As I sat last year in the audience at the Women in the World Summit in New York I noticed that almost every single one of the successful and inspiring women on the podium was wearing stilettos. Considering that the event was about women’s empowerment, increasing well-being and helping society thrive, this struck me as odd. Shouldn’t avoiding any physical pain be at the top of our priorities? Why are we inflicting it upon ourselves?
Conceived originally as riding footwear, particularly useful during battles, they later became a trend amongst the European aristocracy. Worn exclusively by men who steadily increased the height of the heels to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. Soon women started to wear them, ironic as it seems now, in order to masculinize their outfits, leading men to stop their use. After a decline in popularity, they came back in full force in the mid-20th century, in large part because of the porn industry and new beauty standards. Since then, they’ve become ubiquitous and an essential item in most women’s closets.
Not only do high-heels often make the wearer feel sexy, assertive or powerful, for a long time they have been part of the dress code in formal and professional settings. Not wearing them could have been socially or professionally worse for women than any physical pain.
Except that times have changed while heels continue to hurt our feet. Although there are some women who are so used to heels that they don’t feel any pain, that’s not the case for the majority of us. 71% of American heel-wearers say these shoes hurt their feet. Not only does wearing heels make it difficult to walk on regular surfaces, let alone grass or cobblestones, it often results in sprains and strains to the foot and ankle. It can even cause permanent damage to the ligaments and bones, often requiring surgery. This is when I wonder, why are we still wearing them?
Beyond just societal standards of what is appropriate to wear to formal events, in many industries women are expected to wear heels to work. In most countries there is no national legislation to prevent this and each employer can arguably decide what the dress code will be. This has sparked legal battles with women challenging discriminatory codes. In 2016 a woman in England was sent home without pay for not wearing heels to a temporary job in an accounting firm and only in 2015 did Spain’s Supreme Court rule that mandating heels in the workplace is discriminatory. These cases have sparked an important conversation around the world about sexist dress codes and the harms of wearing high-heels for long periods of time. We must continue this conversation until everybody is completely free -and informed- to make decisions about what to wear on their feet. And what not to wear.
Auspiciously, even on the fashionable red carpet, it’s now common to see some female celebrities flout convention and go heel-less, publicly decrying the torture that is wearing high-heels. If history has shown us anything it’s that fashion is fleeting, and I am confident heels will eventually make their way back to the history books, and stay there.
Originally published at medium.com