Monday, April 18, 2011

Power, Confidence, and High-Heels

This week AiP investigates our relationship with fashion. Today, we’ll delve into the appeal of high-heels. On Wednesday, we’ll discuss a particular color trend in New York City. And on Friday, we’ll explore the psychology behind brands. 

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgCinderella got the prince and Dorothy was envied. Why? They donned fabulous shoes. What’s the deal with women’s relationship to their footwear?

Watch Me Walk Away

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

Sagebrush bark sandals from Fort Rock Cave,
similar to specimens radiocarbon
dated from 10,500-9,300 years old.
Credit: University of Oregon
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, called korthonos 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. Still, being unshod was the norm in Grecian culture (from Wikipedia):
Athletes in the Ancient Olympic Games participated barefoot—and naked. Even the Gods and heroes were primarily depicted barefoot, and the hoplite warriors fought battles in bare feet and Alexander the Great conquered half of the ancient world with barefoot armies.
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.
Credit: Wikipedia commons.
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 skeleton of the human foot.
Credit: Wikipedia commons.
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.  

"Your Shoes Say A Lot About Who You Are." Sign in the window of a local shoe-shine shop.

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.

Madame de Pompadour, courtesan to
Louis XV. Note her Louis heels!
Credit: Public domain.
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. Pretty shoes are not worn to not be noticed. 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.

Photo by Godisable Jacob from Pexels

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

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


  1. I wore heels (about 3in) last night for the first time in many months (perhaps my cousin's wedding in oct?). I am 5ft2in and used love to wear heels, but recent medical issues had me not bothering... last night i said screw it and wore the heels with my walker. which of course gathered a lot of quizzical looks. but i felt fabulous & plan on rocking heels with my walker again soon :)

  2. I understand destroying one's feet for vanity or social status sake but what I do not understand is wearing high heels poorly. By that, I meant that only a small minority of women know how to walk gracefully in heels. An astounding percentage of women clunk around or teeter which completely negates the point of wearing them. I have often thought that a school which teaches women how to walk in heels artfully would be a great success.

  3. @mutant-robot: Best wishes for a speedy recovery! Glad to hear your heels make you feel fabulous.

    @medicalskeptic: I am in complete agreement with you, but I feel part of the issue is that women tend to wear shoes that don't fit properly. I know women and have seen women who are clearly wearing shoes that are too large or too small for their feet. They've bought the shoes because they're "cute" or on sale. As it is already difficult to walk in heels, if they don't fit properly, it complicates the issues already created by shoes.

    The rise of mass shoe production and the decline of shoe craftsmen meant that feet got the short end of the stick. One of my main requirements for shoes is that they fit comfortably. I may not be able to wear them ALL day, but I need to be able to walk comfortably in them while I have them one. If I had turned my heel walking away from the SVP—or perish the thought, fallen—the experience would not have been nearly as empowering.

  4. Awesome post! I talked about clothing a couple weeks ago in my ANTH 101 class and totally could have used this post as fodder for it. (Next semester, I'll just give you a list of topics, and you can come up with appropriate posts for the appropriate day, ok? ;)

    Your discussion of high heels among courtesans reminds me of the ancient Greek tradition of carving a particular message into the soles of one's shoes: akolouthei (follow me). The marks left in sand or dirt (not to mention their bodies) would entice men to follow them.

    As for my own experience with heels, lessons in how to walk in them would be awesome. I'm 5'10" and enjoy wearing 2-3" heels, but I also have a very large frame, so I can't get my weight distributed over those tiny heels properly. I compromise and usually wear comfy wedges (thankfully those are in fashion again!). Still, my left knee thinks that my heel-wearing days are numbered.

  5. KK, you have yourself a deal :)

    I had not heard of that particular tradition, but I'm not surprised. There is a robust tradition of decorating heels—I believe Louis XV had battle scenes carved into his. And women in the court often had jeweled heels. I was a bit surprised to learn the hoplites marched around barefoot. I'm assuming that they at least donned "foot sacks" or some sort of sandals in colder weather, but it seems a point of weakness in battle, no?

