high heels


I’ve just finished reading a little book called High Heel.

High Heel, written by Summer Brennan, is part of a series about objects. The books are all short meditations on a particular ‘thing’ – I’ve already read Eye Chart, Phone Booth, Questionnaire, Jet Lag and Hood.  These books make great gifts by the way. But to the point (sorry, bad pun).

I bought High Heel because of this research project. And because of my own ambivalent relationship with heels. I’ve never particularly enjoyed wearing them as they make my feet hurt. I’m not a natural in them. In my much younger days, I had to learn to dance in heels and I’ve never been keen on re-living the high-kicks-in-high-heels chorus line experience.

Most of my leader life in schools was spent in flats, low heels and wedges. However, I did have, like many of the leaders who have already answered our survey, high heeled shoes that I used for meetings, conferences and other official occasions. I always had black heels and occasionally I had another more frivolous pair. I remember there being purple suede heels at one time.

My favorite work heels of all time were red with black patent polka dots and three-inch black patent heels. These shoes made me 5’10”, a height it’s hard for a lot of senior male bureaucrats to look down on. They were the kind of high heels that would be described by some people as f*** me shoes but, for me, wearing them always said don’t f*** with me. However, I always also felt a little not-me when wearing them. They were part of a costume I put on to do a particular kind of leader work. And they were not an easy wear. I was always relieved to take them off at the end of the day.

Summer Brennan addresses the double edginess of the high heel – they are always tied into pervasive ideas of masculinity and femininity as well as personal choice – at the end of her little book. After talking about shoes in fashion, fantasy and fetishes, discussing  along the way foot binding, glass slippers, sexual harassment and assault, she writes

In a way it is easier for a woman to consider rejecting high heels if no one has ever questioned her right to them. High heels seem to do the most good when they allow an individual to come into contact with a persona or facet of themselves that either socially liberates them or touches on some deep aspect of identity they’ve been barred from reaching. If you’ve been told you’re too something to be allowed in the spaces of elegant and sexy femininity – too fat, too dark, too plain, too clumsy, too poor, too shy, too male – then wearing them can indeed be a powerful experience of transformation. Ignoring this does a great deal of injustice. But it also doesn’t erase high heels’ other echoes that accompany even the most elevated forms of cultural femininity, objecthood, obligatory pain, sexual violence, and forced inferiority. Both are true. (p. 149-150)

Brennan proposes that, because we don’t yet have a society in which there is gender equality, we don’t know what a ‘free woman’ looks like. We are, she suggests, still sorting out the relationship between ‘glass slippers and glass ceilings’. ( I love this – what a fortuitous phrase.) In that context, it is hardly surprising that high heels have multiple meanings and can be one thing to the wearer in one context, and something else entirely in another.

I’m interested in the idea of heels as ambivalent and ambiguous, but also in the power of choice that Brennan attributes to the wearer. It’s that sense of agency, as well as social expectations and norms, that we want to be able to highlight in our research.

PS –  ICYMI, see this previous post by Lacey Austin on walking the tightrope in heels.



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