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.
A few years ago, however, high heels proved to be actual killers. The Associated Press reported that two women, ages 18 and 23, were killed in Riverside, California, as they struggled in high heels to get away from a train. With their car stuck on the tracks, the women attempted to flee as the train approached. A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly.”
Like those young 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 whichever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford. On my first visit, 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 me cleavage.
Never mind that my feet were encased 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 around the store. 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 with pride to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear like all the other girls’.
That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I’d made. When the event was over, I found myself stranded in a distant location with no ride home, and I started 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 removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.
After that painful lesson, I abandoned three-inch high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing lower ones. Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.
Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully and happily fended off the back pain, foot pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters suffer in spades.
The recent trend toward higher and higher heels is disturbing. I’m baffled by women, especially young women, who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy” by wearing extremely high heels.
When I watch TV, I see too many women wearing stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago. I can’t help noticing the women on late-night TV shows who are otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wear ridiculously high heels that force them to greet their hosts with that same ungainly walk. Some appear on the verge of toppling over. And at a recent Oscar awards telecast, women tottered to the stage in ultra-high heels, often accompanied by escorts who kindly held onto them to prevent their embarrassing descent into the orchestra pit.
The women who, like me, have adopted lower-heeled shoes strike me as much smarter and much less likely to fall on their attractive (and sometimes surgically-enhanced) faces.
Here’s another example. When I sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for math students a few years ago, I was astonished that many if not most of the women graduates 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 earned. (Fortunately, none of them tripped, but I could nevertheless imagine the foot-pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)
Foot-care professionals soundly support my view. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a heel that’s more than 2 or 3 inches makes comfort just about impossible. Why? Because a 3-inch heel creates seven times more stress than a 1-inch heel.
The San Francisco Chronicle recently questioned Dr. Amol Saxena, a podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon who practices in Palo Alto (and assists Nike’s running team). He explained that after 1.5 inches, the pressure increases on the ball of the foot and can lead to “ball-of-the-foot numbness.” (Yikes!) He doesn’t endorse 3-inch heels and points out that celebrities wear them for only a short time (for example, on the red carpet), not all day. To ensure a truly comfortable shoe, he adds, don’t go above a 1.5 inch heel. If you insist on wearing higher heels, limit how much time you spend in them.
Some encouraging changes may be afoot. The latest catalog from Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, features a large number of lower-heeled styles along with higher-heeled numbers. Because Nordstrom is a bellwether in the fashion world, its choices can influence shoe-seekers. Or is Nordstrom reflecting what its shoppers have already told the stores’ decision-makers? The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers are choosing to spend their money–probably plays a big role here.
Beyond the issue of comfort, let’s remember that high heels present a far more urgent problem. As the deaths in Riverside demonstrate, women who wear high heels can be putting their lives at risk. When women need to flee a dangerous situation, it’s pretty obvious that high heels can handicap their ability to escape.
How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?
The Fourth of July is fast approaching. As we celebrate the holiday this year, I urge the women of America to declare their independence from high-heeled shoes.
If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely throw those shoes away, or at the very least, toss them into the back of your closet. Shod yourself instead in shoes that allow you to walk—and if need be, run—in comfort.
Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.
[Earlier versions of this commentary appeared on Susan Just Writes and the San Francisco Chronicle.]