Feminism and High Heels

22 Jul

When women say they enjoy wearing high heels, I never know what to think. It always seems quite silly to me because surely there’s nothing enjoyable about shoes which, in essence, massacre your feet and slow you down.

At the moment, I always wear flat shoes, usually trainers, because I do a lot of walking and toddler-chasing. This makes me feel extremely frumpy next to glossy-haired Boden/Brora/Joules-clad yummy mummies whose clickety-clack strides seem to express some sort of efficient and in-charge mumsiness that I can only dream of. It’s the same when it comes to women my age who I see going to work in the morning in their pencil skirts and high heels.

I remember reading a few years ago on a former schoolmate’s Facebook ‘About Me’ page that wearing high heels made her feel empowered, and as she works in the fashion industry I thought, oh yeah, certain things could be seen as oppressive, but if you actively choose them, it’s empowering – that old chestnut again (see pole dancing, burlesque, making/watching pornography etc.).

But today, thanks to Ms. Magazine, I came across a really excellent explanation why that’s all rubbish: according to fashion historian Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, quoted in the Huffington Post,

“the power that high heels seems to convey is very sexualized power. And very sexualized power is false power, because in order to be sexy someone has to find you sexy, and so the power actually is in the beholder.”

I find that really thought-provoking. It makes sense to me. If one thinks slightly further, the above view might mean that sometimes when women try to feel powerful, or even do feel powerful, they aren’t actually succeeding, but rather asking for permission (which is denied because women are objectified and therefore powerless), and degrading themselves.

Does this mean that I will never wear high heels again? Probably not. They are still part of the expected attire on nights out, and eventually I hope to be able to partake in this pastime again (as long as I can be in bed by 11). If I officially stopped wearing high heels, I’d officially be a frump with no fashion sense and therefore no personality worth getting to know, or a weirdo who enjoys being the odd one out. But this realisation made me wonder: ages ago I came across the idea that we define ourselves through consumerism, i.e. we buy things in order to express who we are or want to be, which I think is an accurate assessment of most people’s habits (and certainly my own). So women buy high heels to portray a sexy and/or powerful persona, but actually they were pushed into this decision by societal pressure, so by wearing high heels they demonstrate how little power they have.

Yes. This is a whole post about shoes. It’s late. Where’s the wine?

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5 Responses to “Feminism and High Heels”

  1. Cat August 8, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    I stumbled on your post because I wanted to see what women/feminists thought about high heels. I am a feminist and after reading some links – I think that as feminists – as women trying to find true equality, we should be free to choose the clothes we want. Granted because of the unequal footing, it’s hard to be too liberal and modern with one’s Feminist ideas. Some things are harder to discuss due to their many layers – but I think when it comes to expressing ourselves through fashion – for as long as you are aware of the arguments behind heel-wearing, wear it as a Feminist would. Wear them intelligently and I don’t think there should be a problem. While certain fashion fads have been prescribed and preferred by the men, it doesn’t mean that we should stop wearing heels or what we want altogether. There should be a new Feminist wave/movement discussing this though. I’d like to hear others’ opinions. I can already imagine the arguments against my thoughts and I personally acknowledge that it hurts to wear heels for prolonged periods but I would still – they’re pretty – why not!

  2. Attached Mummy August 8, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    Yes, high heels are pretty! 🙂 And if I didn’t have to chase after a toddler/walk for miles/stand on the bus on a regular basis, I’d probably wear them all the time.

    I think the idea that something is fine if we CHOOSE it is a Postfeminist/Third Wave idea, isn’t it? For me, it’s slightly too close to the view that pole-dancing is empowering if a woman chooses to do it. Or that burlesque is different – just because you wear retro clothes and makeup and Dita von Teese seems like a cunning business woman, you’re not being objectified?!

    It could be argued that clothes are more important in a woman’s life than they are in a man’s, and sometimes I think that worrying about fashion and what we wear can prevent us from doing more important things. Clothes are never going to change the world. But I say this being aware that I wrote an entire blog post about shoes.

    I don’t know what my final opinion is because sometimes my theoretical stance is difficult to combine with real life.

  3. N July 5, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Sexual power is a type of power, and in many cases it’s the main source of power that (privileged) women have over people. It helps women get paid. In a way it’s sad that it comes with objectification, but it’s a difficult thing to avoid. We shouldn’t think sexual power is false because that just robs women of their primary and most evident source of power.
    I also don’t think that femme women should necessarily be shamed. Women should be free to express themselves in all ways and will not conform to all expectations of them in society regardless of whether they present femme or not.

  4. M October 17, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    The fact that women should feel the need to have “sexual power” and that “it helps women to get paid” is sad. What, why don’t more women use their brains and get a job that’s advantageous to society, that’s intelligent?

    As for heels, you don’t see men wearing them. They sexualize women for men, there’s no doubt about that. Why do they make you feel better about how you look? Because of years of socialization that began the first few years of your life. Heels are debilitating-men could walk/run easily in their more comfortable shoes but most women couldn’t do the same in their stilettos. It’s silly, making yourself a vulnerable plaything when men are practical.

  5. M October 17, 2012 at 11:41 pm #

    Also, if it hurts to wear heels like a previous poster says, you’re disempowering yourself to an extreme. If you can’t even walk a day in heels, in a hypothetical situation where you were being attacked you’d most likely rely on a man. It’s a shame. Feminism is being shaped to satisfy insecure women who don’t feel good enough about themselves (most likely because of the media’s influence on what the “best body” to have is) without these shoes on, that it’s “the woman’s choice.” Well duh, who was questioning that people can make their own choices? Whether or not their choice is based upon objectification or empowerment is the question, and the former is most certainly the answer.

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