Tuesday, 8 March 2016

High heels

Victoria Justice: checking her not-so-secret weapons

I can’t live without high heels. They may go in and out of ‘fashion’ but for me they are eternal.

Can I share with you Dabrela’s Two Laws? My First Law states that the higher the heel the more it flatters the leg. The Second Law qualifies the First by asserting that the higher the heel, the harder it is to wear. What’s to be done? Well, you have to find a compromise. Go as high as you can. It has been calculated that the average pair of high heels causes pain after being worn for 66 minutes and 48 seconds. I’m not sure I can last even that long. But one tip I offer up for free. Fix on the height you want to wear, then invest in a pair that is an inch higher. Practise wearing the higher pair and then when you go back to your shoes of choice – bingo, they feel a lot easier!

There’s a lot of technique to wearing heels, and I suspect if, like me, you’re burdened with a male body it’s harder to master. There are skeletal differences between men and women. It’s a devil to master that heel-and-toe rolling motion when your heel is a pointed instrument: not for nothing is the word ‘stiletto’ borrowed from the Italian for ‘dagger’. Anyway, here’s a video that I found helpful. It warns against three perils – wobbly ankles, stiff knees and gripping of the thighs – and offers three bits of advice:
  • Stand up straight with your chest reaching to the sky. It will give an impression of confidence and counterbalance the weight-shift.
  • Engage the lower abs. This activates the lower back, which is helpful for stabilisation.
  • Relax through the hips and knees. This helps you ‘glide through the foot’.  
In 2004 a Swedish scientist called Jarl Flensmark published an academic article suggesting an association between the use of heeled footwear and schizophrenia. “Heeled footwear,” he wrote, “began to be used more than 1,000 years ago, and led to the occurrence of the first cases of schizophrenia ... Industrialisation of shoe production increased schizophrenia prevalence. Mechanisation of the production started in Massachusetts, spread from there to England and Germany, and then to the rest of Western Europe. A remarkable increase in schizophrenia prevalence followed the same pattern.”

It was one of those daft papers that seem concocted purposely to attract media attention. And sure enough the media picked it up. You know the sort of thing: “Are Your Shoes Driving You Mad?”  The argument was that the wearing of heeled footwear coincided with the earliest historical reports of schizophrenic symptoms. Because they are impractical, heels were originally a marker of class, wealth and sophistication; if you were lucky enough to enjoy those advantages you were also more likely to report mental ill-health, and many European princelings and leaders of fashion were clearly off their rockers. Ergo, the elevated footwear drove them nuts. As Brian Clegg points out in his demolition of Flensmark’s paper, this is a classic confusion of correlation and causality. If there were a causal link, you might equally argue that the princelings were mentally unbalanced to begin with and this illness caused them to make irrational choices, opting for footwear that was anything but sensible.

Lots of theories have been advanced as to why women wear high heels. It’s often said that heels make their bottoms protrude and wiggle alluringly from side to side. In his book Curvology: The  Origins and Power of Female Body Shape, David Bainbridge rejects this on anatomical grounds. He suggests two other reasons. First, they force a woman to walk slowly and with shorter steps, thus emphasising two characteristic features of female locomotion (sic). Second, tilting the foot makes it take up less horizontal space, thus creating the illusion that it is smaller; and small feet have proved attractive to men across diverse cultures.

Bainbridge’s book is illuminating on many topics but I think he short-changes us on this issue, even though he recognises that high heels are “the most common artificial means by which women emphasise their legs”. For me the fascination of heels is that they combine vulnerability and potency. A woman in heels can’t run – which means she can’t readily run away. At the same time, they lift her off the ground, eliminating the typical height difference between men and women, projecting her aspiringly upwards. I have a theory that many of the things that hold most power over us do so by combining opposites: they are contradictions held in dynamic equilibrium. Let me give another example. Why are children – and indeed adults – mesmerised by dinosaurs? I think it’s because they shimmer on the frontier between the real and the imagined. They have the characteristics of fable – dragon-like creatures of unexampled size, strength, ferocity – yet we know that they once existed, and though we’ll never see one in a zoo scientists can tell us with increasing accuracy what they looked like and how they lived. They are a union of opposites.

One of my readers commented that this blog is a bit cerebral and would “go over a lot of girls’ heads”. Fair comment. Here I am, setting out to celebrate the killer heel and I end up riffing on dinosaurs! But I suppose the coniunctio oppositorum is actually the key to my own nature: two spirits in one body, male and female, held for the moment in uneasy equilibrium. The male me wears sensible brogues. The female me owns far more pairs of shoes than she can possibly wear, and most of those are ‘statement heels’.

Further reading

Marc Abrahams, ‘Heel thyself’, Guardian, 16 November 2004 [on Flensman’s hypothesis] 
David Bainbridge, Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape (2015)
Brian Clegg, Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe (2013)
J Flensman, ‘Is there an association between the use of heeled footwear and schizophrenia?Medical Hypotheses 63(4), 2004, 740-7 [it is noteworthy that at the time of publication, articles in this journal were not peer-reviewed – editorial policy has since changed in response to criticism]
Silly Transwoman blog, 'How to get a more feminine gait' and 'Walking in heels'