High heels belong to the traditional feminine realm but do not subordinate. They instead radiate dominance; perhaps in a subversive and gendered form, but nonetheless it is dominance and most importantly – a woman’s dominance. Patricia Field, a Sex and the City stylist used stilettos to “symbolize the characters’ sexual power, as well as their independence.” (InStyle Magazine, 346)
“I can’t wear flats; I always feel like I’m walking uphill.” – Anonymous
Much of this power comes not only from the physical aspects such as height, posture and body inflections, but also from raw sex appeal. High heels are a traditional wardrobe staple of every vamp and streetwalker which makes sense since they cash in and use sexuality for their own purposes and as Gamman says, “It’s hard not to be sexy in a pair of high heels.” (Gamman, 98)
The high heel is the “zenith of the very feminine look,” (Kaite, 96) and its contribution to the construction of feminine identity is blatant. Despite possible negative consequences, they have other physical effects on the wearer. Esquire writes, “They taper the toes. They arch the instep. They lift the calves. They tilt the fanny and bow the back and oil the hips and sashay the gait…. They make the foot look shorter and more precious and yet add the formidableness of extra height.” (Friday, 463) They create the illusion of longer and more defined legs, more pronounced and curved breasts, and a rounder butt. High heels emphasize all the aspects that are considered to belong to the realm of women’s physically sexual attributes.
According to Harper’s Index, high heels raise the buttocks as much as 25 %.
The alluring eroticism of women in high heels is recognized and even feared. In the United States’ earlier history, “The Massachusetts colony passed a law: ‘All women, whether virgins, maidens or widows, who…seduce or betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s male subjects by virtue of…high heel shoes, shall incur the penalty of the law now enforced against witchcraft.'” (Benstock & Ferriss, 10)
High heels, most effectively stilettos, embody complex paradoxes and social innuendos. There is inherent tension between sexuality and danger. They constantly revolve and play with the masculine/ feminine dichotomy. The “The high heel is a weapon…and also a phallic symbol. And at the same time that it cripples a woman, it makes her seem powerful. In heels, the woman can be evilly subdued – she can’t run very fast, she’s off balance, her feet probably hurt – but she’s also taller, wearing a spiked thing that could be driven into a man’s body: It’s called a stiletto after all.”
“Stiletto” means “thin-bladed knife” – Kaite, 96
Freudian theory says that shoes represent the female body and in dreams, they represent female genetalia. The “Shoe is symbolic of the vagina. Tension between the “active” and “passive” components of the shoe…It is an economic balance of two parts: a womblike enclosure and the phallic extremity.” (Kaite, 97) These are “heels with the potential of piercing and penetrating, and thus have powerfully invasive qualities.” (Kaite, 100)
With such meaning infused in every step a woman can take, it is no wonder that the shoe has become an object of fixation, obsession and love. In today’s world of glitzy-glam consumerism and self-discovery, every accessory can be an attempt to encapsulate and define one’s perfect self image. Ferriss and Benstock write that there is a “…satisfaction we take in having purchased a pair of shoes that ‘is us,’ that represents us… The fashionable dress of the Western world is one means whereby an always fragmentary self is glued together into a semblance of unified identity. Shoes serve as markers of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and even sexuality.” (Ferriss & Benstock, 4)
Shoes have always denoted lifestyle and one’s place both in the formal and informal sectors of society. As the famous Forrest Gump says, “There’s an awful lot you can tell ’bout a person by their shoes — Where they goin, where they been…” (Forrest Gump, 1994) In the case of high heels tend to say one of two things about a person, high class or sex worker.
“The initial association between rank, wealth, and certain styles and fabrics is made: silk and the high heel are for the leisured classes, the bourgeois classes.” (Kaite, 93) From Catherine de Medicis and the ladies of the French court to Manolo Blahnik’s “limousine shoes,” high heels proclaim wealth and status.
On the other hand, ” ‘Sensible shoes’- from moccasins to work boots- identify the wearer as a member of the laboring classes, feet planted firmly on the ground.” (Benstock & Ferriss) In sensible shoes one can plow a field, pave a road or simply walk as a means of transportation. In heels one is clearly going “somewhere” in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
Since their Venetian birth, high heels have been markers of the privileged. In the sixteenth century, both men and women of the leisure class wore heeled shoes as high as thirty inches….
“A similar psychology of wealth and status may still be operating, the richer you are, the higher the heels, and the more likely it is that you only have to walk a few short, painful steps from you limo to your destination.” (Tamsin, 11) Today this upper class connotation remains, after all, “Women may ‘wear’ slippers, ‘put on’ sneakers and ‘slip into’ loafers, but they ‘dress’ in high heels.” (O’Keefe, 72)
Another important factor speaking to the nuances of class and femininity is foot size. With 88 percent of surveyed women wearing shoes that are too small, there is clearly a remaining obsession with small feet. The high heel tapers the toes and arches the foot giving the appearance not only of eroticized curled toes but also the illusion of being small and delicate.
In wearing high heels women can choose to empower themselves – yourselves – ourselves – myself and own the power surrounding these dangerous, sexual, authoritative, proactive gendered objects- high heels.
And they plain just make you look sexy.