How High Heels Are Today’s Foot-binding

When I read the article about Chinese foot-binding in the Los Angeles Times, I really found it highlighted the complexity of the practice of foot-binding. On the one hand it was a painful, dangerous, demeaning, and debilitating practice that women were coerced to engage in. On the other hand, it’s a historical tradition, an expression of conceptions of beauty from a certain human time and place, and a wealth of treasured shared experiences cherished by the women who practiced it. Who are we as modern Americans or modern people to judge the practice as barbaric, sexist, and outdated? Especially, when America and many other societies around the world continue to engage in similar barbaric, sexist, and outdated practices. Specifically, I’m picking on heels today, especially high heels. High heels are a modern form of foot-binding. More after the jump.

Living in Los Angeles, especially when I’m around West LA and Hollywood, high heels are the norm. They are just a total and complete eyesore to me. Just today, I was parked on Wilshire and saw a rather heavy-looking woman who was balancing her weight precariously on a set of 3-4 inch high heels. She walked at least half-a-mile in those, looking at the ground the whole way, each step labored and wary. I thought, “Why are you torturing yourself lady?”

Last week, I drove through an intersection and saw a woman pedestrian fall flat on her face in the middle of crossing the road. At first, I thought “Oh my gosh, is she okay?” and then I saw her high heels and thought “Figures,” as all sympathy for her left me. She got up and was fine, save for a bruised ego. Countless times, I’ve had to wait extra long at intersections as some young, middle-aged, or elderly woman waddled by with stilt-like heels.

When the September 11th exhibit came to the Japanese American National Museum, I cried my heart out through the whole exhibit–except for one part. There encased in glass was a pair of high heels that some woman had to take off because she couldn’t get to safety with them on. I feel total sympathy for her suffering through that horrific tragedy, except I’d have to say that the fact that she had to go through it barefoot was entirely her own fault. As you can see, I simply have no patience for heeled shoes. From my perspective, it’s really hard to understand why shoes that you can’t walk in are even made let alone BOUGHT and WORN. I mean, just apply that principle across the board. A phone you can’t call with. A car you can’t drive. A pen that doesn’t write. High heels are shoes you can’t walk in. WHY are they so popular?

Clearly, I’m really judgmental when I see women wearing high heels. And I’ve met a lot of really intelligent, really accomplished, really independent, and really nice women who wear heels. I’ve met tons of feminists and social justice activists who wear heels. To be honest, though, as soon as they walk out in those high heels, I can’t help but lose at least some respect for them. It’s simply mind-boggling to me how such totally smart and amazing women would wear high heels, a practice that I deem to be…well…extremely stupid.

High heels are bad for your posture, your feet, your back, your overall health. Every doctor and chiropractor that I’ve ever met has advised against it (even when they wear it themselves…go figure). If you live with anyone with chronic back pain or joint pain, you know how HORRIBLE it is to watch someone try to get through life spending every moment of it in PAIN (cue Kurt Cobain’s “You Know You’re Right”). So if you are healthy and free of such PAIN, why would you wear shoes that would inflict such pain on yourself? It makes me want to tear my OCD hair out just thinking about it.

I’ve also got a very personal reason for detesting heels. I have a condition called bunion feet. Basically, both of my big toes point toward the second toes. My feet are actually shaped like a woman’s shoe, you know, the kind that force your toes to cram together and make a sharp point. I thought my feet were normal-shaped since they looked just like women’s shoes. I even thought everyone else’s feet were strange because they weren’t shaped like women’s shoes. That is, until my feet started to hurt. I didn’t know why they hurt, but my mom and I noticed that when I bought good comfortable shoes, they wouldn’t hurt so much. So we just had to be more picky with my shoes. No big. It was troublesome, though, that we always had to buy the most expensive specialty shoes, especially when we weren’t exactly rolling in dough. Then one day, a friend pointed out, “Oh, you have bunion feet.” I was surprised there was actually a name for it, and that’s when I really realized that my feet were in fact not like everyone else’s.

I remember the first pair of heels my mom bought me when I was in middle school. It was around the time I got my ears pierced. I remember my mom saying “You’re old enough now.” I felt really grown up as I put on that very pretty pair of peach suede heels with wrapping up my ankle that made it look like an elegant pair of ballet shoes. I remember walking in them for the first time, my legs shaking, my knees knocking, my feet trembling, and feeling like I was walking towards a new phase in my life and becoming a real woman. Then I remembered taking them off and putting them away in a safe place, saving them for special occasions. When I read the LA Times article about the women who cherished memories of precious shared experiences binding their feet with mothers and grandmothers, I thought of this memory with my own mother buying me those first pair of heels.

As an adult, I haven’t exactly made all the best shoe choices. I wore heels, flats, flip flops, china flats, etc. like anyone else. Despite my bunion feet, I still walked into the local Payless or whatever shoe store, picked out something that I liked regardless of whether or not it hurt my feet, and wore it.

