Are Stilettos Empowering? It Depends On The Feet In Question

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embedPhoto: Courtesy of Christian Louboutin.
There was a pretty interesting debate going on over at The New York Times yesterday. Elizabeth Semmelhack, a bona fide shoe expert, wrote out some brief thoughts on whether or not stilettos can be empowering for women. It's a valid question. As she notes, the issue today is basically divided into two perceptions of what a woman in heels represents: A vaguely '80s, Grace-Jones-inspired vision of "power sexy," which includes stilettos but also lots of badass activity; and the more Betty-Draper-ish way of wearing high heels, in which they are more of a trap-enforcing delicacy and convey the old trope of women as "ornamental" instead of "instrumental." Today, of course, it's all about choice, as it should be. If you personally feel that stilettos are steeped in a long history of patriarchy that can only be undone by erasing its symbols completely, then wear flats, and more power to you. If you love stilettos and you refuse to let age-old sexism get in the way of your right to own a pair of bangin' shoes, well, girl, work it. It's that simple, right?

Well, we'd argue, it's even simpler. It comes down to one question: Can you walk? When you don your highest heels, do you have to leave an extra half an hour early to get to work on time? Empowerment can be a symbolic thing in many ways, but in this case, it's quite literal. If your shoes are disempowering you in your daily commute, or making you totter around on unsure tiptoes when you feel like strutting confidently, then no, your stilettos are not doing you any favors as a woman/human with feet. Spiky heels can often be a great accessory in a high-powered workplace. First of all, they add some much-needed spice to work wear that can otherwise be dreadfully boring. Second of all, many women do use them as a power accessory, indicating ambition and, perhaps more subtly, the willingness to sacrifice comfort in the name of getting ahead. One commenter on The New York Times said that as a very short woman, she feels that high heels put her on a level playing field with men, literally — enabling her to look male coworkers square in the eye and avoid being talked to like a child.

Of course, it may be unfair that any of this should play into one's reputation at work. But, the truth is, appearance is always going to have a certain weight, and a lot of jobs do require a particular brand of composure. Our PSA is simply this: In pursuit of getting your '80s villainess on, or even of re-appropriating a symbol of female oppression, be wary of taking a step backwards by wearing shoes that make you physically uncomfortable. Not only is it obvious to those around you that you're struggling, but if you're putting all your effort into making sure each step lands safely on the ground instead of twisting your ankle, it's a lot harder to focus on more important things. We don't all have to be Grace Jones (as much as we may want to), doing stunts in our 6-inch, thigh-high boots. Your power dressing can include sensible flats, wedges, even kitten heels — what counts is that you're thinking about it and channeling your ambition in a way that makes sense for you. (The New York Times)