but we also have female-female competition and make choice acting simultaneously (10).

Smith discusses the ways high-heels can alter the female silhouette into the shape touted by Western culture as sensual:

Increased heel height creates an optical illusion of ‘shortening’ the foot, slenderizes the ankle, contributes to the appearance of long legs, adds a sensuous look to the strike, and increases height to generate the sensation of power and status (11).

These ideas have been explored previously by numerous other researchers. For example, Rossi notes that high-heels alter the tilt of the pelvis, resulting in more prominence of the buttocks and displaying of the breasts, creating a “come-hither pose” also described by Rossi as the “pouter pigeon” pose, “with lots of breast and tail balanced precariously on a pair of stilts” (12). Smith concedes that we cannot definitely link the wearing of high-heels with sexually selected mating strategies in humans, but suggests that heels are a culturally derived and defined trait that helps women meet an ideal of beauty that may help them attract a mate.

Sign in a local shoe repair shop. Photo by KDCosta.

Blurring the Line Between Courtesan and Lady

To some degree, the popular opinion generally agrees with Smith. One of the comments made by a colleague about my tendency to sport heels with my wardrobe was that she was surprised by the heel height. For her it was a sign of shifting cultural norms as heels “that high” (three inches) were typically reserved for Saturday night or going out [in her day]—in other words, they were not “work” shoes. Another—a man—noted that my heels may be an attempt to “show oats” (not sow, but show, as in “show off and attract attention”). In these comments linger traces of those who helped popularize heels: the courtesans, the prostitutes, and those women otherwise involved in selling beauty and appeal.

But we can’t overlook the role of the aristocrats either, who wore heels to reflect an elevated status, hide defects, and distinguish themselves. There is something to be said for being able to look someone (as close as possible) in the eye. Louis XIV knew this: a notoriously short man, he had cork heels added to his shoes, raising them to almost four inches in height. (When his court followed suite, he lowered his heel to about an inch.) And yet no one is implying that he was attempting to increase his sexual fitness—as a monarch, I think he had that taken care of. Perhaps courtesans wore heels to enhance their sexuality, but perhaps it also helped them transact their business in a more serious manner. Perhaps they knew what the aristocracy discovered: meeting someone’s eye changes the way they interact with you—it shifts the power dynamic, and that certainly can be appealing.

Heels have gone up, and come down again reflect the culture and time, and needs of the population. Recently, author Elizabeth Semmalhack linked heel height in the US to periods of economic depression, suggesting that heels provided a sense of escapism in dire times (13). It is true that following the French Revolution, heels in France were lowered as the aristocrats sought to distance themselves from the power and status the higher heel represented.

Germaine Greer said:

Yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run?

I’m not denying that my heels don’t change the way I walk, or stand. But I am asserting that heels change the way others—men and women—interact with me. It may have to do with the fact that I seem to walk more authoritatively (as I attempt to keep my balance, each foot must come down surely), and my standing stance is a bit straighter (again, balance) but the added height definitely helps. But with Greer’s remarks in mind, I make sure I have a pair of flats with me for when I want and need to run.

References:
E.O. Smith (1999). High Heels and Evolution: Natural Selection, Sexual Selection, and High Heels Psychology, Evolution, and Gender, 1 (3), 245-277

Notes:
1. Forbes. Most Expensive Women’s Shoes
2. Fashion Bomb Daily. New Study Says Most Women Own About 17 Pairs of Shoes.
3. The earliest confirmed instance of footwear dates to approximately 9,000 year ago, and was found in Oregon. However, trace imprints of what may be sandals have been dated to 500,000 years ago.
4. Smith, E.O. (1999) High Heels and Evolution: 254
5. History of Footwear
6. Smith 1999: 255
7. AAOS. Tight Shoes and Foot Problems
8. Smith 1999: 251
9. Smith 1999: 265
10. Smith 1999: 268
11. Smith 1999: 269
12. Smith 1999: 269
13. Shine. Dangerous High Heels

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. kclancy 10:43 am 01/13/2012

    Hooray! This is one of my favorites as well, because of the great research you’ve done here, but also your broader point: that heels change how others interact with you. I too come from a sensible shoe upbringing, and have fairly recently become well heeled. Heels make people take me more seriously and I feel more serious when I wear them (though I have to be very careful of wardrobe choices to accompany heels because it is so easy to get sexualized even if you’re just trying to look professional). You’ll see me in a pair or two at #scio12 :) .

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:06 pm 01/13/2012

    Thanks, Kate! And you make an excellent point about how shoes can change the perception of an outfit, particularly if the two don’t match. I think the height of the heel is also important in these sorts of judgments. There seem to be classes of heels and each generates a set of responses. Enjoy #scio12!

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  3. 3. Sue W 7:49 pm 01/14/2012

    Ms. Greer is about 6 feet tall, so although I value her opinion, she doesn’t need help to look most people in the eye.

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  4. 4. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:16 pm 01/14/2012

    And looking people in the eye does change how they deal with you. That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a comfy pair of flats to facilitate weaving through the Penn Station crowd!

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  5. 5. Cerebris 7:28 am 01/17/2012

    Lovely article. When not wearing heels, the trick is to walk up straight as if you do. Flatties tend to induce shoulder-slumping in most of us.
    Could it be that high heels changes one’s sense of self for that moment, and others’ reaction is a reflection of that straighter, taller, more confident you – and not the other way around?

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  6. 6. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:08 am 01/17/2012

    Thanks for the tip, Cerebris. I agree that I’m more inclined to slump in flats. And I might want to also consider doing something about my handbag which feels like it weighs about 40lbs—I’m sure that isn’t good for posture either. So much of how others respond to us is a reflection of how we view ourselves that anything that boosts our confidence is bound to make people take notice. There has to be buy-in, though. People need to respond to the confidence in an affirming way for it to continue to work.

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