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“Heel!” Commanded the Stiletto



I’ve been so serious lately that I thought it might be fun to write about sex for a change—I mean heels.


Actually, who would have thought that sex and shoes went together? Sex of a kind, I mean. This is complicated. Maybe I should just get on with it.

Stilettos have really been “up” for years now, but they have recently attracted the attention of sociologists as well as fashionistas. I am writing this on the last day of Fashion Week in New York, where feet on runways have done their best to heighten the annual drama. A review of the history of heels seems timely, and it makes one realize how peculiar and yet fascinating human beings are with regard to feet.

Late last year, a French sociologist named Nicolas Gueguen published a study in Archives of Sexual Behavior  titled “High Heels Increase Women’s Attractiveness.” Under Gueguen’s supervision in a small town in Brittany, researchers discovered that men were much more likely to help women with questionnaires or a dropped glove if they were wearing heels that were at least 3 ½ inches high. This has been taken as evidence that women in stilettos have a certain power over men.

Maybe the men in the study experienced a time warp. Their minds might have flown back to Italy of the 1400s when courtesans wore very high heels called chopines. Some were as much as 10” tall, and because it was so difficult to walk in them, men needed to help the courtesans move around. You can see how the courtliness kicked in.

There was no sign, however, of a more recent masculine memory of heels, which would have inspired the men to stand up on their tiptoes and aim. This is a warrior memory originating in Persia around 1500. Horsemen reportedly found that boots with heels enabled them to stand securely in stirrups to shoot bows and arrows.

King Louis XIV of France

King Louis XIV of France

During the time since, heels have served multiple purposes, some practical, some aesthetic, some intimidating, and others seductive. They have often been worn by prostitutes to advertise their services and by the nobility to enhance stature. They were also worn for sensible reasons, like enabling a butcher to rise above the offal in his shop and enabling pedestrians to rise above the filth in ancient streets.

King Louis XIV of France, who was only 5’4” tall, popularized heels that he wore for added height. Only men of noble birth were allowed to wear the red heels he sported, and they could never be higher than his. After the French Revolution, Napoleon banned high heels, but Marie Antoinette wore hers to her execution in 1793. At about the same time, the Puritans of Massachusetts banned “seductive” shoes in women. Violation of that ban could result in a trial for witchcraft.

The sexiness of high heels is a little hard to follow, especially when the very extreme modern versions seem to create a gait that is a bit awkward. Maybe the look of vulnerability, of imbalance and even discomfort triggers some kind of male dominance arousal as well as chivalry. According to one sociologist, however, it’s all about a seductive silhouette featuring “sensual jutting buttocks.”

Now that the concept has gone to new extremes, with designs almost architectural in nature, the footwear has evolved into very costly works of art. It has also become medically costly. The American Podiatric Medical Association warns of a long list of ills. These include corns, calluses, sprained ankles, cracked foot bones, neuromas, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, etc., and even spinal problems. Last year, the Association announced a study recommending that no heel higher than two inches be worn.

"Killer Heels" at the Brooklyn Museum

“Killer Heels” at the Brooklyn Museum

The suffering endured to attract masculine attention reminded me of the habit of binding feet that endured in China for about a thousand years. A photographer is currently creating a book on the practice, collecting images of the feet of only a few women between the ages of 80 and 100 years old who still bear the scars.

The tiny, teacup-sized feet symbolized wealth and marriage eligibility. They were wrapped and deformed into what has been described as a “lotus shape,” actually the shape of just one petal, little toes curled under to the sole. The idea was that the girl’s mute suffering indicated that she would be a good, subservient wife and mother to her sons. I thought about including a photo of a deformed foot, but it would make you sick.

Interesting, isn’t it, that feminine suffering still serves the pursuit of male attention?

Sociologists may have concluded that heels currently empower women, but history suggests that they have always empowered both sexes. Come to think of it, cowboy boots have never gone out of style, and a nice pair below lean legs does cause a bit of a flutter. Evocative they are. Maybe I get this after all.



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