06 April 2010

Interrogate your hi-heel sneakers...*

Unreal Nature and TTMF recently had an exchange about Ursula K Le Guin's take on high heeled shoes; TTMF also posted on the subject

I have, as I briefly noted in that run of comments, strong views on high heels which I have learned to keep to myself. I am not, personally, convinced by Le Guin's speculation that the fetishistic appeal of high heels is congruent with the eroticism of pain. High heels relate to Chinese foot binding only in the fact that both involve feet in sacrifice of well being to a local idea of beauty. The sacrifice in both cases is, however, real.

Unreal Nature points out that “women love their shoes” ... and I don't dispute it. But human beings are eternally capable of loving that which (or those who) will damage or even destroy them. Women love their shoes, I would suggest, because they have grown up in a society where they learnt that this was what they should do.

The usual explanation for the appeal of high heels is a biosocial one: they throw the weight of the body forward, resulting in muscle tensions which in turn produce visual signals interpreted by the male instinctive subconscious as indicative of sexual readiness. That may be true; I am not qualified to either endorse or dispute it, though it makes superficial sense. I suspect that there is an uglier instinct, too: a woman o high heels is completely unable to run effectively and, therefore, advertises vulnerability.

But there is another aspect: high heels are (in the semiotic sense) a sign. Watch a group of men whose inhibitions have been removed by alcohol, and you will see that there are a numbr of signs which will trigger whistles and suggestive remarks. They include long hair, fur coats, and high heels amongst many others. The woman inside the fur coat, bneah the long hair, perched on the high heels, is to a large extent irrelevant to the initial knee jerk response.

Though I differ from Le Guin's analysis of their fetishistic appeal, I personally believe that high heels are unpleasant and dangerous just on the vulnerability issue alone. It is not my place to decide what others wear; but I cannot ever approve of a social convention which places an individual at deliberate risk.

There is nothing wrong with fetishism, nor with social persistence of convention; but there can be very much wrong with the impact of either on individuals and their well being. In the case of high heeled shoes, the harm is both physical and psychosocial. If individuals wish to accept harm as a price for something else, they should be aware that they are doing so − and should not do so under social duress.

On a broader stage, much of this can be generalised to fashion in general. As Le Guin says in the same essay:

And fashion is a great power, a great social force, to which men may be even more enslaved than the women who try to please them by obeying it.

...or, to quote myself in somewhat more melodramatic mode,“...in my opinion ‘fashion’ is a terrible, terrible thing for the freedom of the individual ... a dead hand on the control levers of the individual psyche of which dictators with huge propaganda machines can only dream ... another word for constant, universal, low level mob behaviour.”

  • *Tommy Tucker, Put on your hi-heel sneakers. 1964.
  • Ursula K Le Guin, The wave in the mind : talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination., "Discussions and opinions: About feet". 2004, Boston: Shambhala. 1590300068 or 9781590300060 (pbk.).


Geoff said...

I see fashion as manipuplation. I know people in the business and they agree.
Is this fashion?
On a bitterly cold day an extremely skinny young girl -having seen a scantily dressed woman in a TV soap or in an advert for a CD - strides through the precinct of my town wearing next to nothing, showing her breasts to me, Jack Frost, and the Wind From The North. Sad isn't it.

Ray Girvan said...

I'm clearly wired unconventionally. Even ignoring the practical/safety considerations, I find high heels totally naff and have never, ever, found them the least attractive; in dating days, "doesn't wear high heels" was one of my first-glance criteria (it may well be prejudice, but frankly I took them as a proxy indicator of stupidity).

Felix said...

I have to agree that in dating days (oh dear, this makes us sound so very old!!) I, too, found them not only unattractive but a turn off.

Geoff said...

Alas alack, in my young days and until I was 33 I took a fancy to ladies in high heels and the "undies" - stocking, suspender belts etc - of the pin-ups of those times. Cyd Charisse was on my college locker. .....even now when coming across an old pin-up image I get a bit hot under the............. !! Oh dear, afunny old world.

Geoff said...

" High Heel as as an .............indicator of stupidity "
I have to say;
Melody Gardot "walks with a stick....likes to drink cognac, smoke cigars.............. and wears high heels......" Seems to me to be an intelligent woman with a beautiful voice and true musical ability.
Also an admirer of fat buddy - better known as buddha.
Can't be that stupid.

Ray Girvan said...

[FX]: Marvin the Paranoid Android voice: Sounds awful.[/FX] I see she's a macrobiotic cook: woo nutrition theories about yin and yang foods aren't a good sign.