The Blog

High-Heels - The 21st Century's Answer to Foot-Binding?

NHS podiatric surgeon Emma Supple says that thousands of British women are rendered immobile by high heels. Corrective surgery is costing up to £29 million a year through treatments for bunion or corn removal, toe straightening and joint replacement, or the removal of trapped nerves.

As she padded onto the stage, towering Louboutins in hand, Emma Thompson declared to the audience at The Golden Globes, that she was making a "feminist statement". Speaking of the shoes she had cast aside she asked "Really, why do we wear them? They're so pointless and painful". As I prised off my own pair of pain-bringers, I held them up in a toast to her.

Walk through any western city on a Saturday night and you will be presented with swathes of girls tottering by in their vertiginous structures, accompanied by a few limping ladies, dodging the dangers of the pavement in their bare feet, heels in hand. I have been there. I have wibbled and wobbled my way home on many an occasion. I too have prized the suckers off my feet and it is not pretty, no matter how expensive the shoe. It looks like you rammed ten naked, fat, sweaty, little men into a phone-booth and they come out red, sore and pissed off. Although it hurts, playing dress-up is fun, so I carry on doing it.

However, there are many who would claim that I was a betrayer to the sisterhood. Sheila Jeffreys, author of 'Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West' and Professor in Political Science at the University of Melbourne expresses her disdain:

"I feel distress when I see women in high heels, I shudder at the pain they must experience and the long term damage being caused to their bodies. When I see young women struggle to walk and remain upright, I am enraged at the depths of degradation women have to ear in societies where lip service is paid to their equality."

Jeffreys sees our fashion fetishism as a form of self-harm on par with wearing tightly-laced corsets, or foot-binding.

Of course, this is a point of view and one that not many girls would agree with, but she kind of has a point. NHS podiatric surgeon Emma Supple says that thousands of British women are rendered immobile by high heels. Corrective surgery is costing up to £29 million a year through treatments for bunion or corn removal, toe straightening and joint replacement, or the removal of trapped nerves. Four out of 10 women admit to having had accidents whilst 'en point' and there are up to 20,000 women a year being hospitalised due to their frivolous footwear.

Its not just the aftermath that is worrying, 'foot-jobs' are on the up, treatments such as padding the ball of the foot with dermal filler injections to provide better cushioning for those towering tootsies. There are also Botox injections to firm-up damaged tissue. The terror doesn't stop there, prolonged wear can lead to stress fractures, back and hip problems, incontinence and broken ankles (a la Baby Spice). The list goes on with jaw, neck and head pain also being a possibility and finishing the pain parade, menstrual dysfunction and fertility problems might come along for the party too.

These facts are shocking, and as an empowered female of the 21st century, I should be disgusted and swear off the crippling constructions. Why is it then that I am so enamoured, and feel no desire to surrender my stilettos?

Perhaps the reason for our indulgence in decorative yet ultimately impractical footwear is because no matter how you feel about what you look like from one day to the next, shoes are a constant. Shoes that are easy on the eye, never fail to improve an image, regardless of how one feels about said image anyway. Shoes don't accentuate any bad points, they give a bit of good. Whether you feel fat, thin, or even just a little glum, a good pair of shoes have a knack of lifting your spirits, and making you feel that little bit more confident.

Freud took the shoe to be a symbol of the vagina (of course he did, the horny bastard). Sex is definitely wound up in the discourse somehow. If we think about the way a pair of heels alters your stance, they sexualise the frame by pushing your boobs out, arching your back and giving you a bigger and better booty. Therefore one could grant them the lofty status of aphrodisiacs. Maybe it is all about sex? We stalk around like elevated peacocks with the angle of our buttocks altered by 20 or 30 degrees creating a more youthful thus fertile looking figure. Perhaps the self-harm aspect to it can be brushed aside as just another sacrifice made in the effort to up the mating status. We do it for the fellas, it's a tale as old as time. On par, one could say, with the hare-brained risk-taking inspired by man's best friend, Mr. Testosterone.

But flat shoes are not only the domain of the elderly and Germaine Greer. We must not underestimate the beauty of a flat but perfectly formed pump or a classic loafer, but they do not often come freighted with the tummy-fluttering beauty of a cracking pair of heels. Heels allow us a little homo-vestite indulgence. Indeed the stiletto takes its name from a weapon (a knife with a long, slender blade and needle-like point) and who says women don't use it as such? It is a weapon of strong femininity, of standing tall and looking a man straight in the eyes. Like the movement to reclaim the word 'slut', so too is the heel a token of women's oppression. It is an object that we can now transform into something to exploit and enjoy. We can hack away at that glass ceiling with the killer edge of our killer heels.

There was a time when heels gave a woman an air of vulnerability. Their dainty ankles tip-toeing alongside the big, strong men flirted with the idea of the fairer sex needing a crook of an arm to keep them upstanding. The thought of an unelevated ankle at a big social event would have left most women quaking in their kitten-heels, but the times have changed.

So I raise a glass to Mz. Thompson. She kicked off her heels as a salute to doing what you want, when you want, and isn't that what modern feminism is all about? Wear whatever the hell you want on your tootsies, be it a towering pair of Louboutins or some fur-lined crocs, just be sure you know who you are doing it for.