Carol Hunt: I'm a feminist - but I love my heels
In this macho world, it's not surprising that many women want to stand taller, writes Carol Hunt
'They're just shoes," says Glinda to her friend Elphaba in the hit musical Wicked.
"Let it go," she pleads as the Wicked Witch of the West (the aforementioned Elphaba) plots to take the coveted slippers from a thieving young Dorothy. Glinda's comments are invariably met with an intake of breath followed by much laughter, because, as any woman will tell you, they're never "just shoes".
I like a high heel as much as the next woman, and will often sacrifice comfort for style by cramming my long-suffering feet - ugly sister style - into a pair of totally unsuitable stilettos or platforms. Unsuitable for what? Well, anything that requires me to do more than totter about and smile gamely through my agony - and preferably not both at the same time.
Why do I wear them? Because at five foot three inches on a good day, if I want to see what's going on in the world I need a little help with my height. I wear heels, like Bono and Nicolas Sarkozy, to make myself look taller. I also suspect that they make me look thinner. Or at least elongate my horribly short legs. As a self-declared feminist I will, naturally, refuse to believe all that stuff about heels accentuating a woman's hips, legs and backside and exaggerating all her feminine traits. Or, as psychologists from the University of Portsmouth put it, "High heels exaggerate the sex-specific aspects of the female walk which could cause sexual arousal in males. The normal stimulus of a woman walking is exaggerated by the wearing of high heels, producing a supernormal stimulus."
Because if I did believe it, that would be akin to saying that I wear high heels (sometimes) in order to look sexually available. To men. Which, of course, as I am both married and a feminist (and no, that's not a contradiction in terms), would be inappropriate, or just plain bad.
Temp and part-time actress Nicola Thorp also thinks that having to wear high heels is very bad. She was not impressed when she was instructed last December, on arriving at Price Waterhouse Cooper's (PwC) UK office, to do a stint on reception, to don heels between two and four inches high. Incidentally, she was also handed a dress and jacket to wear which she dutifully put on, and told what colour make-up was acceptable; but it seems, for this warrior feminist, that the shoes were a deal-breaker. Despite the fact that Thorp works as an actress who, presumably, must wear whatever outfit the character calls for, she was not prepared to play the part of the well-dressed, welcoming receptionist, citing "sexism" in the workplace, as she asked why the boys didn't have to wear heels also.
PwC immediately said that it doesn't force female employees to wear heels and that it was the outsourcing company, Portico, who had the effrontery to insist that Ms Thorp abide by the appearance guidelines she had signed up to. But by then, it was too late.
Thorp had already taken to social media, organised a petition and was well on the way to getting 100,000-plus signatures from like-minded, sexually-offended women.
Jesus wept. Or at least he would, went the argument, if he was forced to carry his cross while wearing four-inch Louboutins. Immediately the blokes raised their heads. "You think you're fashionably oppressed?" they asked. "You should try wearing a strangulating tie, with a boring suit, day in, day out for decades."
"Or," as one male friend said, "at least women have a choice between dresses or trousers; if I landed into work in a new Victoria Beckham number, I wouldn't just be sent home, I'd be given the number of the local psychiatrist."
All interesting, but beside the point. What we should really be asking is why so many high-powered women, in politics, media and elsewhere, all feel the need to wear high heels. I suspect it's not just because of the sexual connotations, but because in our macho world height is associated with power. Ambitious men who are lacking in the inches department compensate with either discreet heels or a Napoleonic complex - or, in the case of the aforementioned Bono and Sarkozy, both.
As sociologist Lisa Wade puts it, "When women wear high heels, it's a way of elevating themselves to men's level. If tall is associated with masculinity, and masculinity is power, then height is power."
Height is also associated with ambition and status; "You never find wonderful and great things on the ground, but instead placed on high, to fill others with wonder and reverence," Arcangela Tarabotti, a Venetian nun, said sometime during the 1800s. She was describing an early version of the stiletto heel.
High heels may be currently a feminist issue, but I won't be getting rid of mine anytime soon. Because there's shoes - and then there's "shoes". With heels. Killer heels preferably. Yes please!