Thursday, 12 May 2016

High heels

I so admire London receptionist Nicola Thorp for standing up to the 'appearance rules' imposed upon her, which included a requirement to wear high heels. She protested that she'd prefer to wear flat heels instead, and got sent home. But the matter then went into the public domain and snowballed. Now her agency is being forced by an important client to look again at what a woman at work should be asked to wear.

This is not an unusual case, of course. There are many female jobs which come with an implacable dress code that might make stipulations about several other things, such as hair, make-up, nails and jewellery worn, never mind about the clothes (if, that is, the woman is free to wear her own clothes and not a specific uniform). One good example might be an air hostess. All air hostesses have to look like an immaculate Barbie doll.

Where does all this come from? Why is it that an awful lot of working women have to wrestle with workplace rules or customs that force them to conform to a certain 'look'? And in particular demand that she squeezes her feet into impractical and medically-appalling high-heeled shoes for hours on end, regardless of whether she has arthritic toes, bunions or fallen arches, or is heavy and back-achy with a pregnancy?

I can guarantee that men are behind it. It must be so. No ordinary woman would inflict all this on her sisters. It's clear that there is a predominant school of thought in business life that believes women are ornamental assets who must look good to customers and clients, and can't be permitted any individuality. Hence those rules, to ensure as much 'glamour' as possible.

I'm not saying the 'glamour look' is childish, but it is artificial and it ignores the size, shape and personalities of the unfortunate women who are made to ape it. It's a standard look set by Hollywood in the 1950s, and it's long out of date.

And yet it's not by any means dead. It's still alive and kicking - for certain situations. In formal occasions - at weddings for instance. And what young girl, eager for a night's clubbing in the city centre, would leave home without her high heels? High heels give short fat teenage girls some height, presence and adult allure. High heels call a man's attention to the wearer. The clack-clack-clack noise as a girl in high heels walks along, so dangerous late at night when walking home in the dark, is music to men's ears in more convivial situations, such as when men are drinking at night outside a pub and a party of lively girls approaches. Clack-clack-clack! 'Hello, girls! Fancy a drink then?'

I have speculated whether the British word 'totty', once widely used by London men thirty years ago to describe any sexy young woman who might be up for a bit of how's-your-father, could have some connection with tipsy girls tottering about Leicester Square or Soho in high-heeled shoes. But apparently it goes all the way back to the nineteenth century, and was a word used to refer to feisty ladies of loose virtue - originally one named Dorothy. Thus Dotty became Totty.

Back to my theme.

The sound of high heels on pavements is one of the most distinctive sounds there is. But it doesn't end there. The very shape of the shoe itself, all suggestive curves, sometimes with a coloured sole - possibly even a bright red one! - turns men on. And above all else, there is the physical effect that wearing high-heeled shoes has on a woman's posture - effectively making her stand on tip-toe, as if wanting a kiss, her bottom tilted up ready to grasp. High-heeled shoes are sexy shoes. Nobody can escape that fact. Women know it. And business-minded men wanting to sell things know it too. That's how it is.

I think a woman is torn two ways with high-heeled shoes. Yes, they are special and endow height, elegance and sexual appeal. But the consequences for her poor feet are not to be dismissed, and once a woman decides for herself that comfort matters above all else, then it's time to ditch the heels. And a woman can feel that way without being a rebel. Certainly she should not be punished for wanting to do something any doctor would heartily approve of.

For now, however, the mass-culture is against any widespread abandonment of high heels. I won't see it in my lifetime. The high-heeled woman's shoe is one of those universal icons of western society. I am in fact surprised that ladies' toilets don't generally use a silhouette of a high-heeled shoe on the entrance door. Naturally, it is the cliché identifier for all persons who wish to be taken as female.

I dare say someone will say that only those who love wearing high-heeled shoes, and master (mistress?) the art of walking gracefully in them, deserve to be called 'feminine'. But that can't be true, because lots of women scorn to wear high heels, myself included, and we won't be denied our womanhood because of a stereotypical notion that only real women appreciate them as objects of desire.

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