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In defence of high heels

August 2, 2010

@cgawker tweeted this recently: High heels are the burkhas of Western society. The sentiment was soon echoed by Nimbupani and I quickly jumped to the defence of my beloved heels – they’re an important accessory in my wardrobe, subject to occasion and comfort levels. And then in a few back-n-forth tweets, I clarified that I do not endorse back-breaking masochism displayed by some women who wear ‘stools, not heels’, in the words of a wise friend.

And then I saw a raging debate on Nimbupani’s FB page and then this post on Nandini’s Niche (blog no longer in existence), started typing up a monster of a comment and decided to make a post out of it (might I say, it was about time I resurrected this space too?)

I love my high heels and consider it liberating that I can strut around in my heels feeling sexy, in this city, while back in more conservative towns in India, I might be forced to go for a plainer look in flats to not ‘invite attention’. I find that as I get more confident as a person, I opt for higher heels, wanting to project myself higher and further out. I’m a huge fan of the fact that the boyfriend (now fiance!) doesn’t mind one bit that my wicked Guess stilletos make me taller than him. I have an aunt who craves to wear heels but she has been forbidden from doing so because that would make her taller than her husband – wtf. So much for ‘liberation’ from heels.

I find it a farce when people equate heels to burqas on the mere basis that they are bad for us. You know what else is bad for us? Alcohol, cigarettes, junk food and Coke – there is lots of conditioning through marketing and advertising, on men and women, which projects consumption of various items on that list as cool or ‘mainstream’. In the UK, one faces a LOT of peer pressure & professional pressure to drink – I’ve seen the ridicule a couple of my non-drinking friends invite from friends and colleagues, so can alcohol be called the equivalent of a gender-agnostic burqa then? Can an alcoholic in the UK claim to be a victim of societal pressures to conform to the mainstream? Can a woman with a bad back/knees who insists on wearing impractically high heels be called a victim of Western society’s gender expectations? The answer to all of the above is a resounding NO. The last two questions relate to making poor choices, rather than being victims of circumstance. Only women in the fashion industry and the entertainment industry can make a legitimate claim to be accursed with limited latitude with respect to their wardrobe and footwear options and I do feel for them – most of us mere mortals have no such compulsions on how our image is projected.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that there was a time I wore cheap, uncomfortable high heels everywhere, ran after buses, dashed between classes, carried ridiculous amounts of stuff elevated a few inches off the floor and then bitched about how it is SOOO unfair that women have to make all this effort to look pretty because of standards set by chauvinistic men. Then I discovered comfortable heels. And I learnt to evaluate appropriateness of the situation in which to wear high heels. I learnt to give my feet, knees and back some respite. I reminded myself that I always had choice but I was foolishly refusing to exercise it, choosing to play a victim of ‘gender expectations’ instead. Aka, I grew up some, in the fashion sense. I also realised that the key reason I was wearing high heels all the time to mask my over-weightedness, so I hit the gym instead. Out with the shoddily made high heels, in with the Asics running shoes along with a few well-made high heels, ballet flats, sandals, boots et al.

And through my love-hate phases with this phenomenon called high heels, here is why I defend them. There is ample proof to back Nandini’s claim on FB that heels make girls look better – they make the waist-hip ratio adjust to a more attractive figure, flatten the tummy, add height, accentuate the butt and emphasize the legs. If chosen carefully, they need not be uncomfortable and can enhance confidence. The richest women in the world express their individuality and financial independence by splurging on high heels and they are therefore somewhat of a symbol of choice. I am no big fan of the ‘Manolo Blahnik gag of giggling girls’ – women who swear by 900USD Louboutins or Jimmy Choos after watching ‘Sex & the City’, but I find it awesome that women are free to make (what I consider foolish) purchases of that sort without the threat of a man beating her up for spending her own money – a not uncommon phenomenon in many households, FYI. Some rich men splurge on Havana cigars, some rich women pick up made-to-measure Ferragamos.

There is also ongoing research on how tall people are often perceived to be more successful, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy; men tend to be taller than women, and some women want to correct this situation at their workplace with the aid of high heels – this, in no way makes them victims ‘succumbing to gender expectations’. I bet Sarkozy wishes on some days that men could get away with wearing heels too.

I am now sensible about when I choose to wear my high heels – for instance, yesterday, I volunteered at the Shakespeare’s Globe for six hours on my feet and wore embroidered fabric-finish Mary-Jane flats. Today, in a carpeted office when I am comfortable in the knowledge that my knees are not taking the entire brunt of the heels, I wear 3inch gold-clasped black stilletos. After moving to London with its cobbled-stoned streets which are unforgiving to high heels, I have developed the excellent habit of wearing flats to run after buses and to travel to places while carrying high heels in my bag to change into at my destination. I now unapologetically (and a bit meanly) laugh at those who feel the compulsion to wear high heels all the time or in inappropriate situations (while travelling to a new city and walking all day through tourist haunts – wtf), not because they’re mired in an unfair world which requires them to wear heels because they have made a poor fashion choice for the occasion.

