Here’s what happens when you age: You look at how other women cope with it. Are they Botoxed and filled? (Sorry, but you can always tell.) Do they cover their grey? Have they avoided the dreaded frumpiness? And this: What do they wear on their feet?
My physiotherapist issued the warning about high heels last year, when I had a painful back episode. I looked at her in her unremarkable flat shoes – would you trust a physio in heels? – and knew she was right. I hadn’t even walked a mile in my high-heel boots (Stuart Weitzmans, if you must know) and, the next day, I was practically immobilized.
I ignored her, of course. Or, rather, my Christian Louboutins won. Still, she greeted my recurrence of High-Heel Hell with a look of empathy. She understands what’s involved. She’s a woman.
On the other hand (foot?), the chiropodist I consulted didn’t. “High heels are all about vanity.” Need I mention he’s a man? And that he wore gel-soled sneakers? He sees footwear-related pain in 70 per cent of his patients, the vast majority of whom are women. “High heels cause deformations in the foot that are similar to, although not as extreme as, those of the ancient practice of Chinese foot binding,” he pronounced. To be safe, he added, a woman should stick to heels that are no higher than two inches.
I needed help to understand my love of high heels. They’re bad for me, but they make me feel good. (They give you a high all right.) The morning after, I regretted having indulged in them, but I couldn’t help myself from doing it again. Was I a heel-aholic?
“It’s easy to explain,” snapped Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum.
“They’re the signifier of sexualized femininity. To say a woman wears sensible shoes instantly devalues her. No matter what achievements she has made, she is unattractive.
There’s so much to lose if you don’t wear them.”
I remembered interviewing the late Eartha Kitt in 2001. The legendary sex kitten teetered into the room in high-heel boots. She was 74. And I thought of Victoria Beckham, who wore high heels while heavily pregnant at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton last year. What better way to combat the desexualized image of motherhood?
The iconic power of high heels is in their cultural associations, not in how they pose the body, explained Semmelhack, author of Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe. It’s not that they cause the breasts and behind to thrust out, that they tilt the hips in a sexually provocative manner. Forget what Christian Louboutin said about how they put the arch of the foot in the exact position that occurs when a woman is having an orgasm.
Since antiquity, there has been elevated footwear. The chopine of the late 16th century is perhaps history’s most ridiculous platform – some were almost 20 inches high – and gave women a towering height, perfect for showing off the expensive fabrics of their clothing. Men had a brief infatuation with heels in the 17th century.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that high heels on women became “an absolute confirmed staple in erotica,” Semmelhack said. “They come and go in fashion, but each time they re-emerged as a trend, they carried more erotic baggage.” Blame it on the Internet’s normalization of pornography. Or point to Sex and the City’s recurring theme of frivolous designer footwear as a celebration of hypersexual female single status. “What we’re seeing now are some of the highest heels ever,” Semmelhack said. (For the record, she was wearing a pair of pink Roger Vivier heels.)
I walked away – in flats, equipped with orthotics – my head as pointy as the toes of my forbidden Manolo Blahniks. Some may see high heels as the height of female irrationality, but I like to think of them as an expression of our love for paradox. What should be comfortable isn’t. What should aid mobility restricts it. If there’s power in the high heel, there’s also vulnerability, fragility. You’re unstable up there on your stilettos. Which all makes sense when you consider the feminist-confounding central female paradox of wanting to be treated like a demure lady even when we’re strong, independent women.
And then there’s the uncomplicated truth that your feet are the last part of your aging body to betray you. Your eyes go. You avoid sleeveless dresses. You may have had to give up skinny jeans and bikinis, but you can still squeeze your feet into a sexy pair of heels when the occasion demands.
I had a plan. What if I put myself on a high-heel diet? I could indulge sporadically, allowing myself a pair once a week.
It’s either that or buy a tote bag or a scarf or a key chain adorned with a high-heel motif. Which is one explanation for why we’re seeing more such items, Semmelhack explained. They give aging boomers the ability to participate in the culture of desirable femininity by still wearing high heels, only not on their feet.
Well, stab me with a stiletto first.