More on shoes

// 1 April 2008

Jess’ post yesterday got me thinking, or rather, inspired me to actually blog about something to which I’ve always given a lot of thought.

A couple of years ago I was on a quick lunchtime shoe shopping binge with a colleague. She picked up a pair of high heels, turned them round, and put them back on the shelf with a distasteful, “Eurgh, they’ve got lesbian heels.” Since the heels in question were of a clumpy nature I guess she was buying into the idea that gay women wear ugly shoes and thus are ugly women. Since when did women’s shoes become so ridiculously fetishised? How did it come to pass that there is a style of shoe associated with being an unattractive individual? In a way, it’s kind of liberating – you can control how attractive people think of you as being by changing your shoes. But it’s also just plain weird. And it royally sucks that in order to be considered “attractive” you have to be uncomfortable.

Why must our sexual attractiveness be tied up in being uncomfortable? Why is a woman teetering in stilettos more attractive than a woman walking confidently in trainers? Why is “sexy” underwear made of scratchy lace, “chicken fillets” and what a male friend of mine charmingly refers to as “arse floss”? Why is it so difficult to find nice, pretty underwear that doesn’t involve “arse floss”?

In so many cultures throughout history, a woman’s attractiveness has been directly related to how uncomfortable, and in extreme cases how disabled, she is. There was foot binding, which rendered the victim unable to hobble more than a few metres, and corsets which rearranged the internal organs. There are some cultures today that feed their girls until they are morbidly obese in order to make them more attractive marriage prospects, some that butcher girls’ genitals for similar reasons. These are things that parents (usually mothers) do to girls though, in order to increase their prospects in highly patriarchal societies in which the best a girl can hope for out of life is to be well married. High heels and arse floss are things that women do to themselves in a society in which they have the same legal rights as men. They choose to do it to themselves. But then again, and depending of course on what your profession is, being attractive can massively increase one’s success at work. Has anybody ever seen that back page of Glamour magazine, where they take photos of random people on the street and critique their outfits? There was a horrid one a while back, in which they’d photographed a woman wearing a suit with trainers and said that this was a massive no-no. It made me spit with rage – this woman probably had to wear horribly uncomfortable shoes at work, and why the hell shouldn’t she wear comfy shoes for the journey and change when she got to the office? Are we to look perfectly sexy 24 hours a day? I wonder if Glamour thinks that it’s acceptable for us to take our heels off at night?

There is nothing inherently vile about high heels. I like high heels as much as the next twentysomething woman. In my wardrobe you will find several stratospheric, spangly, studded creations that would make Carrie Bradshaw weep with envy (although thankfully for my bank balance, none of them are Manolos). However, on an everyday basis you’re much more likely to find me in old martial arts trainers. I have worn out several pairs of jodhpur boots in my time, but I have yet to wear out a stiletto heel. Does this mean I’m a minger? Well if it does, at least I’m comfortable. And at least I have a filter for any men who are so ridiculously shallow that their opinion of a woman is coloured by her shoes not being sufficiently sexy.

I get considerably more male attention when I wear high heels than when I wear flat shoes, to quite an amazing extent. I can simply change my shoes and nothing else, and watch the number of neanderthals who try to grope me in the street skyrocket. I can’t believe that they actually make me that much more attractive. I just can’t believe that being a few inches taller is going to make a significant difference to my attractiveness – I honestly don’t think many men are that bothered about the difference between 5ft2 and 5ft6, surely? Likewise, I don’t think looking slightly thinner is going to make much of a difference either. There’s also the theory that wearing high heels forces the wearer to arch their back and stick out their tits and arse, but I don’t buy that either – I happen to have a lot of tits and arse and a very hollow back even without high heels, and the heels still massively affect the amount of male attention I get. I’m sure it’s about more than just how you look in the shoes. Because high heels are stereotyped as “sexy”, wearing them gives out a “message” that you are hot and ready and up for it. (I may well be hot and ready and up for it, but not with some creep who yells at me to get my tits out just because I am wearing “heterosexual shoes”).

Most of the time this attention is just annoying, but it can be terrifying. It takes me ten minutes to walk from the tube station to my house, and last Saturday night, whilst wearing a pair of high-heeled cowboy boots with skinny jeans, I had two rape threats during that ten minutes. One of them was particularly unpleasant, involving two guys in a car cruising past me for a couple of minutes wolf whistling and shouting about how they were going to take me up the arse, and then speeding up and turning into a side street which of course made me think they were lying in wait. Of course they weren’t waiting for me in that side street – they had sped away by the time I walked past. They’d just been threatening me for fun.

