Why do women wear high heels? It’s a question men can ask but feminists can’t. When men ask it they’re being light-hearted and humorous, expressing jovial bafflement at the strange ways of womankind. When feminists ask it they’re being judgemental bullies, dismissing the choice and agency of their Louboutin-loving sisters. So it is that Ally Fogg can get away with writing a piece for the Guardian on why he, Fogg, does not like women wearing heels (I defy any woman to do this without being considered a raging femmephobe – just ask Charlotte Raven).
In said piece, Fogg tells the story of a female friend – a kind of Everywoman in stilettoes – “grumbling about the blisters and bruises being caused by her latest proud purchase”:
I muttered something about taking more care when trying things on in the shop and she looked at me as if I had started speaking fluent Martian. “I’d never not buy a nice pair of shoes just because they didn’t fit!” she exclaimed, then we sat gawping at each other while silent mutual incomprehension calcified the air.
It’s a real Mars and Venus moment, suggesting that when it comes to shoes women are a bit, well, irrational (bless ‘em). Fogg later comments that he is “more attracted to a woman who looks like she can drink me under the table then carry me home, making a sturdy pair of DMs just the ticket”
I live in hope that one day the human race will view high heels with the same horror with which we view foot-binding. Women would be spared innumerable podiatric agonies and men would, I think, just about cope. Until then I shall content myself with the knowledge that I’m right and the rest of the human race is a bit daft.
I can see the good intent here. No one wants women to have ruined feet (unless it’s feminists who are making that point, in which case ruined feet become empowering). But “a bit daft”? Really? Femininity, and the way in which it shapes women’s supposed free choices, is a little more complex than that.
The truth is, I’m really, really sick of women’s “daft” fashion preferences being mocked. Sick, too, of the way in which things which cause women pain – high heels, cosmetic surgery, excessive dieting – are treated as choices which feminists cannot analyse but which men are free to ridicule once the damage is done. For a feminist to say “you can do this but I wish you didn’t have to” is considered a terrible denial of agency. For a man to make light of what femininity does to women is, on the other hand, totally fine. We’d rather be viewed as stupid and irrational (“girly”) than not in control of our own lives. Yet the truth is we’re not in control. We live under patriarchy and we shouldn’t be ashamed of what it makes us do. We don’t make choices in a vacuum. What we should be seeking is not the illusion of agency, but freedom from the hierarchy which dehumanises us to begin with.
Every day women have to make decisions in a world that hates women. Moreover, since the maintenance of such a world requires that everyone pretends the hatred does not exist, it’s no wonder that the rational choices women make can end up seeming foolish. “Silly” women don’t ask for pay rises because they know that they are far more likely than male colleagues to suffer negative consequences. “Unambitious” women don’t seek promotions because they know that the cost of being seen as a powerful woman can outweigh the benefits. “Vain” women starve themselves or binge and vomit, fully aware of fully aware of the social and financial costs of having “excess” flesh. “Stupid” women stay with men who abuse them, knowing that trying to leave would put them at greater risk of violence. “Daft” women wear shoes that damage their feet because they know that wearing their vulnerability on their sleeve might attract less male hostility. These are all sensible decisions in the circumstances, but they’re also decisions which allow anyone ignorant of misogyny (and plenty of people are) to portray women as their own worst enemies.
Last month the press reported on how Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama have “pared down” wardrobes so they can concentrate on “the important things”. Good for them, but would a woman ever be able to do the same? As we also found out, a male newscaster can wear the same outfit every day for a year and no one even notices. The world does not work like this for women. As Cordelia Fine writes, “the same career entails greater sacrifices for her than for him”, but these are sacrifices we don’t acknowledge. Would a woman going to work dressed like Mark Zuckerberg be seen as ambitious, focussed and unfussy? Or would people be more inclined to see her as at best lazy, at worst unnatural?
Most of the time it’s just easier to play the femininity game so why fight it? Even within feminism a failure to be sufficiently feminine is treated with suspicion, particularly given the trend for replacing the identification of structural oppression with a far woollier, non-challenging accusation of “femmephobia”. From the way some women defend their right to be “a girly girl” and wear #feministheels you’d think that second-wave feminism had forced all women to walk around barefoot in hessian sacks. Websites such as Transadvocate delight in portraying “TERFs” as ageing, short-haired, drab, flat-shoed “ugly” women (basically no different to the “masculine women” of anti-suffragette propaganda a century ago). I’ve seen women complain about “the Birkenstock tendency” of older feminists, a neat way of combining antipathy towards lesbians with a dig about the “wrong” shoes. Basically, if you are a feminist it is far, far easier not to be vilified by the mainstream if you aren’t too butch. This is treated as a form of bravery – look at me! I wear lipstick and dresses and you can’t say I’m not fighting the patriarchy! – but it’s really a piece of piss (I do it all the time and have never once felt the cold, hard grip of femmephobia upon me). Being a “feminine feminist” isn’t a contradiction in terms; it’s not even hypocrisy. It’s just a sensible thing to do given that you’ve got serious battles to fight. Who has time to be mocked for their sandals and accused of bigotry just because she thinks footwear that causes actual physical harm might, you know, be a bad idea?
That said, I don’t think appearing “femme” is always that much of a sacrifice. High heels are a total pain (which is why I rarely wear them) but dresses – particularly stretchy, non-tailored ones – can be pretty convenient. It’s only one item of clothing to worry about and there’s no pesky waistband if you happen to stuff yourself over lunch. Putting on a simple dress is no more effort than putting on a t-shirt and yet no one ever asks “why does Mark Zuckerberg bother with trousers? If he’s so bloody efficient, why doesn’t he just make his top longer, say, down to his knees?” It’s taken as read that men have to dress in whatever a particular culture deems to be a “masculine” way. Unlike women, men are not believed to make “irrational” clothing choices at all. They might occasionally indulge in a little self-pity over the fact that their choices are more restricted but they never actually do anything about it. Whereas women are pressured to be feminine and then mocked for it, men’s complicity in the maintenance of masculinity is rarely questioned. We know that men who present in a feminine way do so at a high cost yet this doesn’t lead us to see “masculine” men as the dress-up dolls that they, too, are being. We don’t see “masculine” men as foolish because we accept that under patriarchy, it’s safer for a man to present that way. But this is also true for women and femininity.
Men aren’t more practical or less vain than women. They’re just more respected and valued, and their decisions are not subject to constant scrutiny and mockery. They play the gender game just as much as we do only because they’re the winners, no one cares (unless they actively reject masculinity – then they, too, get to fail, and we notice). Women, meanwhile, always are forced to play a game they’re destined to lose and then ridiculed for having taken part at all. Wear heels or don’t wear heels. Ask for equal pay or don’t. Stay with him or leave. Be femme, butch or anything in between. Declare yourself cis, non-binary, agender. Whatever you do, you won’t win and you won’t be permitted to sit it out, and it’s not your footwear – or your choices – that are causing the problem.