But are high heels really meant to hurt?
I ask because Christian Louboutin recently told Grazia that he doesn’t care if you find his shoes uncomfortable. “If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them,” he said. Having seen many a woman hobble around London, pigeon-toed, red-soled and cramped with pain, I’d have to agree with him. But not for the same reasons. Louboutin says that high heels are a “pleasure with pain” experience. But why is that so?
Historically, the super tall heel was a sexual thing, fetishized by men who loved the way it made a woman’s back arch just so. And then it became a symbol of female empowerment, underscoring the power suit. But over the past ten years, we’ve seen the vertiginous shoe become a hardcore fashion thing, gradually growing in height and garishness. And the pain that comes with stuffing yourself into, say, a tight leather toe box propped up on a six-inch wooden heel becomes something we learn to ignore. Never mind that we’re losing feeling in our pinky toe. It’s all about the look. And so we think nothing of squeezing on a lust-worthy, yet treacherous pair of size 40s in much the same way Victorian-era women used to risk a bruised rib for a corset.
I know first-hand because I’ve purchased a good many pairs of stilettos and platforms that work much better as eye candy on a shelf in my bedroom than on the hard pavement on my way to work. It’s not that all high heels are painful to wear. They aren’t. But oftentimes, the most thrilling, camera-catching ones are. Hardware, metallic tips, spikes and chunky crystals don't always make for the softest wear. Meanwhile, sales of ballet flats go through the roof as we all continue to look to them as that little source of relief to be rolled up and tucked away in our handbags. So … on top of walking around in uncomfortable shoes, we’re also carrying a purse that is twice as heavy as it needs to be. Fun! Maybe I’m feeling a little more sensitive to this issue than usual because I’m at the tale end of what has felt like a forever-long pregnancy — one in which my decreasing patience for foot discomfort has led me to start collecting fancy flats.
In the process I’ve begun to develop a new appreciation for those women who defy the age-old attitudes that we’re at our most beautiful and empowered when we’re teetering around on nearly seven inches. Shala Monroque, pictured below in shoes she can actually walk in, comes to mind. I’ll never forget one of our fashion week lunches together in which she refreshingly mentioned that she has zero tolerance for overly vertiginous heels. Her endless array of delicate, kitten and moderately high heels look ten times more interesting and unexpected than the tallest, most tricked out platforms. Meanwhile, recently in Paris, the shoe designer Chrissie Morris told me that she often finds herself feeling sorry for women who wear six inches during the day simply for the fact that their mobility is so limited. Her fall collection features a great selection of flatform creepers and low-heeled ankle boots.
To be honest, the fashion world seems to be gradually moving away from the ostentatious heel (or the ‘freakum shoe’ to quote a close friend.) It's too closely associated with the stuff of NBA wives’ closets and music video looks. Plus, it reads a little old dated. Witness, how fresh Manolo Blahnik’s more understated BB pumps, in every possible colorway and texture, looked in J.Crew’s fall show.
I bring all of this up not to argue against the tall heel. I have no plans to retire my leg-lengthening Alaïas anytime soon. But perhaps its time to recognize the fact that, as women, we’ve started holding each other accountable to an old notion that doesn’t really factor in with our everyday lives — let alone look remotely interesting, sexy or new. It’s easy for a male designer to dismiss a woman’s complaints about a shoe when he doesn’t have to wear it.