Eye Candy and Power Tools? The Sexist History of High Heels

Did you know that privileged men were the first to wear high heels? Way back in the 17th century, heels provided a beneficial lift while riding horses. Gradually, privileged women followed suit, both genders wearing them to convey prestige and power.

This all changed in the next century, when men and women’s dress began to reflect social class and profession.

And here’s the clincher, IMO:

Because men were considered the more intellectual and capable sex, they gave up heels for practical shoes they could do work that smart and powerful folks do (such as business and politics). Women’s perceived inadequacies made walking well less important. To ensure that they stayed as lovely to look at as possible—their main skill set other than childbirth—high heels became more decorative.

Men’s shoes became comfortable, reliable and supportive, while women’s remained decorative, unstable and painful. Because who cares if decorations can walk well or get hurt?

I wish I were kidding. (Learn more herehere, here and here.)

While women have more opportunities, choices and respect nowadays, it’s still complicated…

Stilettos, the most hazardous heels, appeared in the 1950s, when the fashion industry made the wartime pinup-girl look a trend. Women did everything from housecleaning to posing for erotic photos in the steep shoes. Meanwhile, they were seldom allowed positions of power or leadership.

heels sexist

The heels trend diminished a bunch during the 60s and 70s (I LOVE YOU, HIPPIES!), but not for long.

In the 1980s, as women began readily climbing the corporate ladder, people feared that such work would strip away their desirability—by, you know, doing all that “man stuff.” Particularly tall stilettos were marketed as a solution, a way to stay sexually appealing while moving forward professionally.

skyscraper shoes

By 2000, high heels were called a woman’s “power tools.” Her sex appeal was popularly considered her main source of professional strength, one she could use to manipulate people, giving “working your way to the top” a whole new meaning.

High heels are still associated with prestige and sexiness, regardless of well-known risks they raise for pain, bunions, fractures, bone deterioration and more. Related injuries have nearly doubled in the last decade, which speaks of their popularity and women’s determination to wear and embrace them, but more so of the media and fashion industry’s power of persuasion. (If comfortable, supportive shoes were all the rage, we’d be wearing them by the masses.)

Does any of this make wearing high heels wrong? Or anti-feminist?

Of course not. Feminism is about equality. We should all have the freedom to dress and express ourselves as we choose.

If you feel empowered by high heels and love wearing them, go for it. (If you do, consider these doctor recommended tips.) No one should be shamed for wearing any particular type of apparel.

I think it’s important, however, to put thought into what we find strengthening and why. The more informed we are, the better choices we can make for ourselves. And the better choices we make for ourselves, the better role models we become for others.

HeelFree

My latest #HeelFree faves. Wearing flatter shoes with a dress felt freeing.

I also feel there’s a fine line between putting a bandaid on insecurity and empowerment. A few months ago, I probably would’ve told you I wore heels at important events because they helped me feel empowered—more capable, attractive and confident. Now I realize they gave me a false sense of security and worked against me in numerous ways, from foot pain and poor body control to a lack of authenticity.

Why did I feel the need to stand taller? To have my calf muscles clenched? To make my legs look any different than they naturally are? (I explored these questions in my first #HeelFree post, available here.) Why do any of us?

In short, because of societal messages. We’re taught that high heels are a near prerequisite to sexiness, confidence and success. They’re considered a way up in the world, literally and figuratively, as they have been since their invention.

But times have changed. We don’t need to rely on our society’s idea of “sexiness” in order to have the careers, respect and lives we desire. I plan to live as long and as happily as possible, and I just don’t think that footwear that causes irreparable damage and makes walking comfortably difficult facilitates that—at least not for me.

I’ve also noticed in my years of work with folks with eating disorders and related issues that poor body image often goes hand-in-hand with high-heel wearing; it’s another common means of changing our outsides to aid inner wounds. But again, that’s a bandaid, not a solution.

If you can relate, I hope you’ll prioritize greater self-love and acceptance—regardless of your shoe choices. If there are any “power tools” worth having, it’s these.

If we wish to change the harsh pressures placed on women to appear a certain shape, size and height, we have to start with ourselves—by not holding ourselves up to those standards and by valuing what matters most. Whether you’re joining me in going #HeelFree or not, I hope you’ll consider taking whatever positive steps you can.

