Look at Life: High Heels

3rd November 2017

The Height of Vanity

By Summer Greatorex

It was only when I went shopping for shoes with my teenage daughter that I realised I have a problem with high heels. She’s been invited to her first ‘formal’ party – one with a ‘dress-to-impress’ dress code. And that inevitably means impressive shoes as well. But while I’m thinking a chic kitten heel, or a chunky platform – my daughter only has eyes for the spindly, vertiginous four, five, even six inch heels that are oh-so-fashionable.

Naturally, these shoes are a thing of beauty: they make your legs look longer and thinner, and are divinely elegant paired with the perfect party dress. But like vampires, their beauty is there only to ensnare: underneath they’re malevolent and dangerous. (Remember bloodsucking heart-throb Edward Cullen’s speech in Twilight? ‘I’m the world’s most dangerous predator. Everything about me invites you in. My voice, my face, even my smell.’ … He’s gorgeous, just like shoes.)

My daughter didn’t know what I was talking about either. ‘Of course I can walk in them,’ she fibbed, wobbling precariously up and down the shop, with no more control over her legs than a newborn deer. It’s this self-imposed vulnerability that makes me feel so uncomfortable.

I first came across foot-binding when I read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans in the early 90s. The narrator’s grandmother walked ‘like a tender young willow shoot in a spring breeze’. All the bones in her feet had been broken when she was two years old, and then bound day and night in thick cloth ‘because the moment they were released they would try to recover. She lived in relentless, excruciating pain.’

I’m not comparing wearing heels to foot-binding, because that would be ridiculous – but in the very same year I watched Naomi Campbell fall over on the catwalk while wearing nine inch platforms – and my stomach lurched just as nauseously in disbelief. Naomi was unhurt and the fall made her a household name, but she could easily have been seriously injured. Two decades later, there are hundreds of YouTube compilations of ‘Models in High Heels Fail’, horribly accompanied by lots of laughing emojis.

I’m aware I might sound a little… dramatic? Millions of women wear high heels every day, working productively or partying happily, with no ill effects. Almost all the shoes I own have some kind of heel, and I would feel strange in my smart work clothes wearing flats. But there’s such a big difference between a two or three inch heel, and the kind of shoes that are so lofty they arch your feet unnaturally, throwing out your spine and causing extreme joint pain. As Jacqueline Curtis, a health and fashion journalist, explains: ‘When you wear flats, your weight is spread evenly between the ball of your foot and the heel, with little pressure on your ankle.

Unfortunately, heels cause such an imbalance between the heel and the ball that the ankle is forced to become the fulcrum for your entire body. And, since ankles aren’t built to take that kind of pressure, falls and twisted or sprained ankles can be pretty common.’

I often wondered how the rich and famous manage to work their heels so effortlessly. But I’ve discovered it’s a thing to have Botox injected into your feet (it’s called a ‘stiletto lift’) to add padding to the balls of your feet to make heels more comfortable. Amal Clooney, Victoria Beckham and Catherine Zeta Jones are all rumoured to have undergone bunion surgery. Plus, they never have to actually walk anywhere, do they? They just waft in and out of their chauffeured cars.

My daughter is going to be getting the train to her party, negotiating stairs and escalators. She’s a music lover and will be wanting to dance all evening, or hop around chatting with her friends. It seems ridiculous that my tomboy, sporty offspring should be voluntarily curtailing her fun.

It’s not that I’m against her looking fashionable or feminine. Far from it. We had a great time shopping for her dress, and teaching her how to wear makeup is a rite of passage I’ll treasure.

I hold up a pair of pretty velvet ankle boots with a dinky heel. ‘These would look lovely with your dress,’ I offer optimistically. She looks as uncomprehending as if I’d held up a dead rat. She really wants those towering heels and I really don’t want to buy them for her. So in the end we compromise and I buy them for her. (Don’t judge me. She’s a teenager. Her negotiation skills are ruthless.)

She looks beautiful in them. But I can’t help worrying…

Find Your Local