Happy 4th of July! In honor of the holiday, I’m reviving a blog post that I published three years ago.
Because I believe so strongly in communicating this message, I may turn this blog post into an annual tradition.
If you’ve read it before, thanks for re-reading it. I’ve made a few changes to acknowledge some current trends.
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 ended, 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 trend toward higher and higher heels has been 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’ve seen too many women wearing stilettos that forced them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago. When late-night TV shows still featured guests walking to greet the host, I couldn’t help noticing the women who were otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wore ridiculously high heels that forced them to have that same ungainly walk. Some appeared on the verge of toppling over. And at the most recent Oscar awards telecast, many 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 asked a local podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon for his opinion. 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 did not endorse 3-inch heels and pointed 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 added, 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 are clearly afoot. Catalogs from Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, have already featured 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’ buyers? The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers are choosing to spend their money–-has probably played a big role here.
Now, the pandemic is unquestionably playing an even bigger role.
The Washington Post covered the changing trends in June. It noted, “Sales of high heels, loafers and other dress shoes have been tumbling for years, and analysts say the pandemic has turbocharged their demise.” Sales of men’s and women’s dress shoes plunged 70 percent in March and April.
“High heels are way down,” said Beth Goldstein, a footwear analyst. “The question now is whether they’ll ever rebound. Of course, some women out there are dying to put their heels back on. But I think most of them are saying, ‘I’m never going to wear those shoes again.’ ”
Lately, she said, it’s all about comfort. Shoe manufacturers are busy creating designs with wider and thicker heels, padded insoles and other athletic touches to add stability and comfort. Sales of stiletto-shaped heels, she added, dropped 11 percent last year.
“Retailers are recognizing that they’re going to have to rethink what they know,” Goldstein said. “There is going to be a long-term shift.”
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?
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, 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.]