High heels, and the price women pay for towering above the competition

Why do women wear high heels?

I am female, and yet I've always been baffled by the way so many women out and out fetishize shoes that hurt, are hard to walk in and over time actually cause injury. (Ever seen a photo of Posh Spice's bunions? Oh. My. God.) I always found the only really tedious aspect of Sex and the City—otherwise a funny and often moving show—to be Carrie Bradshaw mooning over another pair of Manolos. Her character was lazily written and slightly stupid—and excuse me, not believable as a columnist—but the shoe mania made her look like a downright moron.

I mean, shoes are things you put on your feet. They keep them from getting too cold or hot, and from being hurt by sharp, rough objects. They are mostly made from wood, rubber and dead animals, and after you wear them for very long, they smell. They are very far from being art objects, with heels or without.

The damage that high heels do is hard to reverse—bunion surgery is followed by one of the longest and the most painful recoveries of any operation, and it often fails. Heels aren't so great for your lower back, either. I've known several women with persistent back pain who kept right on wearing heels every day. Your choice, sweetie.

What is the attraction? In the most prominent example of an end-of-recession trend among upscale retailers, Macy's flagship store in New York has been relentlessly advertising that after a recent remodel, it has "the largest shoe floor on Earth," with 280,000 pairs of shoes, most of them for women. Many of them are, of course, very expensive, and most of them are heels. Oh my goodness, it's just girl nirvana.

Yes, high heels make your legs look good, if you're wearing a skirt. But there's more to it than that. Apart from the young women swaying around out there around in serious competition for mates, women who wear mostly heels to work are the ones climbing the ladder. There's an unofficial dress code in most companies that women who are ambitious show up in heels: Nothing says self-discipline and willingness to endure pain like high heels (while nothing says "drone" like unsexy flats). This is what is known in feminist circles as "being complicit in your own subjugation." In this case, the feminist circles are not wrong.

The heel rule does not apply, though, to really powerful women—Hillary Clinton doesn't have to please men any more, and the length of her legs and shape of her calves is immaterial to who she is. Clinton rarely wears a heel that's more than an inch—her status is high enough without sacrificing comfort to fashion.

Status, specifically naked declaration of status, has always been one of the main drivers of fashion. Whatever indicates leisure, rarity and power is fashionable, a principle that obtains throughout history. Chinese families that could afford to cripple their daughters by binding their feet drew an unmistakable line between themselves and peasants, who needed all family members to move around and get stuff done.

But the connection between women's drive for power and high heels in the business world, I've decided, is even more embarrassingly primitive than status-seeking. It's fundamentally, literally about height—about, so to speak, stature-seeking. I once worked with a woman, a middle manager, who was more than 6 feet tall and who always wore slacks to work. She still invariably wore heels, and, she once explained, wore her highest heels on the days she had "power meetings." She felt that looming over everyone else in the room gave her an advantage.

It undoubtedly did. Every study ever done shows that height is an advantage in life, and not just on the basketball court.

Why should this be? The plain truth is that we all started out on the floor, looking way, way up at giants who fed and sheltered and cuddled us. It's hard to resist metaphorically looking up to people we literally look up to.

Once again, people who have really gotten to the top—there's an altitude metaphor creeping in again—in spite of their unimpressive stature are free to be as short as they are. Clinton towers over the people around her by force of personality and achievement.

Which is really the only way to loom without paying the price of pain.

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