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These shoes aren't made for walking...

High-heeled shoes are a staple in most women’s wardrobes no matter how much discomfort they cause. But if these pretty contraptions are the source of injury, does it really have to be this way? MARTINA BORG asks

Martina Borg
24 March 2016, 8:45am
They pinch our feet, they leave our toes terribly sore, and wearers risk twisting their ankles whenever they wear them. Yet, high-heeled shoes remain a staple in most women’s wardrobes and many continue to choose them no matter how much discomfort they cause. After all, many women decide to live by the phrase ‘beauty is pain’.

But having suffered quite a few injuries as a result of these pretty contraptions, I can’t help but wonder: does it really have to be this way?

Slews of celebrities have strutted on screens tottering on impossibly high heels: the footwear is banned from St John’s Co-Cathedral because of the damage they cause to the marble floor, but women were turned away from a red carpet event due to the absence of stilettos at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, which is symptomatic of a society that thinks that high heels really are the epitome of beauty and sophistication, regardless of the pain they might cause. 

MaltaToday spoke to fashion blogger trio The Clouded Revolution about the connection between style and the contentious shoes, and whether they are indeed necessary to smarten up your outfit.

“Heels have something of a sensual impact, and women tend to feel sexier and bolder in heels,” Claire Galea said. “They are essentially a sex symbol to some, as much as they are an element of power dressing to others.”

It’s an opinion also echoed by gender studies academic Dr Marceline Naudi, who said that heels are often classed alongside stereotypical symbols of power like black leather and whips. Women like English songwriter and performer Bats for Lashes view high-heeled shoes as an 

 

 

 

 

 

almost “submissive” fashion statement, fitting into society’s ideas of femininity and empowerment, rather than actually representing them.

As early as the 15th century, platform shoes known as ‘chopines’ were favoured by courtesans and the noble women in Venice, and high heels have historically had something of a complicated link with wealth and superiority on the one hand, and prostitution, promiscuity and submission on the other. 

“Sensuality was instantly linked to the idea of added height and leaner silhouettes,” Galea explaines. “Given that throughout history, women only wore dresses, and rather large voluminous ones at that, high heels became almost necessary to create the appeal of a leaner silhouette.”

The feeling seems to have amplified over time, as heels continued to get higher and higher over historical periods.  “Noble groups, on the other hand, often used to wear high-heeled shoes to symbolize that their positions made it possible for them to do away with practicality.”

However, beyond the historical significance (which many wearers arguably are totally unaware of) many women would not be caught dead at a formal occasion in flat shoes.

“Given that added height gives something of a leaner silhouette, heels can naturally create a more elegant touch,” Galea said.

The trio make an excellent point that however much more enticing a pair of heels can look, “there is nothing less sexy or less elegant than a woman barely balancing on uncomfortable, sky high heels”. Flats are essential when you’re running around from one meeting to another all day. 

And while that view is definitely encouraging, for many looking smart in the office remains inseparable from wearing high heels. Abigail Psaila Mamo, head of Europe Direct Valletta – who in fact does spend many of her days running from one meeting to another – admits that looking smart everyday for work often includes heels.

“My choice of shoes depends on my outfit, rather than just wearing heels for their own sake,” she said. “I do not think that just because the heel is high, a pair of shoes is automatically suitable for work or even elegant. Personal taste and a person’s height also come into play but a pair of smart shoes does not necessarily have to have high heels,” she said.

Alternately, Marcelline Naudi says that some women run more easily and feel more comfortable in high-heeled shoes. “Some women feel like they are too short, and that heels can make them look taller and thinner, and if that gives them confidence, then it shouldn’t be a problem, as long as they don’t think they should all conform to one ideal of beauty.”

Naudi added that very often, the idea that wearing heels equals looking smart and sexy is pushed by societal stereotypes (coming from both men and women), the media and even the fashion industry itself. The idea is in fact reiterated by the association of podiatrists of Malta, which blames such misguided notions on the media and the fashion industry.

“Fashion can be said to send subliminal messages. In this case, the message is that ‘high heels will give you more of a feminine image’ or that ‘you will have an enviable sophisticated look’,” a spokesperson for the association said, stressing that these factors end up conditioning women towards these mentalities. 

Although they admitted that the industry has indeed led to such conditioning, the bloggers at The Clouded Revolution say fashion houses and their traditional reliance on high heels on the runway, seems to be on the way out. 

“Realizing the need for a more practical take on fashion, designers over the past few seasons have started to focus their entire collection around flat shoes only,” Galea said. “It will probably influence trends in women’s shoe choices in the near future.”

Tips for footwear that won’t necessarily leave you in tears

 

The Clouded Revolution’s Nicole Farrugia and Claire Galea have a strong belief in flat shoes, and they have compiled a few tips for women aspiring to look equally fashionable and comfortable:

“The much-desired lean silhouette can also be achieved with flat shoes,” they say. The important thing, according to them is not to swamp yourself in longer, or wider cut bottoms. “Think of a sixties silhouette instead, with ankle-grazing cigarette cut trousers or knee-length shift dresses.” 

They add that it would be wise to invest in a pair of classic nude ballet pumps or loafers. “Not only are they great for their neutral element, but they will give the illusion of longer legs.”

On the other hand, if you absolutely feel like you have to wear heels, at least take the association of podiatrists’ advice and explore the different kinds of heels out there. 

“Shoes with a lower heel ensure the heel of their foot isn’t raised as much, and wider heels tend to provide more stability and grip, reducing the risk of twisting ankles or tripping,” they say. 

Logically, wider toe boxes  are also recommended as they will not cram and compress the toes as much. Furthermore, the association recommends slings or straps that keep the foot from slipping forward and further cramming the toes. 

“You might also consider taking a second pair of more comfortable shoes with you whenever you’re out in heels, so that you can change into more reasonable footwear when it all gets too much.”

No smoke without fire: What the pain of high heels can really mean

Celebrities like fashion guru Victoria Beckham and Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker – the star who made Manolo Blahnik a household name – have ultimately admitted that doctors have advised them to lay off the sky-high heels for better foot health.

Not surprisingly, the Association of Podiatrists of Malta (APM) doesn’t advise women to wear high heels, even if for short periods of time, given the very unnatural position they place women’s feet in.

 “When women wear high heels, their toes are all squeezed together, the arch looks more concaved and the foot is in an all in all ‘awkward position’.” 

Research has made it clear that high heels can also have some unsavoury long-term effects on women’s feet. 

“A direct link has been established between the regular wearing of high heels and foot deformities such as bunions, hammer-toes and bunionettes,” they said, adding that these deformities can result in bony prominences which in turn lead to areas of high pressure and bring about problems such as inflammation of certain joints, corns and calluses, and even foot ulcers in diabetics.

Shoes with narrow fronts also cause compression of the toes and feet. 

“This often leads to the impingement of nerves in the feet, something that can be as painful as it sounds, requiring surgical excision in severe cases.”

Women are also more likely to twist and sprain their ankle while wearing high heels and some ankle sprains may be so severe that they cause tears in the ligaments in the ankle, that may give rise to chronic instability and increased risk for re-spraining the ankle in the future. 

Martina Borg focuses on lifestyle and society issues
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