    One of other surprising things I learned writing this post is how few changes there have been to shoes through the ages. We're still wearing sandals when you think about it! And wedges are another version of the chopines! So rest assured, I think your wedges are here to stay in some form or another.

  6. If memory serves, in Penguin Island Anatole France claims that high heels made the feminine walk so beguiling that men followed damsels even though they were clothed.

  7. @Mike: That's the general idea behind the spread of heels in the States. Although allegedly the Church favored chopines initially because they impeded movement and so limited improper behavior during dances. Go figure.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this post, thank you. You would be interested in this recent news item in Australia
    That generated some lively discussion on FB!

  9. The following comment is from Action JoJo. She had some problems posting, so I offered to put it up for her. If anyone encounters issues with Blogger and would like to leave a comment, please email me at comments[at]

    Great article, thanks so much for writing this! Let me throw in cultural differences on wearing heels in the US (well, in NYC at least, since I live here and observe the population) and the Philippines.

    In NYC for as long as I can remember, working women would wear sensible shoes for commuting. In the 80s and early 90s, they would wear sneakers (Reeboks) with white socks over their pantyhose. These days, I see UGGs in the winter and in warmer weather, the ubiquitous flip flop paired with suits or business casual attire. Upon arriving in the office, the sensible shoes were turned in for the heels. The idea is that you make your commute easier wearing shoes that you could speed walk or run in as you catch your train. And in front of your colleagues and boss, you would look well-put together and command respect.

    When my 4'11" mother was a young adult in the Philippines, she worked as a bank teller at Prudential Bank in Clark Air Force Base in the 1960s. She said she would commute to work, riding a Philippine jeepney, in her uniform (all tellers had uniforms back then, I guess) and in 3-inch heels. Once reaching the office, she and her colleagues would change out of their heels and wear flip flops all day behind the counter since customers didn't see anything lower than their waist. She said it was a source of pride to be in public going to work and dressed in uniform. The heels completed the outfit. Once reaching the office, there was no need to "show off" with her colleagues and her boss. They already "knew" each other so why bother putting up a front by wearing heels?

  10. It's somewhat ironic that raised heels are now mainly associated with feminine characteristics; some of their most notable uses were exceptionally masculine:
    The Romans, for example, noticed that a moderately raised heel (along with the associated shank for arch support) gave their soldiers better posture, allowing them to march greater distances.
    And far more noticeable heels are used in boots intended for horseback riding, both cavalry (i.e., "cavalier") and with echoes even today in cowboy boots. Such heels aren't, of course, intended to making *walking* easier, but rather provide a convenient way to hook feet into stirrups when riding.

    Also, I had occasion to be at the Penn Museum just yesterday, and I noticed somethign quite relevant. I saw the feet of some Greek and Roman statues, and noted something, well, oddly familiar about the toes.
    You see, I don't wear shoes when I'm indoors if I can help it. When I had some sandals custom-made a few years ago, the cordwainer noted the result: my big toe (hallux) is distinctly separate from the other toes. The statuary, too, in each case showed a hallux with a large separation from the other toes. But if you were to examine the feet of most Americans, male or female, you'd find all of the toes crammed together. This is, it seems, a symptom of wearing shoes and boots all the time; it was even noted in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Sign of Four" and was used to identify a perpetrator. It certainly seems we've made some serious changes to our feet in the name of appearances!

  11. I love the comment from ActionJojo. I'm 5 ft tall and used to work as a lawyer in New York. I would keep my heels in a cardboard box under my desk, and commute to and from work in flats. Why try and navigate the subway in heels? This seemed insane. But then I quit my job and started travelling around the world and as JoJo said, found the opposite to occur. In the Philippines and Thailand and Cambodia, women wore their heels outside work (I cringed watching them totter through the often unruly streets) and then switched to plastic Crocs or flip-flops at their desks.

    As a fellow shortie - I hear you on the heels! Thank you for the historical background to what I put on my feet. Great read.

  12. What a great run-down of this. I'm super-laid-back with my look but it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to feel "at attention" in flats, and it's something I struggle with quite a bit.

    I primarily write about beauty but loved this so much I included it in my weekly links roundup--thank you for the excellent work.

