Last week, Cosmopolitan magazine, lately a surprising source of feminist content, published a story called “The 15 VERY emotional stages of going out in high heels.” Stage 1, Jess Edwards writes, is the easiest part of the night: the “getting ready” phase, in which you “reach for the heels despite the memories.” Memories, that is, of what will transpire in Stage 4 of your evening, when the “pre-party Prosecco has worn off” and you suddenly process “the hell that awaits.” Namely, an all-consuming pain in your feet, which no amount of booze or dancing will dull. The women of my generation knew these “stages” well enough to at least numb that pain. Every bar and bat mitzvah I attended in my early adolescence had one thing in common: socks. We all brought a pair in our purses, which we’d change into later in the evening, when everyone was too drunk to stand on ceremony. It was a bizarre and awesome sight: scores of teenage girls in cocktail dresses and gym socks doing the cha-cha slide, their discarded heels tucked away under banquet tablecloths.
The gym-sock-relief method wouldn’t likely fly at the Cannes film festival, where it seems women are expected to endure all of Cosmo’s 15 stages of high-heel agony, from blissful ignorance to raging blisters. Several women were reportedly turned away from the star-studded festival last week when they violated its black-tie dress code, which demanded (according to security at the event) that women wear high heels on the red carpet. Among those asked to leave the premiere of Carol—ironically, a film about lesbians, a predominantly heel-averse community—was a group of guests in flat shoes who said they didn’t wear heels because they suffer from myriad orthopaedic and ankle problems. Naturally, Twitter lit up with gleeful outrage at this news. The horror! The misogyny! The familiar refrain: “It’s 2015 and women should be able to wear what they very damn well please.” (For some reason, every time an injustice unfolds on the Internet, the offended party announces what year it is—as though the wrongdoers are time travellers from a bygone era who will learn the error of their ways the moment they learn the date.)
Cannes, for what it’s worth, recognized it was out of step with the times and hastily apologized for the incident. The festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, even told press no such heel policy existed; it was merely a “rumour.” “There was perhaps a small moment of overzealousness” on the part of security, he suggested. (You don’t say.)
Whether overzealous security guards or age-old sexism are ultimately to blame, the Cannes heel controversy has sparked serious conversation, or “sole-searching,” about the shoes women wear and their reasons for wearing them. Heels may look great (one study from France even suggests men are more helpful to women who wear heels), but at what cost? According to the Spine Health Institute of the Florida Hospital Medical Group, high heels push a woman’s lower back forward, “taking the hips and spine out of alignment.” They also put excess pressure on the knees and, if worn daily for many years, can change a woman’s anatomy. Barring that, they’re pretty cool. Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, wrote a wonderful piece in the New York Times last weekend about the history of heels, from their popularity among powerful men in the 17th century to their adoption by women when “fashion was redefined as frivolous and feminine.” But she came to a disappointing conclusion about the shoes we love against our better judgment. Perhaps wearing heels, she writes, “is a tradition we can upend in the 21st century, when it should be clear that a woman’s power has nothing to do with the height of her heel.”
Or perhaps we should stop carrying every sexist situation to its most extreme conclusion: In this case, because a group of women in flats was turned away by a prejudiced policy, high heels are bad for all of us. Where’s the fun in that?
Rather than upend the high-heel tradition in our culture, as Semmelhack suggests, we should amend it: We should trade in our high heels for wedges—a favourite shoe of Kate Middleton, who is, if nothing else, profoundly sensible. Wedges are comfortable and red-carpet friendly. They do not immediately cause backaches or hammer toes, nor do they demand that you pack a pair of socks in your purse prior to a black-tie function. Of course, if you do wear wedges, you still stand a pretty good chance of breaking your ankle. But what can you do?
Heels may be stupid, unhealthy and impractical. But so is everything that makes life worth living.