High Heels Are Killers

by Susan Alexander

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

Now, however, high heels have proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press recently reported that two women were killed in Riverside, California, when a train shoved their car into them as they struggled in high heels to get away.  The car got stuck on the train tracks when the driver tried to make a U-turn.  The women emerged from the Honda and attempted to flee as a train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly” as they tried to run on the gravel surrounding the train tracks.  The women were 18 and 23 years old.

Like those two women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whatever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit to such a store, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave mine cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were incased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself down the store’s aisle toward the mirror on the wall.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride pridefully to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear just like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I had made.  I was stranded in a distant location with no ride home in the offing, and I began walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I ultimately removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned my high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing more “sensible” lower heels.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively in lower heels, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.  Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully fended off the back pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters have suffered in spades.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the trend toward even higher heels, and I grieve for the young women who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy.”  All around me, I see women wearing  stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  TV and movies have surely fostered this trend (witness “Sex and the City”).

When I recently sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for mathematics students, I was astonished that most of the women hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had achieved.  (Fortunately, none of them did, but I could imagine the pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

The deaths in Riverside demonstrate an even more dramatic problem.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, high heels surely handicap their ability to escape.  How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, I urge the women of America to proclaim their independence from high-heeled shoes.  If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely toss those shoes and shod yourself in comfy ones.  Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]

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