Stilettos: career boosters for the down at heel?

 
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By Zandra Culliford

Just because I want to wear high heels to work, that doesn’t make me a brainless bimbo.

21 September 2009

The biggest news from last week’s Trades Union Congress in Liverpool struck a chord with the nation’s workers. Well, half of them at least.

A call for fair and transparent pay, perhaps? Or maybe support for affordable, convenient childcare? Nope. The hot topic of conversation amongst the unionistas was high heels in the workplace, with a motion tabled describing them as demeaning to women and demanding that no one be forced to wear them.

Aside from the issue of whether the role of trade unions should be to discuss what we put on our feet, this does beg the question of why we wear high heels in the first place.

To simply make us taller? If that’s the case, then why was Nicole Kidman so thrilled to dig her heels out after her divorce from Tom Cruise given that lack of stature clearly wasn’t the problem?

To attract the opposite sex, then? According to my male colleagues, the sound of heels on floor is more of an irritant than an aphrodisiac. Truth is, some of us just like wearing them. Whether the choice is for aesthetic, power or height reasons, there’s just something irresistible about the perfect pair.

Of course, high heels in the workplace aren’t just an issue for women. Comedian Eddie Izzard became known for his stand up in stilettos and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be, if not lost, then certainly shorter without his stacked heels.

Historically, the high heel is thought to have been developed for men and for a practical purpose – to prevent feet slipping out of stirrups when riding. Kings and queens alike then popularised the style for fashion purposes. Over time, though, they became almost exclusively the preserve of women and branded a tool of male oppression.

Some feminists have argued that women are held back and objectified when they choose to cripple themselves in a pair of wedges, stilettos or kitten heels. The transfer of this debate into the workplace is one that goes further than footwear.

The fact is that women have a wider variety of sartorial choices in general each morning before they head off to work. Even in offices where suits and ties aren’t required, men are likely to stick to the traditional trousers-shirt/t-shirt combo, teamed with a pair of unexciting, and almost invariably, flat shoes. Short of turning up topless, they’re unlikely to be accused of being sexually provocative, whatever they wear.

For women, a slightly low-cut blouse or skirt above the knee, on the other hand, can lead to disapproving (or worse, lecherous) looks and aspersions cast on a woman’s character.

Some have called for a work ‘uniform’ for women to become the norm, to make them as bland-looking as their male colleagues. Personally, I don’t think that such a move would make any difference. Women can, and do, customise their uniforms at the first possible opportunity.

When I was at school, it was amazing how many combinations of our conservative, ‘appropriate’ uniform could be seen in the halls. Prim, knee-length skirts were hitched up to crotch height, shirt buttons mysteriously came undone, and interpretations of ‘mid-height’ heels were liberal, to say the least.

But as grown-ups should we know better? Are we demeaned by putting on a pair of heels to go to the office? It is less than a hundred years since women were given the right to do most jobs, let alone to make choices about what to wear when we get there. Are we therefore undermining our right to employment equality by turning up in a pair of stilettos?

As far as I’m concerned, my right to wear six-inch heels is based on the same grounds as my right not to have to cover up in a burqa or to walk the streets without fear of being raped. I can do this because I believe that men are intelligent enough to realise that, just because they can see my ankles, I don’t necessarily want to sleep with them. Just as wearing high heels doesn’t make me a brainless bimbo.

With women’s continuing lack of complete equality in the workplace still a sticking point, is the answer to force women into Crocs? Of course not.

The height of my shoe has no more bearing on my ability to do my job than does the colour of my skin or my sexual preferences. By tabling motions on this issue, the Trades Union Congress does nothing more than reinforce stereotypes and draw attention to irrelevant differences between the sexes. If it wants true workplace equality in the shoe stakes, however, perhaps the answer, instead of getting women out of heels, is to get more men into them…

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Zandra Culliford. All rights reserved.

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