Appeal of high heels defies common sense

March 20, 1991|By Mary Gottschalk | Mary Gottschalk,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

The American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society recently proclaimed get this that high heels are a pain. Women have known that for years.

This revelation was trumpeted on front pages of newspapers across the country, causing women with first-hand knowledge of pinched nerves, hammer toes, bunions, corns and callouses to shake their heads. What will the researchers find next? That men find neckties an uncomfortable encumbrance?

After surveying 356 women, Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon Carol Frey found that 88 percent of them were wearing shoes at least a size too small. Again, this comes as no surprise to most women, especially since Frey's research showed the proper shoe width for most women a "C" is virtually unavailable in regular retail outlets.

Still, there is the question: Why do women wear high heels?

In part, it's a rite of passage. Little girls fantasize about the day they can wear lipstick, perfume and high heels, just like Mom.

As they grow older, young women learn the appeal of high heels they make you taller, they make your ankles and legs look slimmer and many men consider them sexy. In American society, there is little women won't do if the result is looking taller, thinner and sexier.

So what's a little pain? In fact pain and discomfort are an integral part of the history of shoes.

Take platform shoes. They were worn in Greece in 300 B.C. by actors wishing to look "larger than life and as powerful as gods." In 16th-century Venice, they were called chopines and they were so high that servants had to help women walk. In the late '60s and early '70s, both men and women tottered around on platform shoes, creating urban legends of automobile accidents caused by shoes becoming jammed between the accelerator and brake pedal.

Superstitious 14th-century Europeans believed pointed shoes would render witches powerless, so the upper classes took to vTC pointed shoes with a vengeance. The longer the points, the higher your rung on the social ladder. Eventually points grew as long as 12 inches and people had to wear chains attached to their knees to hold the toes up so they could walk.

Then there was the Chinese custom of binding a woman's feet. This crippling custom designed to make the feet as small as possible was practiced even into this century, until it was outlawed in 1911.

Today, women still bind their feet into shoes that are too pointed in front and too high in back. But there are signs of change.

When subway workers in New York City went on strike a decade ago, women started wearing athletic shoes to walk to work in. And when the strike was settled, they were loath to give up the comfort. Manufacturers started responding with dress pumps made with additional foam linings, thicker rubber for shock-resistant soles and softer leathers. Now you can find a variety of comfort-oriented dress pumps with names such as Soft Spots, Easy Spirit and Town Walker.

Today there also are as many flat and low-heeled dress shoes as ones with high heels. Most designers now show a mix of flats and high heels.

No matter how many surveys are done on the topic, women are unlikely to learn anything they don't already know. And they are even more unlikely to change.

It's a matter of personal choice. And looking thinner, taller and sexier.

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