by Susan Alexander
I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers. I never used that term literally, of course. I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.
Now, however, high heels have proved to be actual killers. The Associated Press recently reported that two women were killed in Riverside, California, when a train shoved their car into them as they struggled in high heels to get away. The car got stuck on the train tracks when the driver tried to make a U-turn. The women emerged from the Honda and attempted to flee as a train approached. A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly” as they tried to run on the gravel surrounding the train tracks. The women were 18 and 23 years old.
Like those two women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager. It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whatever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford. On my first visit to such a store, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position. If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave mine cleavage.
Never mind that my feet were incased in a vise-like grip. Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles. And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself down the store’s aisle toward the mirror on the wall. I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them. Now I could stride pridefully to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear just like all the other girls’.
That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I had made. I was stranded in a distant location with no ride home in the offing, and I began walking to the nearest bus stop. After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers. I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I ultimately removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.
After that painful lesson, I abandoned my high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing more “sensible” lower heels. Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively in lower heels, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless. Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully fended off the back pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters have suffered in spades.
In recent years, I’ve noticed the trend toward even higher heels, and I grieve for the young women who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy.” All around me, I see women wearing stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago. TV and movies have surely fostered this trend (witness “Sex and the City”).
When I recently sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for mathematics students, I was astonished that most of the women hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals. I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had achieved. (Fortunately, none of them did, but I could imagine the pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)
The deaths in Riverside demonstrate an even more dramatic problem. When women need to flee a dangerous situation, high heels surely handicap their ability to escape. How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?
When we celebrate the Fourth of July, I urge the women of America to proclaim their independence from high-heeled shoes. If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely toss those shoes and shod yourself in comfy ones. Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.
[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]