Friday, April 14, 2006

Stilt Walking into Spring?

Stilt Walking into Spring is, in fact, the title of a New York Times article that explores the ridiculousness of wearing the ridiculously high heels so in fashion this season. The heels above range between 5 1/2 and 7 inches high (that's right! the Balenciaga chunky platform you undoubtedly recognized as next to last is 7 freakin' inches high!), and the author is trying to make her way around NY in the 5 1/2 cone-heeled Lanvins, pictured fourth from the left.

Of course, she can't, and so she ditches them in favor of her ballet flats while getting into Michael's, in the company of the likes of Anna Wintour and Joan Rivers.

Quoth the Lanvin-loving author:

I mounted the curb. Now six feet tall, I suddenly felt less invincible than wretchedly vulnerable, to gross stares and gusts of wind. Michael's, barely half a block away, seemed a journey of several miles. [...]

In other circumstances, like walking on the wall-to-wall at the office or at a party where I mostly stood, the Lanvins were actually comfortable, and I enjoyed my new height and the giddy looks of fright on the men in the office.

In reality you don't wear a pair of shoes like that if you carry a book bag and share trains with commuters. You invite looks of pity. Shoes like that serve a different purpose: seduction, fun, making men bark.

A friend of mine compared their glamorous constraint to wearing a tight Hedi Slimane suit to a party. "All you can do is lean at the bar," she said. "And make sure your drink comes with a straw."

While the article is pretty much all over the place--much of it is actually devoted to explaining how women buy 5", $700 and up pairs of shoes in order to feel taller and have authority in front of their kids (whaaa???)

There are so many problems with this that I don't even know where to start.

Painful, aberrantly high (and anatomically torturous) heels are "fun" and "making men bark"? Or, alternatively, making them cower in fright? What the heck? Which one is it? I'm all for using fashion to enhance your sex appeal and all, if that's what you desire, and there's nothing wrong with beautiful shoes, but there's something painfully wrong about shoes you can't walk 1/2 a block in for the life of you, and that invite either condenscending or frightened looks.

I remember one episode of House a while back, in which the abrasive doctor refuses to hire a replacement for one of his co-workers--although she was fun, smart, highly recommended, extremely intelligent and capable--because she was wearing these 4" pointy-toed stilettoes. He quipped that he doesn't need a member of the staff who's not comfortable enough in her own skin, so much so that she needs to wear painful shoes to assert her edge. Of course, the deeper reason is that he still wanted Cameron back on the job, but that's beside the point.

The sexiness, the authority, the confidence, the whole package, shouldn't have to rely on a pair of shoes that confine you to a chair the whole evening. The "giddy looks of fright" on those colleagues' faces were probably pity mixed with fear of this crazy person who's just inane enough to subject herself to foot torture in order to attract attention. Being sexy and confident come first and foremost from within, from what you have to offer as a person. The 7-inch platforms are not going to help you educate your kids (that bothered me immensely, together with the fact that all these ridiculous shoes cost in the vicinity of a thousand, clearly a different income bracket than the majority of this or any other country). They are not going to help you be loved--they may get you a one-night stand, sure, and I guess that's what they're geared for.

However, the man who truly cares about you will beg you to please, please come down from those heights, be comfortable with yourself--be comfortable in your own skin--be yourself. In fact, if a man wants you in 7-inch heels, I recommend that you run away from him as fast as possible. (In your handy ballerina slippers, of course). The man who wants you in 7-inch heels does not see you as a person. Does not want to know you. He's fulfilling a fantasy in which you play the role of a toy or an object. The man who wants you in 7-inch heels has no regard for who you are, nor does he care. He wants you as a sex slave, but he most likely won't understand the meaning of a profound relationship. Nor does he want to: he's probably not reached that level of maturity.

The shoes of this season as depicted in this article are probably one of the most ostentatious displays of status, sex, class, and power that I've ever seen fashion do in a while. They do convey a message, all right (you obviously need to do a lot of soul-searching before you climb into these shoes)--but one that I don't care for at all. I would dare say that this is just one tiny boil as a symptom of the deeply rotten core of a particular segment of society (as well as of patriarchy at large), but for now, I'll let patriarchy-blaming to more talented people than I.


At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Terry said...

