I have a confession.
Though I consider myself a feminist, there are several things about the movement that make me uncomfortable: Andrea Dworkin’s radical view that heterosexual sex is tantamount to rape, the need to inject feminist theory in the field of scientific research and discovery, the disdain for benevolent sexism and bras because they represent male oppression. Personally, I think bras were only meant to support breasts.
But one of these issues that make me uncomfortable is high heels.
We’ve heard everything from second-wave feminists: how stilettos are meant to constrict female movement (slower to walk, the easier to catch), how they symbolize sexual objectification, and why wearing them keeps women under the male gaze and forever under their thumb.
Of course, all these could be true in one way or another. But I’ve always seen feminism as a celebration not only of the female sex but also of feminine beauty and motherhood. So when second-wave feminism hit in the ‘80s and ‘90s and made women feel guilty about wearing makeup and high heels, I was torn.
More Than Heels?
For me, stilettos were a way to change my perspective of the world. Spending most of your life under five feet can be tiresome (also being called gnome, dwarf, halfling, hobbit, etc.), and so when given the opportunity to add an inch or two so I could look people straight in the eye, I was all for it.
This change in perspective did not come easy.
Any woman who has worn heels knows that you need the skill to walk in them and that they exact a physical toll: back pain, bunions, blisters, swollen toes, ankle pain and a general sense of discomfort that should stop any woman from standing for more than 10 minutes.
So why do women persist despite these medical issues?
I persisted so I could see things from a different point of view, but for some, the reasons could be complex and diverse. But there is an obvious one: attractiveness.
Height in both sexes is seen as a desirable trait. And high heels make women’s legs appear longer and give them a posture that might signal sexual receptiveness. Since women already have a natural sway when walking due to the wideness of their pelvis, this sway is even more exaggerated when they wear heels.
High Heels and Sexual Politics
Which makes high heels a source of tension and make women ask: how can we vilify the male gaze when we wear high heels that allow men to objectify women’s bodies?
How can we justify our outrage when we wear the objects that enslave us?
But the answer to all this may lie in Japan’s #KuToo movement. Yumi Ishikawa started the movement in response to Japan’s long-held views on dress codes and what defines proper female footwear in the office. Women in Japan have long been required to wear black high-heeled shoes at work. The #KuToo movement has petitioned the Japanese health ministry to remove the requirement, citing the health issues that come out of wearing high heels. More than 20,000 people have signed the petition, but so far the Japanese government has remained adamant in its stand.
Other critics have even attacked Ishikawa, a blogger and actress, citing her past work as a nude model. Her critics say she is a hypocrite, as she allowed herself to be photographed in the nude. Which prompted Ishikawa to respond, “Is it bad for a feminist to get naked?” She added, “I expressed myself using my own body.”
Express Yourself, Your Way
Which nails the issue right on its head: #KuToo, high heels, makeup, and feminism are all about freedom of choice.
The choice to express yourself, to celebrate your beauty, to make choices in your life that invigorate you and make the people in your life celebrate the joy of having the freedom to express themselves their way.
The issue has never been about high heels.
The issue has always been institutions, governments, and groups forcing their ideas of what is acceptable and controlling what people should wear or even think. Ishikawa, the 20,000 petitioners, and even I want the same thing: freedom of choice.
And that’s what feminism has always been: giving women the same choices and benefits as men, and that includes the choice of wearing the kind of footwear you want anywhere, anytime.
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Ruth M. Mazo is a part-time writer, part-time illustrator, part-time adventurer, and a full-time student of experience and learning.