Because you’re more likely to get harrassed when you look “sexy” and because you’re more likely to look “sexy” when you’re wearing something that in some way restricts your movement, the very time at which you’re most likely to be threatened is the time at which you’re least likely to be able to physically defend yourself. The main reason I was scared by those naughty men on Saturday night was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to run as fast as them, and that a black belt in taekwondo is no good when you’re wearing skinny jeans. I wonder if vulnerability = sexiness. Would I have been even more “sexy” if I’d been wearing shoes so uncomfortable I’d been struggling to walk? Is a woman who can’t fight back the best kind?

I know that the official feminist party line on this is “it doesn’t make a difference what you wear, women get harrassed regardless” but let’s face it, women do get harrassed much more when they are dressed in a manner which the patriarchy defines as “sexy”. I know damn well that if I had worn that skinny jeans and bomber jacket combo with flat boots, I would not have received anything like the same amount of harrassment, and the harrassment I had received would not have been so unpleasant. I know this because that is exactly the sort of outfit I wear on an everyday basis with little or no trouble – it’s only the addition of a pair of high heels that makes men think it’s okay to harrass me in such an aggressive manner. This is one of the most annoying things – you know that if you hadn’t worn the heels you wouldn’t be being harrassed so much, and so you feel some sense of responsibility for it. Or, if you’re me, you don’t feel that the disgusting behaviour of such lowlifes should affect your wardrobe choices and so you wear the heels regardless and get very angry at the patriarchy.

I was out from 6pm – midnight on Saturday night, and during that time I probably walked past hundreds of men. Only three harrassed me, so it’s not as if men in general are a problem here. But those three were enough to make me feel petrified, furious, embarrassed and, as ever, astounded at the effect a pair of heels seems to have on what “sort of girl” people think I am. It’s frankly weird that the shoes a woman wears are considered to be so heavily indicative of attractiveness, sexual orientation, sexual availability, so many attributes that really have sod all to do with shoes. How did all this happen? Why are we judged as ugly or “easy”, gay or straight, depending on whether or not we happen to have chosen spangly stilettos or DM boots to go with our outfits on any given day? And how the hell can we stop it?

Comments From You

polly // Posted 1 April 2008 at 11:57 am

Can I ask a) what the f*** are ‘lesbian heels’ and b) why a lesbian is an ‘unnattractive individual’? Attractive to whom? Maybe you should have challenged your friend on her homophobia rather than her fashion sense….

Samara Ginsberg // Posted 1 April 2008 at 12:04 pm

Hi Polly, sorry I should have mentioned that

a) “lesbian heels” are clumpy, non-stiletto types that won’t put your back out and;

b) there is an underlying, homophobic assumption that lesbians are fat ugly birds who can’t get laid, and I’m sorry if I didn’t make it clear that I disagree with this

Katarina // Posted 1 April 2008 at 12:17 pm

Like Polly, I was taken aback by the conflation of “lesbian” and “unattractive” on a feminist website.

I don’t think it was intentional on the author’s part but it was unfortunate, because an awful lot of people seem to conflate “lesbian” and “low heels” and “unattractive”. It’s worth a post of its own, that.

Samara Ginsberg // Posted 1 April 2008 at 12:36 pm

Since two people have got their knickers in a twist about this within the last half hour I’ve added a bit more to that paragraph to explain it better. I thought my disapproval of the whole lesbians=ugly theory was implicit by the very fact that I was writing for a feminist website, but obviously homophobia, particularly against women, is such a massive and almost universal problem that things like this need spelling out. Sorry to anyone with twisted knickers!

Jorma // Posted 1 April 2008 at 12:59 pm

This article really did confirm alot of thoughts that have been floating around in my head recently. I have two pairs of shoes for work,a flat pair and a high heeled pair. Almost everytime I wear the heeled I get a lot more of that wonderful unwanted attention. It doesn’t even have to be verbal attention, just staring and leering at me when they hear the sound of me approaching.

I also choose which types of shoes to wear depending on if I will be walking home or not. I usually wear flats if I know that theres a chance I won’t be able to get a taxi, just incase someone threatens me and I can run for it.

I think there is definately some connection between why heels are potrayed the way they are, and the vunerability of the woman when she wears them.Great article.

Shev // Posted 1 April 2008 at 1:10 pm

Were the heels hitting on other girly heels? Bad lesbian shoes!

Samara Ginsberg // Posted 1 April 2008 at 1:11 pm

And also, I think that the idea of lesbians = unattractive is just the logical conclusion of two patriarchal assumptions:

1 – the worst thing a woman can do is to make herself unavailable to men

2 – the worst insult you can bestow upon a woman is to tell her that she’s ugly

So the obvious solution to this pesky lesbian problem is to tell them they’re all ugly. Dammit I hate the patriarchy!