Wow. So women who buy stillettos are doing so because they're under the spell of superficial, domineering men who don't care about who they really are? That's curious. I walk through the women's shoe department of a major department store almost weekly and have never seen anyone buying heels under force or intimidation by a man. I rather see them head quite willingly to the big platforms of the season.
My wife and I enjoy women's fashion, and talk about it often, both alone and with friends and acquaintances. When the topic of heels comes up, the response from women is almost universal: we may not be comfy in heels but we love how pretty the shoes are and what they do for our legs. My sense is that women wear heels for the same reason they wear makeup or accessories or do their hair a certain way, and that's to be attractive. And attractive for their own sake, and not to please the Svengali-like man in their life.
Your diatribe against men as the root of the "problem" is self-serving and peckish. Women will wear what they bloody well choose to for fashion, and to suggest otherwise is absurd.

At 3:37 PM, Blogger Scarpediem said...

Wow, thanks Terry, I was waiting for someone to have a discussion with!

What I wrote stems from this simple philosophy: women should enjoy fashion and all of its thrills (make-up, etc.) as much as they want. However, when fashion becomes painful (as it does in the case of those Lanvins!) and confines women to a certain static lifestyle, women should reexamine why they subject themselves to such torture. Until you've walked yourself in 3" or higher stilettos (forget wedges!), you don't know how painful it can be.

The original NYT articles in fact pointed to the fact that the much admired shoes the author was wearing could not face the "adventure" of walking 1/2 a block. In fact, in the end, the author admitted that they serve one primary purpose: "make men bark." So--yeah, that's why I wrote what I wrote, and you have certainly misconstrued my comments to the article as "against men." I only argued that these shoes are likely to turn on certain men, and then temporarily; to subject yourself to 7" heels day in and day out in order to feel attractive to such men strikes me as, well, absurd. Shoes like these, while pretty, don't "agree" with the way most of us, real women, live our lives. And there is a certain sense promoted by fashion magazines, the fashion industry, etc. that this type of shoes is basically the only type of footwear that will render you sexy, feminine, etc. (with absolutely no regard to the long-term results on women's health--(see here for more about that). This blog is devoted to proving otherwise.

As about "women will wear what they bloody well choose to for fashion"--that's a whole other argument right there. Because "what they want" assumes that their free will is strong enough to transcend their overtly sexualized nature and "choose" to be "sexy" or "not." As many feminist writers have pointed out, this is not a choice inside a patriarchal system. Women --girls--are bombarded from a very early age with messages about beauty (the entire complex: make-up, cosmetics, weight loss, fashion): and how their value as human beings rests on their attractiveness. This is done in subtle or obvious ways, but it's done, obsessively, to all of us. So when they "choose" to be sexy, etc., the choice has already been made for them. Oh, sorry, almost forgot: men seem to be far less subjected to that. Hmmmm...Now, this is a very crude rendition of this feminist argument, but this comment is getting pretty long already; I'll be happy, however, to refine it some other time.

At any rate, this blog is necessarily a work in process. I used to wear high heels, too; I still hold on to a pair that is just too beautiful to give up, although chances are that I will wear it once every two years or so, at most. I, too, used to love high heels and how my legs looked in them. But I've discovered that I don't have to go to such extreme heights to look fashionable and nice. I'm not sacrificing fashion by wearing pretty and comfortable shoes--and in return, I gain mobility, comfort, and, yes, confidence. This blog is sort of documenting this transition, and along the way, discovering all sorts of interesting things about shoes, because shoes are fun, and I love them dearly. Here's an illustrated example of the kind of rants I'm putting up here. They're not "definitive" essays, but just that, thoughts in progress.

And to return to your original comment: I was responding to an article that discussed ridiculously high shoes (have your wife walk in 5' 1/2 inch stilettos, too, and see how happy she is), and combating the argument that shoes like these attract men. I argued that this is a superficial attraction that has nothing to do with what we're all ultimately looking for (real love and affection, right?). I was really bothered by the idea that one should torture oneself in order to attract this kind of attention. If in the heat of the argument I seemed to attack men, I apologize. I just used overemphasis to drive home a point.

And, for the record, my husband, who could never understand women's attraction to high heels--including mine--has been very happy with my recent shift in footwear choices.

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Eileen said...

I really liked your commentary. I agree that there must be more of a sense of balancing comfort and health with fashion and societal suggestions.

At 11:24 PM, Anonymous terry said...