If you’re obsessive passionate like me, you’ll blab about it in the process. 😉 If not, you can still help better the world.

As a reminder, I’m posting #HeelFree photos and links on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Feel free to join the conversation!

What surprised you about high heels’ history? If you wear them regularly, how do they make you feel? Have you embraced your legs and height as they are? I’d love to hear your thoughts! ♥

Leave a comment

29 Comments

  1. I’m not generally a high-heel wearer, but like you I don’t think less of whatever a woman chooses to wear. A fab post for conveying the kind of mindfulness that empowers all of us! There are many more social expectations about our appearance that I’d love to see you address. For example, why do women have to shave their legs and underarms?

    Reply
    • I’m right there with you on all of us making whatever choices we like. I’ve addressed hair a bit on my show, but I’ll consider a deeper exploration here. Shaving isn’t as risky as tall shoes (though it’s definitely not risk-free, of course!), but it’s an intriguing topic, IMO. Thanks for weighing in!

      Reply
  2. The more society pushes certain things, the more I’ve realized what a fine line there is between *enabling* (similar to your concept of a bandaid) and *empowering*. (Google “transableism” for one such controversial issue.) It’s an interesting topic, that’s for sure! 🙂

    Reply
  3. It’s funny I found your post just as I’m finishing Caitlin Moran’s brilliantly funny and honest feminist manifesto, How To Be A Woman. She talks about high heels in there, and these days she simply doesn’t wear them.
    I love how high heels look on me, but not how they feel. Why can’t a capable and talented designer create a pretty pair of high heels that actually feel good physically too? Is that asking for too much for women in 2015?

    Reply
    • I just read your post! Groovy stuff, and I may have to check Moran’s book out. 🙂

      It’s funny how much we’ve learned to love the look of heels. I was looking at reverse gender media, where male models pose as though they were female (overly sexualized, in heels, etc.), which speaks volumes. I’m learning to love the look of my legs without heels, which says a lot! (A lot because I used to feel the opposite way.)

      There are some designers creating safer, more fashionable heels — but I found that when I was searching for them a few months back, I couldn’t see the hotness without the height. Very good question, Emma. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  4. Anything that drains your intellect because of the horrible pain you’re in cannot be a good thing. Great post, August!

    Reply
  5. I’ve already shared that I get shoe envy. No one who has ever had DVT can or should wear heels again, so you will never see me in them. Wedges here and there, but no heels. And so, I stare with naked lust at pretty, strappy, heeled sandals…because I am perverse like that.

    My husband can’t figure it out since he despises heels for all the reasons you mentioned, especially that they are painful for women. Also, even when I COULD wear them, I walked like a truck driver in them. (aka Not Sexy/Hot Mess) 🙂

    Reply
    • Aw. Well I hope some of this campaign makes you feel a bit better about those restrictions. (And how sweet is your hubby???) We’re pretty brainwashed, arguably, as a culture to see them as sexy. More and more, I look at them and think, “so glad I’m comfy and free!” Hoping that sticks. 🙂

      Reply
      • I agree. Plus, you’re tall so you don’t really need them. 🙂 My guy truly thinks I’m hottest in whatever is the most comfortable. It’s awesome.

      • Ten million cheers for great guys! And honestly, I don’t think anyone needs heels. 🙂

  6. mcclellanelias

     /  June 15, 2015

    This is too important not to share. Like most emotionally immature adult males, o.O I’ve been guilty of objectifying women. This article educates and promotes healthy debate/ideas without stigmatizing or indicting. Excellent stuff, as always, August.

    Reply
  7. OMG, August. If we only lived closer, I can just imagine the kinds of programming we’d create. We’d be unstoppable. LOL I’m reading your post and just nodding my head like, yep, mmmhmm, exactly, I know, Girrrrrl!

    You can take almost anything women wear today and trace it back to similar historical changes. I did a presentation in college about the makeup industry and how it boomed during the world wars. Even though women were shifting the paradigm and going into the workforce, there was still so much focus on the “red-blooded, red-lipped” American. And you can look at it economically too. Lipstick was the one thing most women refused to give up buying even though times were tough. We have to work hard, but still look and feel pretty doing it.