Jorma // Posted 1 April 2008 at 1:28 pm

What I don’t get is that it’s frowned upon to be a lesbian, but perfectly ok to have lesbian tendencies i.e. on the cover of Nuts/Zoo etc. Lesbianism is a big seller for them, so I don’t get why people have such prejudices-esp the men who buy the mags. I guess it comes down to women making themselves unavailable to men…I suppose it’s only acceptable in the way that men want it to be- ie for their gratification.

Charlotte // Posted 1 April 2008 at 1:43 pm

Great post, and sorry to hear you were harrassed. I occasionally like to wear high heels, but choose not to when I have to walk any distance alone at night.

I don’t have any answers to your questions, though, and share your frustration that whatever women choose to wear, we are judged. It should not have to be that way.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 1 April 2008 at 3:12 pm

I think this is because beauty is not (or is no longer) defined by how you look but what you can purchase. Beauty is no longer just about having symmetrical features, but being able to dye your hair blonde, have breast implants, wearing certain types of clothing, keeping slim (which is purchased through gym membership and the free time to work out) and of course purchasing high heels.

Beauty was often considered to be about symmetrical features and soft and clear skin, because we lived in a world where disease ravished the body. This is no longer the case and, based on such conventions, most women would now be considered beautiful. Instead, our concepts of beauty become increasingly arbitrary and fitting with the standards of our capitalist culture, based on wealth. In many respects, the ability to wear high heels is about wealth as only women in the right type of jobs can wear them at work and those who don’t have to walk home can afford to wear them all the time.

Lauren O // Posted 1 April 2008 at 7:36 pm

I like that this piece criticized the reaction of male strangers to high heels without damning high heels themselves. I’d like to be able to wear high heels to a party or something without feeling I’m a bad feminist, but I also would not like rape threats just because I’m wearing high heels.

K8 // Posted 1 April 2008 at 7:45 pm

I wonder if the men you encountered think women who wear heels are in game-on mode? Like, you deliberately put on your sexy uniform or something?

I think one of the bomb-shelling-est women of recent years in popular media was Audrey T’s “Amelie,” and she wore very pretty feminine clothes. She also uniformly wore clod-stomping shoes. It was so unusual to see that, her look has stuck with me since the film was released.

sian // Posted 2 April 2008 at 1:03 pm

there was an interesting fashion trend in Tokyo when i visited last year – girls wearing high heels with the strap undone and walking pigeon toed, also wearing bandages. the effect was weakness and vulnerability – it is really hard to walk pigeon toed with your shoe straps undone. it was really disconcerting. it’s just an example of vulnerability as a fashion statement as it were, and linked to sexual attractiveness.

Leigh Woosey // Posted 2 April 2008 at 2:10 pm

I know that the official feminist party line on this is “it doesn’t make a difference what you wear, women get harrassed regardless”

I thought the official feminist party line was that you should be able to wear whatever the hell you like and be free from harrasment, whether you be garbed in a burqa and niqab, a few splashes of latex body paint or anything in between.

anna // Posted 2 April 2008 at 9:36 pm

for some reason im physically more comfortable in high heels, maybe cause i have strangely pointy and skinny weird feet. theres always some freakazoid shouting crap at you because they are lacking a braincell, i think it matters little to them if said female is wearing heels or not, but i think its maybe because it is because you stand out more if you wear heels?

i got harrassed today, im ill and havent washed my hair in a week, i look like a tramp, still some goon is making comments. i love my heels and i refuse to wear flats at all times because of some random bloke, i dont want some stranger to subconsciously control what i wear. and i also hate the fact i have to have flats in my bag to walk home late because some idiot might be hiding in wait for an unsuspecting female,so i can run off, egh! ok, rant over, but i wonder if heels just make you stand out more for unwanted attention, or if it is the heels themselves? i think its maybe the former. most of my heels are very high black boots, i think luckily i get almost less leers when im wearing them, just frightened looks, maybe i look scary and tall, like i could squash them with my heels, i wish, haha!

lynsey rose // Posted 3 April 2008 at 1:29 pm

I’ve never ever worn a pair of heels, at first i thought it was because I was immature but as I’ve got more into feminism, I feel even surer than I don’t want to force my feet into something painful just to look taller.

I really like wearing comfortable footwear. If men don’t wear high heels, why should I?

Jules // Posted 3 April 2008 at 4:42 pm

I don’t actually think that she was at all unclear in regards to the “lesbian heels” comment, and she most certainly cannot be accused of homophobia.