Scarpediem, I want to thank you for such a thoughtful response when you could've saved yourself 20mins by writing me off as a misogynist (sp??) pig!
I think your reply makes a lot more sense to me than your original post. There is no question that women are socialized (if that's the term) towards high heels from an early age and there is quite a lot of pressure from the fashion press to wear them. And while my wife wears them, she doesn't do so every day, and she NEVER does on a day she expects to do much walking. And certainly a 5 1/2" heel is well beyond her threshold (3" maybe) and perhaps her imagination as well!
So here's my situation, and hers, and I am curious to know if you think we are with you or against you. Fact 1: heels make her legs look longer and slimmer. Fact 2: flats make her legs look short and dumpy with many of her skirts. Thus, Fact 3: heels are nearly always more attractive! Now these are HER observations! And I admit to being part of the problem as I absolutely love a great pair of heels and think they can totally electrify an outfit. Do you think I'm a cad and my wife is a victim?
We're nice people, actually!

At 12:27 AM, Blogger Scarpediem said...

Terry, there's nothing wrong with wanting to look beautiful. There is something wrong with being willing to suffer disproportionately for it for some pretty flimsy or illusory benefit, especially when there are more sensible and quite chic alternatives. Also, a high heel won't make a seriously dumpy, fat, or otherwise physically unattractive leg look nicer; and if your legs are nice enough, they will look fine in comfortable shoes--which, btw, don't have to be flats!

Some would also say that it's unfair to ask women to be constantly mindful of how they're perceived, and to be pressured to use uncomfortable "beauty remedies" such as high heels (or the corsets of yore), whereas men would never dream of subjecting themselves to such treatment.

This may come as a shock to you, but I'm not against high heels per se. Many of them are beautiful. However, I am against the "putting-up-with pain" in order to appear beautiful idea, and I think there are plenty of shoes out there (with a little bit of heel even, though probably no more than 2"), that will make your legs look as beautiful. Also, of course women can wear whatever they want in order to enhance their appearance, duh. However, not all appearances are necessarily enhanced by high heels (and in the case of the ridiculous Balenciaga platforms, I would argue quite the contrary).

Finally, I think women should critically recognize the effect the male gaze has had on them (a way of seeing/looking at women that is so ingrained in this culture we hardly ever notice it)--and own the fact that they dress to be looked at, to be on display, and that most of their beautification efforts is made toward that goal. And if that's what they want, that's fine. Just recognize it's not empowerment we're talking about--just playing along with the rules we've been handed out at birth.

I'm fairly certain you and your wife are nice people :)--and you're absolutely entitled to your tastes and choices. My ony remark would be that, next time your wife wears those 3 1/2" stilettos, she should be aware that becomes all of a sudden much less ambulatory (right?)--and she will also put twice as much effort into the rest of her wardrobe, make-up, hair, nails, etc. She becomes, primarily, a pretty thing to look at, to be admired. It's a persona she might enjoy for a night on the town. However, I'm pretty sure that's not really all there is to her. High fashion pretty much bombards women with messages that tell us that's the ideal to be achieved (admiring gaze, lust, you name it). Um. Ok. I would argue that women should get less of the "look good" message and more of the "BE good, be intelligent, use your mind to get ahead in the world" kind.

I'll have to remember that next time I wear my 3 1/2 Dries van Notens (can't imagine when, but I can always fantasize). Will I enjoy attracting attention and pulling off a flattering (albeit pretty imobile) look? Oh yeah. Is this what I want to be perceived as? Nope. Am I willing to put up with the pain? You know what, after having to stand for an hour and walk for about 30 min. at a wedding in what I thought to be really comfortable 3" shoes (stacked sturdy heel, arch support, etc.), and feeling like I wanted to die, please, will somebody just shoot me and put me up of my misery--I realized I'm no longer willing to put up with the pain. It's simply not worth it. So I switched to some adorable Donald Pliner 2" chunky heels for the next wedding I attended and danced all night without even feeling I had shoes on.

Ok, so I tend to rant a lot. Must be all those years in my youth spent deprived of oxygen while perched on top of my super-high heels! Hope the damage can be reversed!

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Terry said...

