The Beauty Paradox: 5 Ways High Heels Empower Women And Imprison Them

by Lauren Martin

Does the woman wear the shoe, or does the shoe wear the woman?

That’s the question, isn’t it? That’s what we’re all trying to figure out: what it means when you’re wearing heels and what it says when you’re not -- why some women endure the pain and others don't.

Personally, I don’t wear heels anymore. I didn’t stop because they hurt my feet (they always hurt), but because I no longer found the tradeoff worth it.

If beauty is pain and pain is beauty, must I be ugly to be comfortable? Must I resign my femininity for flats?

There's no denying that giving up heels means stepping down from more than just a taller height. You knock yourself down a few pegs on the sexuality scale. You willingly give room for other women to step in front of you.

Personally, I can attest to the fact that heads turn significantly less when I’m not clicking by. The attention I once got with donning 2-inch heels has since evaporated. I was, indeed, sexier when I was higher.

This feeling is proven by a study led by scientists at the Universite de Bretagne-Sud, in which a group of 19-year-old women wearing different heels heights was asked to interact with men ages 25 to 50.

In one experiment, the women conducted a fake sidewalk survey. The results revealed that men were about twice as likely to stop and respond to the survey if the woman asking the questions was wearing high heels.

Women wearing the highest heels had an 83 percent success rate.

In another experiment, the women pretended to drop their gloves. The results showed that men were also twice as likely to offer assistance to the women wearing high heels.

But these results do not intrigue me. There’s no denying heels make a woman sexier. They lift the butt, elongate the legs and add an air of confidence.

What I’m interested in is the social and underlying implications of these objects we’ve come to fetishize.

Is wearing the heel a nod to feminism or a step backward? Is it an antiquated form of enslavement or our way of taking back our womanhood?

Heels are the ultimate paradox. Like the life of the woman who wears them, they are full of contradictions, insinuations and double standards.

They are a simultaneous form of empowerment and imprisonment. They are man-made and woman (and sometimes man) designed. They are for us and against us.

They give you power, yet chain you

If beauty brings power, why do I feel so weak?

There's no denying that with a certain level of beauty, a woman is able to achieve and attract more than your average woman. She has certain privileges and advantages with her extra beauty.

But how much power can someone really have ruling from a great height she can't move in? Just because beauty is powerful doesn't mean the beholder, herself, has the power.

The Economic Times reports that in Ancient Rome, the high heel was an easy signifier used to spot sex slaves and prostitutes. They were a symbol of sex and imprisonment.

They eventually came to the West in the 1500s, where they represented imperial power. They were a sign of wealth and status -- so much so that people in good standing were referred to as “well heeled.”

While the heel came to represent women in a more powerful light in the West, they were equally imprisoning in their own right. We can afford to wear them, but can’t walk anywhere in them if we do.

Thus, it’s associated that women aren’t expected to do anything while wearing them. With our power comes our imprisonment.

They make you taller, but less threatening

Heels add height, but take away conviction. They add inches on your opponent, but expose your vulnerabilities to them. We may be taller, but we’re most definitely weaker.

Heels restrict our ability not just to run away in the moment, but for the rest of our lives. According to Women’s Health Magazine, walking in heels stiffens our Achilles tendons.

These tendons anchor our calf muscles to our heels; thus when the Achilles tendons stiffen, our calves bunch up.

This is what makes it painful to walk normally after taking them off. After too much time, walking in flats will become difficult.

We may be able to tower over men, but we will never be able to outrun them.

They make you loud, but take away your authority

They demand attention, but what kind of attention? Not only do they make it harder for you to run, but they expose your position.

They make it easy for enemies to hear us coming and even easier for those who don’t want to take us seriously to associate our footsteps -- unconsciously or not -- with weakness.

Just because everyone can hear you coming down the hall doesn’t mean they fear you. Just because you’re louder than everyone else doesn’t mean you’re more powerful.

They make you feel sexier, but hurt you

Heels have already been proven to increase a woman's attractiveness -- the way they elongate the legs and mold the butt. They are devices women may use to attain a certain level of beauty. But at what cost?

According to the Associated Press, “medically, high heels can cause back pain and increase the risk of ankle injuries.” They are proven to cause bone and nerve damage, spider veins, osteoarthritis, blisters and ingrown toenails.

At what point does the price of beauty no longer seem worth it? When is the investment no longer worth the return? We’re giving away parts of ourself for the delights of men. We are sexier, but we are hurting.