The height of fashion

I saw the Sex and the City movie a few months ago. I enjoyed it, but what I’ve read of other people’s opinions suggests I’m in the minority, mainly because the film’s characters committed the unforgivable sin of, and I can barely bring myself to write this, liking to own things. Materialism has its own private stratum in the tiers of liberal disgust. That the characters were generally decent people was irrelevant to their capitulation to capitalism. This was at first amusing – anything that spent five paragraphs calling them vacuous made me laugh – then tedious, and I got bored.

So it’s nice to see New Humanist taking a different approach, and actually saying something interesting. They focus on Carrie’s obsession with shoes, particularly those with extreme heels. In modern society the stiletto apparently reigns supreme – but why, when they’re painful and bad for you? It’s a well researched article, and the historical tour starts in 14th century Venice, where the well-off wore 20cm platforms to keep away from the muck of the streets, but couldn’t actually walk in said apparatus, so needed sticks / slaves to balance on. Prostitutes adopted them too, so beginning the common association of high heels “with both the aristocracy and the brothel”. Marie Antoinette was executed in high heels1, and their popularity in France varied with the rise and fall of the ruling classes.

There’s lots more, and it’s all quite interesting if, like me, you find the desirable shoe thing a mystery. Then, about 2/3 of the way through, it dips into the underworld for a bit:

In The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, William Rossi claims that men derive a variety of pleasures from observing the sashaying buttocks and undulating hips of the high-heel walk. The “erotic magic” of high heels feminises the gait in a way that makes women appear helpless, so appealing to men’s instincts of chivalry while at the same time resembling the position of the foot during orgasm.

I somehow had a discussion about this last month. Why are heels considered more attractive than wedges(?) that raise women to the same height? You’d think they’d have exactly the same qualities of reshaping the walk, etc.. We assumed it was a balance thing. Bit of an ad-hoc evolutionary-psychology explanation, but still makes more sense than the above, if you ask me.

But he warns there’s a darker side to such stimulation. “Not a few men are sexually aroused to erection by observing women walk with obvious distress in tight shoes. One man confessed: ‘Even when I hear a woman say her tight shoes are killing her – that’s enough to bring an instant erection.’”

“Not a few men”? Seriously? Having said that, I once read that one (male) objection to breastfeeding in public is that the objects in question become de-sexualised2. In conclusion: you can find men with any sexual quirk imaginable, but paying any attention to them is probably a bad idea.

Then there’s some bonkers Freud stuff. Also Judith Butler, a social critic whose often obscure ideas kept turning up in last year’s uni lectures, generally followed by many mutterings of ‘wtf bullshit’. Then it’s back to normality, and some tricky feminist issues – given the pain inherent in such shoes, isn’t it demeaning to wear them just to appeal to men? Phil Plait addressed something similar this week in reference to the Nerd Girls, and there was heated debate in the comments. I tend to think people can dress however they want, and, if they’re really making their own decisions, it’s just as silly to accuse them of betraying-the-cause as it would be for them to pander to men. But I can’t pretend this is particularly informed.

Anyway, what I thought would be a five-minute read turned out to be fascinating, and it’s pleasing to see Sex and the City being used for something other than snide remarks. Found via the New Humanist Blog.

  1. I like Marie Antoinette. She supposedly went to a party with a birdcage – complete with bird – in her hair. []
  2. can’t find the link now, and google searches are, um, disturbing []