My dear scarpediem, I admire your passion and thoughtful arguments. Let me tell you a story about my dear wife, which illustrates my view nicely. After 12 years of at-home mommyhood, she re-emerged into the working world to confront, among other things, a thousand choices about wardrobe and yes, shoes. One night she was getting ready for a birthday party and put on a pair of suede pants and a black v-neck sweater. Standing flat-footed in front of the mirror, she pondered her shoe choice. Always the helpful husband, I leapt for the Kenneth Cole ankle boots with pointy toe and slender heel. “The heel’s too high,” she replied. “Try them. Let’s see,” said helpful husband. Well, those boots looked fantastic, of course. She visually lost about 15lbs and gained 3” in height. Four women at the party complimented her. She stood for about half an hour and sat the rest of the night. No podiatric damage was done, as far as we know. She felt good. Confident. Pretty. So what happened in this moment and others like it? I hear your tongue clucking as you mutter “we lost her to the dark side, you nitwit!” Now I should also tell you that in those 12 years at home, she wore jeans and Doc Martens, and for special she’d perhaps wear too-big khakis and Danskos. On an almost-daily basis she’d say “I’m fat. I hate my body. I have to lose weight.” Not a pretty self-image, to say the least. The post birthday-party Margo no longer says these things. When she dresses well (and shoes are only part of this, of course), she feels good about herself. Feels confident. Projects confidence. People respond to the confidence; are drawn to it. How many wonderful ways does her confidence manifest itself? About a thousand ways, every day. How has this improved our marriage? Can’t begin to tell you.
OK, so what? You’re perhaps yawning by now. We all now that our self-image is defined in large part by how others view us. You don’t have to have a PhD to know this. I don’t think this will change, ever. And a million things contribute to others’ perception of us, only one of which is our shoe choice! So my question is, what’s the big deal? No shoe-fan, myself included, advocates a woman’s being in pain because of her shoes. Pain is bad. But if a woman wears heels a couple days a week, or in the evening, and feels good about herself, what’s the harm? Would it be better to go out in khakis and Danskos and a cotton sweater? I mean, be honest with me. When you and Mr. Diem hit the town, you don’t wear a pair of heels? You’ve sworn them off, FOREVER? How about a little moderation?? Don’t you think that after 10 seconds of conversation people will find you to be intelligent, humorous, engaging? Even if you’re wearing the evil heels? I think they will!
So I know I’m no sociologist and you are obviously better educated on this issue than I am. But I know that fashion is about fun and feeling good. And to forever banish an element of fashion to which women are so obviously drawn seems pretty extreme to me. And not much fun.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Scarpediem said...

Dear Terry, first of all I would NEVER consider you a nitwit--or I wouldn't go through so much trouble replying! And second, I don't think our positions are really that different. I even confessed to stashing a few high heels myself in my closet--which will be worn quite sparsely and only for those very special occasions. But of course, I'm already 5'10" so it's not like I need the extra height; besides, a stylish 2" heel is both comfortable enough and high enough to create the illusion of length and whatever. For the record, Mr. Diem is 5'8", not that this little detail ever deterred me from wearing high heels in the past, or that he ever cared (he was only concerned with the fact that our walks together would be severely limited, or that I would be in pain).

We're not different at all--you and I both agree to use heels in moderation. What I do object to is when heels are taken to extreme heights for the whims of fashion (and even experienced models trip in them on the catwalk), or when from a very young age girls are taught that this is the surefire way to be "sexy." I read about young women who wore nothing but high heels from the age of 13 on; the deleterious effects of such habits have been well documented (ankle, knees, back, various foot problems). One reader of this blog left a comment somewhere saying how she used to wear nothing but high heel pumps simply because that was basically the only acceptable footwear for women for quite a while; now in her early 40s, she simply can't wear high heels at all; I believe she has other foot problems, too. I pass by young women who want to impress their dates in their 4" stilettos, but you can see the Band-aids underneath the vamp of the shoe or on the heel; or you see them staggering down the street with an unnatural gait and a permanent rictus on their faces. I see some simply take off their high heels and walk barefeet on the last stretch home. Altogether, that strikes me as absurd. Men never have to do that!

I would like women to be aware they don't need to subject themselves to this sort of torture to be perceived as "sexy" or attractive. There are plenty of shoes out there that are both beautiful and comfortable. Also, while of course every woman is free to wear whatever she wants, I would like us to be aware of the message we're sending when we do that--and appropriate it, if you will. The little web essay I linked to recently, on the male gaze, fashion advertising, and the pose gives you a more concrete idea of where I'm going with this. I am still working on this theory, but as I said, this is a work in progress.

In conclusion: I don't want to eliminate high heels altogether (I recommend their use "sparingly" in my Foot Pyramid (TM) scheme--I know, I'm such a dork!); I just want to militate for the notion that you can always wear shoes that are both stylish and comfortable, and, very importantly for me, keep you mobile (i.e., independent, and make you into less of an object). In other words, there are always fashion footwear choices that empower you just as much as (or more than) you believe are empowered by the classic 3 1/2" stiletto.

Thanks for a very entertaining debate. I definitely need to refine my 'philosophy' in this regard more. I should link to this later!

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Henri-V said...

I missed this whole exchange until just now!

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