Women’s shoes: an under-discussed feminist issue
So, the NY Times runs a piece about why female politicians love a specific pair of Kate Spade shoes. The author admits in the piece that it’s sexist to focus on the fashion choices of female politicians so obsessively, while male politicians can expect their footwear choices to largely go unmentioned. Jill points out that this hedge should protect the Times from criticism for thinking this is such a great idea. Irin at Jezebel collects the opinions of women in politics who do think this is a story, because ease of footwear is a legitimate advantage male politicians have over female politicians, because men’s shoes don’t actually put their health at risk when they’re on their feet all day.
I think we can split the difference here. The politicians are right that the fact that women have to sacrifice their health where men don’t to have a career in politics is a story. But it’s not the story Susan Dominus wrote. Dominus might as well have been writing copy for Kate Spade, implying that their $300 wedge heels do a sufficient job of battling the long list of health problems and chronic pain that women’s shoes—particularly high heeled shoes—given them. A real story about this issue would question why female politicians feel they have no choice but to destroy their feet in order to win, and why our society turns a blind eye to the fact that huge percentages of women suffer entirely preventable health problems due to their shoes.
It’s a question that I’m kind of surprised isn’t dwelt upon more by feminist writers, honestly. I see more articles about the potential health effects of untested cosmetics than I do the actual, proven health effects of fashionable shoes on women. That’s why I was glad Leora Tanenbaum wrote Bad Shoes and the Women Who Love Them, and why I had her on my podcast for an interview. Neither she nor I am denying that high heels are sexy or fun to wear. But the problem is that they’re not relegated to those rare occasions when you really want to go with sexy and fun to wear, occasions when you make other over the top sartorial choices like funky headwear, microminis, or your fancy jewelry. High heels, even scarily tall high heels, are considered a regular part of everyday wear for women. In fact, many women feel they have to wear them to look professional. Even if they’re standing on their feet all day.
Patriarchy loves to mutilate women’s bodies, that’s for sure. Corsets, foot-binding, female genital mutilation—all sorts of traditions have arisen, and all of them have some relationship to the twin demands on women to be modest yet sexy. The thing is, we like to pretend we’re not a society that puts such health-damaging demands on women. And yet, if you look at the actual evidence of what women’s shoes do to women’s feet, we are exactly one of those societies. (Because I will immediately be accused of creating equivalence between foot-binding or FGM and high heels, I’m not. I’m talking about kind, not degree.) A lot of women experience chronic pain because of their shoes. A lot of them have to get foot surgery to reverse some of the effects. And for what? A slightly better calf shape under a knee length pencil skirt? Why is it so hard to relegate high heels to special occasions, and view flats as the only appropriate everyday wear?