And finally, two less talked about but important points in defence of high heels – they make for excellent weapons of self-defence (what, have you never had a creep bother you in a nightclub, and then find yourself ‘accidentally on purpose’ stepping on his toes?) and they make for an interesting accessory in the sack 😉

On a closing note, I have absolutely nothing against those who choose to not wear high heels – it’s a personal choice and a statement of one’s own style, for crying out aloud, but in no way is it a licence to feel morally superior to those who choose to wear them – I can’t speak for all but some of us are not upholding up notions of patriarchy by wearing high heels, but only asserting personal style choices. And lest anyone think I have an Imelda Marcos-esque shoe fetish, know that it is the comparison with the burqa which triggered this post – I strongly believe that the juxtaposition undermines the gravity of the burqa and politicizes what can be boiled down to a fashion accessory choice.


Ooh, this post really tempts me to write about why I find some ‘feminist causes’ most irksome and therefore do not identify myself publicly as a ‘feminist’ but that’s another write-up altogether. Soon, soon. I hope.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2010 2:06 pm

    Awesome! 🙂 All your points are *perfect*.

    Brings back some terrible memories, though: I used to be quite stupid in my youth, you know. Visited NY for the first time and decided that hey it’s NEW YORK so how can I possibly wear flats or (horror) sneakers? Walking all day in those heels, oh god, just about killed me. Also the first time I visited a mall here in the US, I wore beautiful but killer stiletto-heeled boots, because wtf, Singapore malls are like 1/10th the size of these places here and I had no clue I’d be walking for TWO HOURS STRAIGHT. 😛 This is one lesson I learned pretty quick.

    I’m looking forward to your post about feminism!

    • August 20, 2010 4:39 pm

      Haha, happens to the best of us… Vanity is injurious to health is all I can say 😉 That said, might I suggest broad-heeled (as opposed to pointy-heeled, I mean), medium height boots with sufficient padding on the inside which are comfortable through hours and hours of walking. I used such boots to explore Paris on one of my recent trips, because you know, it’s PARIS, how can anyone wear sneakers and still be chic (or so I told myself)? 😛

  2. August 27, 2010 4:07 am

    What what! I am discovering this post only now.

    OK well really, I merely wanted to point out that a lot of women harbor under the delusion that there are certain things that we need to wear in order to look “sexy”. Now fashion is completely different ball-game. I have nothing against people who do things for fashion, men and women are equally guilty on that.

    But, when it comes to women, even the underwear is not spared.

    Yes, burkha has a murky history no thanks to the political metaphors that it gets used as. And I guess equating the two does mean people assert the political implications of burkhas than what it was endorsed for originally as a matter of faith.

    Burkhas and naqaabs have been justified rationally by muslim women to me in accordance to their faiths and their belief has as much “in order to” as wearing heels. It is the “in order to” I detest, and I wish women knew better.

    That is all!

    • August 27, 2010 3:50 pm

      If we’re discussing pre-requisites for being ‘sexy’, I think it’s fair to say that there are some unfair standards imposed on men too, for them to be considered desirable… the number of men who wax their backs to seem appealing to their finicky partners!

      Wouldn’t you agree that there is a choice every man/woman makes in whether he/she wants to be perceived as sexy in the mainstream way? I know several women who are every bit as sexy as women can get and some of them don’t wear heels! If there are women who feel compelled to wear heels they detest or physical hurt only to be perceived as sexy, I can only attribute it to self-esteem issues and insecurity, blaming it all on society and unjust standards seems like the easy way out! To echo your sentiments, “I wish women knew better!” – we agree more than we disagree 🙂

      Even now, I don’t debate against the fact that there’s a strong predilection in mainstream culture for women to subject themselves to ridiculous pains to project themselves as sexy; my issue is with the comparison with the burqa. As Jupiter Juice mentioned on Nandini’s post, if a girl feels uncomfy in her heels, she can take them off, can a woman in a burqa in a hot country do that? Also, what legal or formalised system decrees that women must wear heels, in the way that burqas as decreed as a requirement in several Islamic nations? To wave heels as a symbol of social oppression doesn’t seem to me to be very different from burning bras and declaring women, therefore, liberated.

      Also, as we had discussed previously, lingerie need not be a symbol of female oppression either!

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