  13. JoJo makes reference to the transit strike in the 80s that started the trend of women in power suits walking to work in sneakers. The trend stuck, because as Legal Nomads notes, it does seem a bit nuts to try and navigate the subway in heels. But for years women did! What JoJo and Legal Nomads describe outside of the US was the norm for a long time—you wouldn't leave the house improperly dressed, which included heels.

    A colleague of mine told me the post reminded him of a sketch in an old show he would watch. There's a scene where a woman comes home after work and intends to change into more comfortable clothing: she changes out of her heels into another pair of heels!

    For many women, heels are a part of their everyday wardrobe, and some may never don a pair of sneakers if they can help it. But it is interesting to think about the ways our shoes can change our outlook.

  14. Hasufin, as always, you have a great story to add to the discussion. A fair portion of Smith's paper discusses the absence of foot problems and foot deformities from the few remaining societies that forego shoes. The soles of their feet get thicker to compensate, but for the most part, their feet are free from problems. I applaud your custom-made sandals—size 5 1/2 doesn't necessarily mean the same thing for everyone!

  15. I would also say that part of the problem is the changes in high heel shoes themselves in recent decades. I have several pairs of shoes, both mid-low and high heeled, from the 1940s that are astonishingly comfortable to wear. I think this is due to the shape of the front of the shoe, and also to the placement of the heel to be more appropriate for balance and walking. And believe me, they are all super cute shoes. Find those old shoe lasts and make 'em like they used to, please!

  16. U R wrong! "Heels" had nothing to do w your statement.
    I am male and did that in front of an
    audience. Your actions spoke loudest -- not your 'fashion'.
    Nevertheless, from the description above, U and I agree. I would have done the same.
    Excellent reaction!

  17. I'm 5' 5 1/2" and wear Timberlands (hiking boots, if you don't know) most of the time. My gal is like 5' 10", and wears heels when she wants to, uh, "tower over me", so to speak. No that it's a bad thing, y'know.

  18. I have a comment as a tall person with big (appropriately scaled) feet. Often, when I try on heels, I can tell that they are ill-designed, because the center of balance is over the arch instead of over the heel (as in my properly designed character shoes—look them up, they're very comfy and retro.) It has the feel as though the heel is going to slide back and the shoe is going to collapse under you and is a guarantee of major foot pain in under an hour. For years I thought that this was merely a facet of poor design overall and wondered how shorter women could stand it.

    But I recently had a revelation in regards to this. When most designers create shoes, they design for one size and scale from that. I'm guessing that the size they create to is a seven or thereabouts because that's usually the size where the proportions are most pleasing. But when they scale, they don't scale up the heel—if it's a three-inch heel in size six, it's a three-inch heel in size twelve. And—more importantly—the length of the heel plate, front-to-back, is the same. But when you scale the shoe up, the front part gets longer and longer, which moves the center of balance forward. When I get my size ten D's, if they have a "normal" heel, it's attached behind the center of balance. No wonder I like "combat-style" heels. They're wide enough to skip the scaling error.

  19. I´ve for a long time been thinking about why it is considered more attractive/sexy to have the heels elevated. I think it has to do with the fact that we humans/primates quite recently evolved to bipedals thus forcing the heel to be in contact with the ground for stability. Quadripeds all walk with elevated heels and our ancestors has existed for longer as quadripeds making the elevated heels of the hind legs a much stronger sexual stimuli.

  20. As Krystal D'Costa has written, the introduction of high heels into the U.S. social scene was sparked when a brothel found these type of shoes promoted more business. As to the reasons high heels became regular items in women's fashion only should be reconsidered for there were also men who chose to wear them, but the social attitude proceeded to suppress and dismiss the evidences and knowledge of these activities. So these men felt the need to hide their desire if they wanted to have any kind of a social relationship. Today there is a significant percentage of high heels sold to men choosing to wear them. The internet reveals many instances where a number of men have chosen to add high heels to their wardrobe selections. Just as women choose to have some variety in their high heel selections, men have been just as versatile, although I personally favor stilettos (hence the user name).