I don’t think that it’s necessarily true that women who wear high heels get more attention from men. Whenever I wear heels, I tend to be much more “self-aware” (possibly from the effort of not falling over – I don’t have a good sense of balance!), and notice more often when men are staring. However, it might be that they stare all the time, but when I’m wearing flat shoes I’m off in my own happy world (i.e. not having to concentrate on staying upright) and therefore just don’t notice them. It’s just a thought though, I haven’t yet put it to the test, so I might be completely wrong!

Still, Samara’s blog posts are consistently well-written and thought provoking, so congratulations to her.

Cruella // Posted 5 April 2008 at 2:06 am

First time I read this post it was obvious to me that Samara was assuming (for me rightly) that we all knew that believing there to be a connection between being unattractive and being lesbian was a wrong and offensive assumption, but one that a large proportion of the general public (and none of the writers and columnists on here) hold. I don’t find the post offensive at all, I found it very interesting.

Personally I have avoided the whole comfy shoes vs attractive shoes debate for many year by wearing a really nice well made pair of flat-soled boots. Definitely doesn’t make me look weak and frail, makes me look tough with a sexy edge (I think anyway, Mr Cru agrees) and feels as comfy as trainers… Rock! Fashion advice here on the F-Word!!

Alicia // Posted 5 April 2008 at 1:05 pm

A male friend once commented that the sound of a woman in high heels was the sound of a wounded animal (he saw this as a negative I hasten to add). I never felt particularly vulnerable in heels before that, but its a phrase that still haunts me.

Kim // Posted 11 April 2008 at 12:18 am

Actually, once I heard a conversation between two men I know. One said “Trust me, it’s definitely a gay bar!” in reference to a nearby club, and the other said “I had no idea – but I guess it explains why there were so many women in comfortable shoes!” I was sitting very close to them in my Converse all-stars thinking “I had no idea that all the thousands of women wearing trainers worldwide were all lesbians!”

As for lesbianism being OK when it’s for their own gratification, that infuriates me so much. I absolutely hate the response to lesbian being “wow… hot”. But everyone knows how hard it is to convince someone who’s stuck in their own ingrained views. :(

Falco // Posted 15 April 2008 at 6:10 pm

“Why is it so difficult to find nice, pretty underwear that doesn’t involve “arse floss”?”

French knickers? (Bit of a guess, this is not my specialist subject)

As for the random groping that so many men do, I have always found it hard to undertand as it’s obviously impolite and is hardly going to endear you to the gropee if your intentions are amourous. I assume such people simply have appaling manners.

SlytherinPrefect // Posted 21 April 2008 at 6:09 am

This is only partially on-topic, but I’m concerned about high heels quite a bit in my upcoming career as a teacher (in the US). I have heels that I think are pretty, but with my current busy schedule at school and work, I have to wear flats or trainers to get from place to place each day. I’m worried I’ll have to train myself up to wear heels before I go to student teaching for fear of looking unprofessional (same goes with makeup, which I almost never wear). Then I’m worried that I’m betraying feminism by succumbing to what looks “professional” (aka how a woman should dress in a man’s world). Not to mention betraying my comfort.

Jess McCabe // Posted 21 April 2008 at 9:23 am

SlytherinPrefect, I don’t personally think you’d have a problem. I don’t think that people read makeuplessness and lack of heels as unprofessional; the point is to be smart, and you can certainly do that without either.

But then when I read your comment, I was seriously wondering if I could get away with wearing converse with the suit I have to wear today because I have a meeting, so I may not be the best person to judge, it must be said :)

Northern Jess // Posted 24 April 2008 at 4:42 pm

I personally do not weared healed shoes outside the bedroom. At first this was because I was self concious of my height in heels (I’m 5’9″ which isn’t even that tall, but at the time I has a lot of shorter female friends). Now I am proud of my height, but refuse to wear clothing in public that restricts my movement. I used to have a ‘fashion is dictated by men, therefore, high heeled shoes keep us down’ arguement, but realised this was fundamentally flawed because men in power have been wearing heels for hundreds of years as well. Now I don’t really have a femenist arguement for not wearing heels in principle, other than ‘because it makes me feel uncomfortable when people who aren’t my sexual partner of choice find me sexy’, my legs look taught and long in heels and I used to get a lot of comments before I was a feminist. Does anyone have researched arguements for not wearing heels?

Raven // Posted 4 June 2008 at 5:43 pm

In response to SlytherinPrefect, I hope I am not too late in the commenting. However, I am from the United States and have worked in many a college and school here as an interpreter for the deaf. I can tell you that heels are not required to look professional. Make up is also not a requirement though I know many women who will throw on a dash of eyeliner and call it good.

The important part is to be in nice, well-pressed professional clothes. If the shoes are flat but still presentable, you’ll be just fine in the school system. Good luck!

And thank you for the article, it was enlightening to me.

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