What the Heel?

Forget burning bras – feet are the new feminist battleground.

A receptionist in London has started an online shit storm after she claimed her new work sent her home without pay for refusing to wear high heels. This is totally legal as businesses are allowed to have separate dress codes for men and women.  However, there is growing pressure on the government to change this in light of the sexist double standards that many women have faced in the workplace.

Unsurprisingly, heel stipulations have already sparked controversy in the entertainment industry. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, a handful of (mostly older) women were turned away from the premiere of (feminist film) Carol for wearing fancy flats. Somehow the ushers didn’t drop dead from irony. They even turned away film producer Valeria Richter, who has had part of her left foot amputated.

There are those who claim that insisting on women wearing high heels is necessary to maintain an accepted level of professional appearance, and is no different from asking men to wear suits. I disagree.

The requirement for women to wear high heels to work is not dressing “smart”. It is not the equivalent of asking men to wear a suit. Unless they are attaching weighty rocks to the end of their ties, causing pain every time they stand up and pulling them off balance, then it is not the same. Heels can restrict women’s abilities to actually perform their jobs by slowing them down and putting pressure on their bodies. The insistence on heels is also inherently ableist, disregarding all the women who physically cannot wear high heels due to medical conditions. Even when women don’t have a prior condition, the repeated strain can eventually cause real damage to the feet. There are plenty of smart flat shoes that wouldn’t look the slightest bit out of place in the workplace whilst being infinitely more practical.

So why do we still allow high heels to be required by some work place dress codes? Why do we continue to see flight attendants in hindering court shoes when in an emergency we need them to be as quick and prepared as possible? Why do some restaurants force their waitresses to wear heels throughout their 8+ hour shift when they have to hustle to get through all the work? Why does anyone care what style office workers’ shoes are when they sit behind desks for most of the day?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-wedges, pumps or stilettos. I own high heels. I seriously like high heels – actually, I love a particular pair of heels. I’ve had them for a few years now but they’re my absolute go to for a night out. They go with anything, they’re a nice height and comfy as hell. I mean, not as comfy as trainers, flats, boots or any other style of shoe but still, pretty comfy for what they are. Yet still with these wonder shoes, I usually end up in crippling pain by the end of the night and have more than once ended up barefoot in a puddle outside the Garage waiting on a taxi. The reason I continue to wear them, despite the chance of catching foot pneumonia (is that a thing?) is because they make my legs look great.

Aesthetics are almost always the primary reason for wearing heels. It is basically their purpose. No one wears heels to be able to reach things higher up, since we have step ladders. Few, if any, decide to wear high heels so that they can use the point as a pickaxe. Heels change your posture so that the breasts and backside are more prominent, and the legs appear longer. We wear heels to look good, and that’s perfectly fine – so long as you have that choice to not wear them. Women are being pressured and forced into wearing heels in order to get and keep their jobs, for the simple reason that employers value the way they look as much as – and sometimes more than – their relevant skills.

There are zero reasons for demanding high heels in the workplace other than that the client/employer/average guy on the street might find you more attractive. It comes down to this: female workers should not have to dress for the enjoyment of their colleagues, and especially not in uncomfortable and impractical shoes.  This is not an episode of Mad Men. End this modern day foot binding and #freethetoes.

[Louise Wylie –@WomanPendulum]

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