High heels have always been central in the battleground of sexual politics, with feminists and other pro-gender egalitarians often at odds. One on hand, many wonder if it's possible to argue for gender equality while hobbling around on six-inch heels. On the other: How is what women wear relevant at all?
In recent months, the debate seems to have risen to new heights, so to speak. Two of the day's more popular, and profitable, fashion trends--"athleisure," which includes high end, but ultimately casual, pieces like designer sweatpants and track-suit-inspired jackets, and "normcore," which is characterized by relatively bland, "average-looking" clothing -- emphasize comfort. Sneakers and other flat shoes feature prominently. For perhaps the first time in a long while, tennis shoes are entirely, or at least mostly, appropriate work wear.
And yet, high heels are still an expected part of a black tie get-up -- or so it seems. The idea was the source of much tension recently when, at the Cannes Film Festival, festival director Thierry Fremaux apparently insisted that women who walked the red carpet adhere to a strict, "formal" dress code -- heels included. Predictably, the edict drew the ire of more than a few women who attended. "Everyone should wear flats, to be honest. We shouldn't wear high heels anyway," said actress Emily Blunt. "That's just my point of view. I prefer to wear Converse sneakers." Others agreed, and eventually Fremaux was forced to apologize.
But it's likely that these women were reacting less to the idea of the misogyny of high heels than to the misogyny of being told to wear them. Sure, women may be growing tired of paying $1,500 for shoes that give them blisters, but they're even more tired of being expected to conform to standards of beauty, and especially ones issued by men. Given the still prevalent imbalance of power and worth in the workplace, it's easy to see why.
And yet, there are plenty of reasons -- that are neither oppressive nor anti-feminist -- to wear high heels, other than that the male patriarchy dictates it. Besides the fact that we issue, and adhere to, dress codes all the time without claiming anti-feminism, science now confirms that heels give women certain advantages. A recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior confirmed that high heels increase a woman's attractiveness -- and, as a result, give women an undeniable power over men. Which begs the question: Why shouldn't women use what they can to get what still appears to be a much-needed edge?
The answer, of course, is that they should. Rallying against gender inequality doesn't mean abandoning the desire to look a certain way, whether that certain way makes you feel better about yourself, or makes you smile when you look in the mirror or gives you an advantage over the opposite gender. Many women like how they look in heels. They shouldn't be made to feel as if they're abandoning the feminist cause, or kowtowing to the patriarchy if they choose to wear them.
Although Fremaux eventually apologized, the misogyny -- if that's even what it was -- wasn't all his. The fact is that, whether a woman buys in to Fremaux's dress code or holds it up as a model of the persistent patriarchy -- whether we insist women wear heels or insist they don't -- we're still trying to dictate what women do or don't spend their money on, what they do or don't think makes them look or feel better. In doing so, we discount entirely a woman's personal preference. We assume that most women would make the same choice. How about the right all women have to wear what they want to wear, without judgment or qualification?
It's possible to want to wear high heels and also want equality in the workplace at the same time. Women who want both aren't hypocrites. They're women who like gender equality -- and high heels.