    And of course, I’m totally with you on the feminism has spectrums thing. There’s a thing called “lipstick feminism” now. Chiara wrote about it on The Indie Chicks a bit ago. I’m all for it. But historically, so much of these elements have shaped out of patriarchal marketing and societal views. It’s mind blowing.

    Great post, sistah! Lovin all your research. Keep it coming.

    Reply
    • I have no doubt we’d make a groovy team, Jess! One thing that fascinates (and saddens) me is how risky high heels are – far more so than other trends, rooted in sexism. If they were good for our feet and bodies, I’d be much more inclined to embrace them. And I’m totally going to read about red lips now. 🙂 Thanks, lovely!

      Reply
  8. I think this is one of the secrets men don’t understand: what are they doing that makes us girls cranky after a while? Should your man ever ask you why you suddenly are in such a bad mood, just hiss at him: “YOU walk around in these heels you find so sexy and after 30 minutes we’ll check your mood!” 😉

    Reply
  9. Wonderful post August. It just blows my mind how many ways we contort ourselves to meet someone else’s expectation of what “beauty” is. And I can’t help think back to “Sex and the City” and Carrie’s shoe fetish, another example of perpetuating the “high heel ideal.” In the reverse situation, in China it was all about foot binding. Sheesh.

    Reply
  10. I’m loving your #heelfree posts, and the comments after them. Everyone has such great insights! Keep it up!

    Reply
  11. One thing I do have to point out is that even with flats if you favour fashion over comfort you can end up in trouble I recall growing up during the 70’s and wearing what can only be described as winkle pickers for school discos and am pretty sure there is a generation of girls who toes form what amounts to the pointy reminder of fashion, mind you that would be the same generation who moved to power heels during the 80’s and 90’s possibly because the shape of their feet looked weird in open toes

    Reply
  12. Gotta admit, I didn’t know that men ever wore high heels. I find the idea uncomfortable and don’t think anyone should be pushed to wear them.
    I prefer a woman in low heels, flats. or even tennis shoes/sandals.
    Comfort is very important to me.
    Do women look sexy in high heels? Yes.
    Do women look sexy in flats? Yes
    Scott

    Reply
  13. Great post, August.

    At 6′ tall, I’ve never been into heels. Bad enough that I was already committing the un-feminine sin of being taller than most men on the planet. However, I did have to wear dress shoes with heels for jobs when I was a secretary, along with the other sexist torture device, pantyhose. Ditched them all at 27 when I went to law school. Now, my “dress shoes” that I wear to conferences are literally Crocs. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE a cute shoe. But no way am I wearing heels unless it’s my idea.

    Reply
  14. Forgot to mention — Heels have a function when riding horses. The foot is less likely to slip through the stirrup all the way when wearing a heeled shoe or boot. So that little development in history was actually a safety factor. What it turned into for men who don’t ride is left to speculation.

    Reply
  15. Excellent post! One of the things I find it intriguing is how clothing style between men and women has reversed in the last 500 years: the fact that men wore high heels, and that this was very much considered the height of masculinity, speaks volumes about the way so much of our styling is culturally wrapped. There is a story of Henry VII, when he was a young, fit and rather rampant monarch, engaging in a “calf muscle bulging contest”, primarily to impress the women of the court. Laughable today but underscoring the fact that much of this sort of thing is socially/culturally mediated. And societies change.

    Reply
  16. karenmcfarland

     /  June 19, 2015

    You are rockin’ those sandals August! Those look cushy and comfy. And you have great legs regardless. Interesting background on the “Heels”. You would know men were behind this. It was a conspiracy! Yet, I have to say, my hubby has always liked me in heels. Well, I’m short. And when I wear them, we meet almost eye-to-eye. That means more kisses! lol. Hey, I’ll get them anyway I can. But, I am reaching a certain age where stilettos are not the wisest things to wear. So, I am now in search of more sensible shoes. See, you are a trend setter! 🙂

    Reply
    • LOL Many cheers for more kisses! I’m sure you’re rocking your comfier heel picks, too. 🙂 Thanks so much for the sweet support!

      Reply
  1. Risky Business: Common Pitfalls of High Heel Shoes #HeelFree | August McLaughlin's Blog

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