Jenny Gitlitz: The violence of high heels



This Thursday, Berkshire men will don bright red high heels and will march through Pittsfield in the "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" event to raise awareness and money for the Elizabeth Freeman Center, a wonderful regional organization that provides critical support to women who have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Now in its 12th year, this is a great event and these men are to be lauded.

That being said, year after year as I've watched news coverage of this event, I have felt a sense of dismay accompany my admiration of the march. Dismay because high heeled shoes -- the bold symbol of this event -- themselves do great violence to women.

High heels force women's feet into an unnatural position, concentrating a woman's full body weight in the front of her foot. When Thursday's marchers step out of their heels at the end of the one-mile march, I'm sure more than a few of them will be rubbing their feet in relief, just as women do at the end of a long day at work.

But it's more than just temporary discomfort. Years of wearing high heels can cause bunions or ingrown toenails that require surgery, permanently "clawed" toes or hammertoes, osteoarthritis of the knee, tendon pain, shortened calf muscles, sciatica, neuromas (nerve damage), plantar fasciitis, and heel bone deformities.

One might think that high heels shouldn't be considered violence against women, since women wear them willingly. But is it possible that the widespread wearing of high heels is a just a twist on the "battered woman syndrome"? In this common syndrome, women "choose" to stay in abusive relationships because of fear and insecurity: emotional brainwashing, lack of money, lack of awareness about relief centers like Elizabeth Freeman, and fear of reprisal if they leave.

I think that women also wear high heels in part because of fear and insecurity. Collectively and individually -- even if subconsciously -- women fear that if they wear comfortable flats, they won't be perceived as "professional" in the workplace, as sexually attractive to potential mates, or simply as stylish among friends. Flats have an unfortunate reputation as nerdy, dorky, boring, old lady-ish, or at best, as casual.

These fears should be taken seriously, because if you deconstruct them, the consequences of not measuring up in any of these social arenas are severe: failure to get or hold a job/secure a financial future, failure to attract a romantic companion/attain domestic security, or failure to be accepted as "in" and maintain a satisfying social life. You might think this is an exaggeration -- that according this much social power to a style of shoe is overblown -- but if this were not the case, why would millions of American women subject themselves to such constant pain?

Women -- and the men who admire them -- are bombarded daily by images of models, actresses, and professional women (in both senses of the word) wearing heels. The fashion industry makes billions off the wearing of heels. The wearing of high heels is an extremely powerful social message that women are subjected to throughout their lives. To not wear high heels in social or professional circles where they are the norm is to take a highly visible personal risk that many women are simply not prepared to take.

In 10th century China, wealthy families broke their young daughters' toes and used bandages to tightly bind their feet as the girls aged. The practice of foot-binding (which didn't die out completely till the 20th century) was designed to prevent the foot bones from growing normally, to artificially create a smaller, more delicate foot that was perceived as highly attractive in that society -- and was compared to a lotus flower. Their gnarled, deformed feet in fact made it impossible for these women to do anything more than hobble, and they were carried from place to place by servants. While today we consider this imposition of physical deformity -- of excruciating pain and permanent disability -- as barbaric and abusive; in that culture at that time it was a sign of high social status.

In our addiction to high heels, are we really that much more advanced?

Men would never wear a shoe that left them unable to run down the street to catch a bus, to get out of the rain, or to escape a would-be mugger. Yet women routinely wear heels that constrain their movements and force them to walk in mincing steps -- and to risk tripping and falling. It's time to erase this double standard.

Perhaps it's time for another kind of march to take place: one where women of all ages -- and the men who care about them -- proudly march not just down the center of town, but into malls, office buildings, and night clubs throughout the nation wearing attractive T-straps, supportive sandals, Mary Janes, clogs, sneakers, and other low and flat footwear. It's time for women to say "no" to the fashion industry's brainwashing, and to reclaim their pedal power, their health, and their comfort.

Jenny Gitlitz has wasted several hundred dollars on heels that she's worn twice and then thrown out.


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