I recently saw a screening of "Snow Flower", a film produced by Wendi Deng Murdoch and Florence Stone and directed by Wayne Wang (who also did "The Joy Luck Club"). The movie chronicles the friendship of two girls in 19th-Century China, and the bond between two of their descendants in present day Shanghai. It's a powerful examination of female friendship, but as I was watching the scene about the cruel tradition of bound feet, I had my own time-shift jump to the present day, thinking about what we women are inflicting on our feet and on ourselves, in the form of impossibly high heels in even the most unlikely of circumstances. In this instance, we do the binding ourselves -- and pay a lot of money for it!
Not long after I saw the movie, I was in Athens and attended the ceremony for the lighting of the torch for the Special Olympics. As I made my way up the steps of the Parthenon, I noticed that the woman in front of me was making the climb in 5-inch heels. At the Parthenon! A few days later, I landed in London and there were women in 6 and 7-inch heels. At the airport! Several centuries before "Snow Flower" takes place, such a thing might have been punished in my home country by Zeus, who might have, say, made the wearer 12 feet tall. "You want to be tall?," Zeus would say, "fine, here you go!"
But these days, we need no godly punishment, because we inflict it on ourselves. I had my own come-to-Zeus moment three years ago. Wearing a beautiful but ridiculous pair of heels, I stepped in a subway grate and broke my ankle. Not only was I off heels for a long while, but I was on crutches and, after that, forced to wear the dreaded Broken Ankle Boot. It was a very Zeus-like outcome. My punishment for wanting to draw attention to my feet was...drawing attention to them while wearing a Frankenstein boot. My relationship with heels has since changed dramatically; I can't say that I've given them up entirely but I've become a passionate missionary for flats. And our Style pages are filled with elegant women in flats (hello, Carla Bruni!).
But I still have a way to go. For example, I continue to hold the superstitious belief that if I am going to be on stage giving a speech, I need to do it in heels -- though, at least, they are no longer 5-inches tall.
And since seeing "Snow Flower", I've been more conscious than ever of this modern version of foot -- binding at airports, sporting events, the grocery store. What level of fathomless insecurity is it that makes us incapable of going out to get some eggs without 6-inch heels?
This spring, after a formal event, I climbed into our car with a friend who immediately asked the driver for a band-aid for her ailing high-heeled foot. When he said he didn't have any she was shocked. "What?" she asked, "you don't have band-aids?" I thought to myself: when you need to carry a first aid kit for your feet, it's time to rethink your footwear.
An even bigger sign that we need a serious rethink: some women are starting to inject botox into their feet to counteract the damage being done by their shoes!
There was even a report out of Los Angeles that women in high heels were being targeted by muggers because it was assumed -- correctly -- that women in high heels would not be able to run, or even hobble, away from the thief.
One clue to the recent increase in the height of high heels may be found in the recent decrease of our GDP. Some experts claim that as incomes get lower, heels get higher. "Heel heights noticeably grew during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the oil crisis in the 1970s, and when the dotcom bubble burst in the 2000s," Elizabeth Semmelhack, author of "Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe" told CNN. According to Semmelhack, hard times lead to "a greater need for escapism."
So perhaps the answer is to be found in female friendships. Friends don't let friends mangle their feet! In the same way that taking away your friends' car keys when they've had too much to drink is a sign of true friendship, so should making them fork over their Jimmy Choos in exchange for some flats -- or at least less dangerous heels that won't require band-aids, botox injections, or broken-ankle boots.
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