Hurts So Good: The Confounding Conundrum Of High Heels

Earlier this week I saw the new movie Jurassic World, and it was fantastic. Exactly what I expected with a few surprises thrown in. One of those surprises was a climactic scene toward the end of the movie where the female protagonist flees a dinosaur…in high heels. The scene is even shown in slow motion with just the clicking of her heels on the pavement heard above the dino-fray.

A New York Times writer also noticed this and investigated the science behind high heels. Citing a review of research about the effects of high-heeled shoes on the female gait, the article asserted that “walking in high heels can alter the natural position of the foot-ankle complex, and thereby produce a chain reaction of effects that travel up the lower limb at least as far as the spine.”

Walking in high heels is tough and often dangerous. The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery published an article last month that studied 10 years of heel-related injuries for women in the United States, citing an increase from 7,097 in 2002 to 14,140 in 2012. Aside from blatant injuries caused by donning high heels, wearers can also suffer a range of other ailments, such as ingrown toenails, damaged leg tendons, bunions, osteoarthritis of the knee, plantar fasciitis, and more.

This infographic shows the effects high heels have on the body. Image from The Washington Post.

Yet women still wear high heels.

In a 2014 study, 49 percent of women surveyed indicated that they wear high heels despite the fact that more than 70 percent of them complained that the heels cause them pain. Some women may forgo the trend, but not everyone is on board with flats.

Earlier this month, actress Emily Blunt asserted her disappointment when several women were turned away from a screening at the Cannes Film Festival because they had opted to wear flats instead of high heels; Blunt said she thinks women should stop wearing high heels and choose flats instead; she’s more comfortable in Converse sneakers, she explained.

All of this information about the danger of wearing high heels made me wonder when the trend started and why it’s still hanging around.

Manly Machinations  

Instances of high heels date back to Ancient Egypt, but their popularity soared in 15th century Persia where male soldiers wore them to better secure their stances in stirrups, allowing them to shoot their bow and arrow with a steady aim. Our European male ancestors saw this fancy footwear on Persian messengers and realized it meant keeping their aristocratic toes safe from the muck that coated Renaissance roads.

More important than cleanliness, though, was dominance. High heels imparted impressive height that left others feeling weak and overshadowed; Henry VIII was famous for his imposing stature, as he was 6’2” in the 1500s. High heels were originally meant to intimidate, not entice.

Womanly Wiles

chopines_from racked
Chopines worn by Italian courtesans during the 1500s. Photo courtesy Racked.

During the 16th century, Italian courtesans (the highest class of prostitutes at the time) enjoyed a number of privileges other women didn’t, but they were also expected to participate in manly activities, such as smoking, reading, drinking and…wearing high heels. These over-the-top shoes were called chopines and could be as tall as 10 inches high. And you thought Lady Gaga’s crazy shoes were so original.

The male fashion for wearing high heels continued, thanks in large part to French King Louis XIV (who actually started the red sole trend, not Christian Louboutin) and British King Charles II. The 17th century saw rise in non-courtesan women adopting many male fashion trends, including high heels.

After the French revolution, societal norms shifted and the previously sought-after dominance was no longer en vogue, so fashion eschewed the tall trend. High-heeled wearing women can thank French photographers for bringing the fad back into style; they were taking photos for pornographic postcards and realized a few extra inches on a woman’s foot did wonders for her derriere. Once high heels became associated with women, men abandoned the trend because its status had diminished.

Walking the Line

Despite the dangers, women continue wearing high heels and may well until they can no longer walk—in them or otherwise. High heels are fashion-forward and a bit precarious, making them ever so stylish. If you’re a fan of high heels, no doubt you’ve felt the pain of breaking in a new pair of stilettos. Avid heel wearers can take a few preventative measures to save their feet from some pain, such as:

  • Wearing flatter heels (3 inches or lower)
  • Choose a thicker heel (more surface area for support)
  • Change up your shoe style (each day or during the day)
  • Select soles with more cushion (certain brands offer more support)
  • Exercise your feet (seriously, try these moves to relieve pressure and strengthen muscles)

Even if injuries related to high heels continue to rise, women likely will continue wearing them. After all, we’ve always walked a fine line between what society expects us to do and what we want to do; why not walk that line in a pair of pretty pumps?

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