The High-Heel Haters

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Many emails are coming in from my reader callout tied to Megan’s feature on the future of high heels, “Arch Enemies.” The first one comes from a self-described “career woman in Minnesota who NEVER wears high heels” and who challenges some common narratives surrounding ladies in stilettos:

The idea of wearing them to “feel taller” is beyond me. If that’s the case, short men should be suffering in stilettos instead of relatively comfortable platform shoes—if they care at all about their height, that is. I liken stilettos to Chinese foot-binding—just another way to make women helpless, while at the same time telling them it makes them powerful. They’re not good for your feet, and certainly not good for your back: Ask any podiatrist or chiropractor (but don’t ask Stacy London [the fashion consultant and reality TV host]). And never mind running away from a mugger—or chasing a mugger—wearing heels. It only works in the movies.

Google “high heel quotes,” and this is the type of hype you will see:  

  • Superwomen do it in high heels.
  • Strong women wear their pain like stilettos. No matter how much it hurts, all you see is the beauty in it.
  • How can you live the high life if you don’t wear high heels?
  • They might be painful, but they are a girl’s best friend

[The Marilyn Monroe quote seen above] particularly bothers me. Grrrrrr.

Here’s an anonymous reader, who also chimes in “from the high-heel-hater side of the argument”:

I love clothes, and I love shoes all too much, but I’ve disliked very high heels at least since I was in high school and that’s a long time ago. Why? I dislike them because the human foot was never meant to be raised up like that. I’m looking for clothes that make me feel free, happy, and able to go wherever I want, in comfort and style.

Sorry for the high-heel lovers, but I think those stilettos that you just purchased for a small fortune are plain old ugly. And even worse, they make you look like a wounded animal when you try to move in them. I can’t help but wonder if that’s the appeal of them to a certain kind of guy. Fortunately, I’m married to a guy who thinks they are as dumb as I do.

When I think of beauty in clothes, I think of clothes that enhance someone’s natural gracefulness, not something that makes a woman look she is hurting with every step or is playing dress-up in her mom’s shoes. One of the saddest things about coming home to the U.S. from almost anywhere in the world is realizing how so many Americans dress with no self-respect or attempt to look like they even halfway care about themselves.  At the same time, it’s sad to see how many of those who do care only care about following the latest dictates from a the fashion industry. Beauty is not about being a slave to ridiculous fashions; it’s about caring for yourself. And if you don’t even care to treat your feet with respect, I think it’s hard to care about yourself.

Here’s another reader, Ulash, on a particular topographical challenge:

In my early adult life, when I was living in London, I would strut around in my heels because all my friends were wearing fabulous shoes with high heels. It was the norm. I would notice by 1pm at work that my feet hurt with blisters. I was always questioning: Why do I wear high heels? Is it because society defines them as being sexy?

Anyway, fast forwarding to ten years later, when I moved to the United States—specifically San Francisco—I think I wore heels the first year then stopped. Why, you ask? Because SF has so many hills, making it challenging to strut in heels! Plus, I noticed the culture in SF is a little different than London, that it’s more acceptable to wear loafers and comfortable shoes. So I’ve traded heels for loafers, and I must admit: I love it!

Now, when I watch women strutting in high heels, I am so happy for them. But I wonder to myself, are they comfortable?

As someone who once lived in a particularly hilly part of San Francisco, I can confirm: those hills are not heel friendly. And I never would’ve shown up to work at a tech-startup in heels. Even boots felt formal. Another reader hits this point: “I don’t think it matters in tech world. Where I work, nobody wears high heels, unfortunately, and it is highly discouraged for practical and safety reasons.”

What drives you to slap on a pair of stilettos? Let me know.