Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: High heels - ridiculous or empowering?

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What do you think about high heels?Photo / Greg Bowker
What do you think about high heels?Photo / Greg Bowker

High heel facts: Ancient Egyptian butchers wore them to walk above the blood of dead beasts. In ancient Rome, female prostitutes were identified by theirs. And the term 'well-heeled' came about because, initially, only nobility wore them.

Now, a new high heel fact to add to the list: scientists have discovered that people think ladies look hotter when wearing them.

Who knew!!

To find out, researchers from Portsmouth University filmed a group of women as they walked on a treadmill, in flats and then in high heels. Everyone agreed the women looked better in heels.

But THEN! Then, they lit up the women like Christmas trees so they were partially obscured, and had them do some more directionless striding. AND WHEN THE WOMEN WORE FLATS THEY WERE NEARLY TWICE AS LIKELY TO BE VIEWED AS A MAN.

Think of that the next time someone shrouds you up in blinding fairy lights then asks strangers to determine your gender.

Concluding their findings in the Evolution and Human Behavior Journal, the researchers said:

"Evolution may partly explain the continuing popularity of high heels as an article of the female wardrobe .... We suggest that high heels may exaggerate the sex-specific aspects of the female walk, which could cause sexual arousal in males and make women aware of potential competitors for mates."

In other words: Wear heels, get ahead.

Lowest form of wit aside, I'm pretty OK with high heels. Sometimes I even wear them; they amp up jeans, and it's novel to suddenly shoot upwards. But, I don't like the unspoken consensus that - to be a properly elegant and dressed up lady - they're a must.

Because, even though devotees will protest otherwise/try madly to justify it, no one really feels truly comfortable in heels. Sort of relatively comfortable maybe, but not comfortable in the true sense of the word.

By the end of the night you're like the mermaid in that fable, who - in exchange for life on land with her prince - feels like she's treading on knives with every step.

Except it's not so much knives as burning coals. And you don't get the prince, just the coals. Or - if you're lucky - the coals, plus a nice boyfriend who'll make you tea when you get home from a party. When a trip over to the kettle suddenly takes on the proportions of a 10km desert trek.

Of course, some heels are better than others. Well made ones support the foot, etc. But they're undeniably inhibiting. They deform and disfigure, make the wearer take tiny mouse steps, and if anyone chases you, you're a goner.

So, are you a bad feminist if you sell your soul to the stalk? No one's making you do it. Men certainly aren't - however much they appreciate women in heels.

Legions of thoughtful, intelligent women have asked this very question, but no one's got very far. Some say high heels give women the option of extra height in the workplace, where a lack of stature can affect confidence. Fair enough, there's something to be said for the ability to establish shoulder-to-shoulder equality.

My favourite author, Fay Weldon, once mused that heels in the modern age were empowering - a quick dose of sexual confidence: "High heels feel like a symbol of the triumph of female selectivity, woman's new power to pick and choose," she said.

Germaine Greer, inversely, famously asked: "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?" In other words, who and what could you be if you diverted the time and energy spent on looking good into other, worthier channels?

I tend to agree, boring as that might be, with both: Weldon when I'm at the party, Greer when I get home.

Do you wear high heels? Why do you think women keep wearing them, even though it causes them pain? Are women expected to wear high heels in order to be 'dressed-up'?

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