“We must suffer to be beautiful.” — French Proverb. Michelle Durand’s very clever June 14 column about a woman in Texas who used her stiletto heels in a creative way (to do her boyfriend in) reminded me of a column I drafted last fall after I had enjoyed a week’s visit with my niece, a professor at Western Washington University. It’s also about stiletto heels, but some more conventional uses for such shoes.
In between our marathon afternoons of playing Scrabble, my niece and I sometimes enjoyed philosophical discussions. During one, after having enjoyed the company of some young female relatives tottering around in their stiletto heels, we agreed that things have changed as far as the women’s liberation movement is concerned. Then we saw a television commercial by a store that was touting such shoes, and we had a hard time believing that any woman would choose to deliberately compromise her mobility in that way.
Before she left, I asked my niece to write down her view on the issue as possible grist for my mill.
“High heels are a physical manifestation of the metaphoric pedestal that men ‘put’ women on,” she wrote. “You can’t run away. You can’t move quickly in any direction. You are easier to push over.”
After she returned to Washington, I thought that maybe that’s not all there is to it — especially as far as today’s young women are concerned. So I came up with more “maybes.” Maybe when women dress provocatively, it’s a way to feel that they have influence over both men and women. Maybe those stiletto heels simply make some of today’s women feel more powerful and, in their way, more influential. It seems long gone is the ’70s and ’80s paradigm of women’s liberation when some women thought they’d gain equality by being more like men, including taking to wearing business suits and some with ties, yet! Could it be that the attitude is now, “I’ll flaunt it and display my femininity and take my status for granted?”
Up until a few years ago, I would have gone along with what I wrote in 1988 about such extreme sexualizing of women: “Don’t they see that because of those ‘body traps’, many women are failing to become strong, thinking and feeling participants of society? Do they ever wonder if keeping women obsessed with their appearance may be one way to keep them ‘in their place’?” It seems that today, at least among the young women I know, that they would not relate to the term “in their place”. Most seem to know that they have their place and are secure in their femininity. Many of these young women appear to have enough self-confidence and a feeling of independence to display their fashion sense, their feminine wiles, along with their intellectual prowess without hesitation. It’s like they’re saying, “I am woman. Hear me roar!”
And then again, maybe with their focus on their feminine powers, much may be forfeited and compromised. Maybe they’ve had everything they want for so long and have been convinced by corporate interests via the media, magazines, etc. that having the latest accouterments of self-adornment is where it’s at. Today’s young women weren’t around when the message to liberate women from all that stuff — high heels, obsession with appearance — was an issue. As Hanna Rosin wrote in “The End of Men,” “It’s even possible that women their age are using their sex appeal not just to keep up with men but to surpass them.”
Niece and I are apparently not alone in our puzzlement. In a letter to the Times recently, Amy Brewster wrote: “As a feminist, I have always found the over-sexualizing of young girls and women offensive. Now it seems to be the norm throughout media and the fashion world, and I don’t hear much pushback. I find it frustrating that in some areas of women’s equality we are moving two steps back as we move one step ahead.”
Maybe because my niece and I are generations apart ideologically from the stiletto heel crowd and more practical types, we just don’t get it. Next time she visits, we’ll have to revive our discussion and continue to explore this subject. But when we see young women wearing such ridiculous heels, the term “pushover” resonates (in more ways than one). I think we’ll still agree with Judith Rodin who wrote “Body Traps”: “What a tragedy that women today live with this great self-consciousness. Television, magazines and movies present and reinforce the glittering false image, but we have taken it for our own.”
Since 1984, Dorothy Dimitre has written more than 700 columns for various local newspapers. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.