It wasn’t until one day in graduate school, maybe because of a feminist theory class I was taking, that I made the connection between foot-binding and heels. It just sort of clicked when I was putting on a pair of mid-height heels that I had. They weren’t those really snazzy, really high heels; I never went for those. These were just simple black slip on heels about an inch or so in height. I liked them because they looked both professional and casual, and they easily matched with anything I was wearing. When I made the connection, it wasn’t like I pulled all my shoes out right away and burned them in a heap of effigy. No, I just thought, “Huh, they are like a modern form of foot-binding. They limit our mobility and they disfigure our bodies. Not as extremely as breaking your foot and wrapping it up, but same general idea. And they’re a sign of feminine beauty and sophistication. And they make you walk in that same hip-swaying way that foot-binding does.” Despite that connection, I put on my favorite shoes, those mid-height heels, and walked out the door.

Throughout the day, I kept noticing the pain in my feet and my knees. For weeks, I just kept wearing them like normal. Then one day, I was walking down some stairs and my knees hurt so much that I couldn’t take any steps down. I knew my knees had taken a beating with all the random martial arts I did before, but they’d never hurt so much that I couldn’t walk down stairs. The shoes of course weren’t helping. Neither were my bunion feet. I went back up to my room to change shoes. Days passed and I never put those heeled shoes on again. I asked a chiropractor what I could do about my knees, and the first thing she looked at were the pair of running shoes I had on. “Keep wearing good shoes.”

Finally, I looked at all my old shoes, the ones that were flat, the flip flops, and the heeled ones, and realized they were completely and utterly useless to me. At first I didn’t want to let them go because I liked them, liked the way they looked, liked the way they easily matched whatever I wore. That’s why I had bought them. I was a pretty simple dresser, and all the shoes were fairly plain and simple. But then I thought of all the pain they caused me. They simply weren’t good shoes. They would cause a normal person pain to wear them, and for me, it was even more painful because of my bunion feet. What was the point of torturing myself? There simply was no point. I also decided that if I really did think that heeled shoes were a modern form of foot-binding, if that logic made sense to me, then I’ve been a fool wearing those shoes. So I packed them all up and threw them all away.

Over time, I became more and more annoyed every time I saw someone wearing them. Slowly they just got more and more irritating because they just didn’t make any sense. Plus they reminded me of how stupid I had been wearing shoes that weren’t good for me, especially with my bunion feet that hurt even with good shoes on. After a while of enjoying great, comfortable shoes and loving it (and discovering “wide” as an option in shoes), I got a pair of heels as a present from a relative. I’m one of those people who don’t re-gift and really try to make the most out of every present I get, so even though I looked at the gift with distaste, I figured I should at least wear them a few times before tossing them. A few times ended up being one day. The heels were not high at all, maybe half-an-inch to an inch. Nevertheless, every step was a challenge as I realized I could not take a proper step even with that tiny little heel. It wasn’t even the pain in my feet or knees that made me throw it away at this time. It was just sheer disgust in the fact that it restricted my mobility so much it felt crippling, even without the pain. I have a rule that I don’t wear pants I can’t kick in. Not wearing shoes I can’t walk in makes even more sense than that.

In the end, it’s not fair of me to judge women as stupid for wearing heels. I mean, we all have a right to do what we want to our own bodies right? And everyone does something that’s not good for them, whether it’s drinking soda, or not exercising, or eating potato chips, or not brushing teeth after every meal. The list goes on and on.

I’ve got my own guilty pleasures. If I’m not careful, I can end up playing Starcraft for 10 hrs straight, which is really straining for my eyes and my body. I love eating McDonald’s fried Chicken McNuggets or that new Taco Bell Dorito Taco. I’ll stay up late working or writing (like I’m doing right now) just because I want to, robbing myself of life-sustaining sleep. I chose a soda over water at lunch.

People drink, smoke, and eat too much candy. People pierce and tattoo their bodies–also activities that inflict pain on the self. Heels are medically not good for you, they cause pain, they disfigure your bone structure, but getting a tattoo on your wrist is not exactly a walk in the park either. I’m all for freedom and self-determination. If you want to break your foot and fold it under to create that old school foot-binding lotus foot effect, who am I to say you can’t? It’s your foot.

However, I do believe there is a fine line between self-determination and societal manipulation. If we tell little girls that they will not get a boyfriend if they don’t wear heels, that’s manipulative. If we convince them that it is beautiful to wear shoes that will disfigure their bone structure and limit their mobility (especially dangerous in emergency situations like 9-11), that’s manipulative. If we tell women professionals it’s unprofessional not to wear heels, that’s manipulation. If we make it seem like wearing heels is the passage to womanhood, that’s manipulative. To me, if we start tying social and economic gains to unhealthy behaviors–that’s no longer self-determination or freedom. It wouldn’t matter if it were heels or tattoos or eating Krispy Kreme donuts; if you’re made to feel like you’re less or will get less if you don’t engage in some painful or unhealthy activity, then that’s no longer self-determination or freedom.

So, I guess to my heel-wearing sisters, wear what you will and ignore me and my judgmental stone-casting. I’m not exactly the poster girl of healthy lifestyles. I just ask you consider the sort of example you’re setting for the next generation of girls, because come zombie apocalypse, robot A.I. takeover, or, more likely, an earthquake or tsunami or terrorist attack, I’m praying everyone’s wearing their running shoes.

[Photo courtesy of florathexplora and saxarocks]

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