Every so often a piece of news pops up that makes you realise, that for every step women take to go forward, there is some hurdle placed in their way to make the journey difficult, if not downright dangerous. A few weeks ago, Yumi Ishikawa, a 32-year-old Japense model and actress, tweeted that employers in Japan should not be allowed to force women to wear high heels to work. Turns out several corporate companies have a dress code that requires women to wear high heels. Now, everyone knows the health hazards of wearing heels, the damage done to knees and spine in the long run, but it seems corporate bosses don’t care.
Ishikawa also started an online petition asking the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, to prevent employers from forcing high heels on women, and gathered thousands of signatures. According to a report by Aria Hangyu Chen in Time magazine, “The campaign also ignited passionate online discourse, as many women began posting photos of bruises and blisters on their toes or detailing discomfort and pain.”
It’s not just in Japan that women have to fight for their right to comfortable footwear; in 2016, British actress Nicola Thorp started a campaign asking the UK government to ban workplace policies that required women to wear heels, after she was sent home from work for wearing flats.
As expected, she faced criticism and trolling, but, says the report, “her campaign ultimately did bring about change; her online petition was signed by more than 150,000 people, far exceeding the 10,000 signatures required to mandate a response from the government. A parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the complaint stated that company dress codes must be “reasonable,” including those dress codes that differentiate between what men and women must wear.
The committee also found that some companies went far beyond mandating heels for women, some requiring them to periodically reapply make-up, wear revealing clothes and even dye their hair blonde. The fact that it has been an assumed part of life that women should wear an impractical item of clothing that damages your feet and back, is indicative of ingrained sexism and double standards,” Thorp told Time in an email.
“In the UK, most people were shocked that women were still being forced to wear high heels and make up at work. Men especially hadn’t really thought about it, and even women who wear heels every day in discomfort, hadn’t questioned the inequality of it before.” Some years ago, there was a storm of protest when, at the Cannes Film Festival, several women were turned away from a screening, when they arrived in flat shoes. Julia Roberts and Kristen Stewart had the chutzpah to defy this unwritten but illogical rule, and walk the red carpet barefoot.
Wearing high heels to a party is still a woman’s prerogative, but uncomfortable shoes being made mandatory at the workplace is absurd in the extreme; on the one hand women are expected to work hard and be efficient, and on the other, companies ordering them to wear “sexy” outfits, or make-up, or stilettos, are telling them that their role is merely decorative, while the men in suits to the actual work.
At least where women have a choice, there is a pushback against such random sexism; more and more women are wearing sneakers, even at formal events. According to a report by Megan Reynolds in Jezebel.com, a study by thredUP, an online consignment store, “In examining data from December 2017 through May 2018,” writes Erin Wallace, brand director, “thredUP discovered a 38% heel ‘purge surge’ — or increase in volume of heels sent to thredUP in the past three months.”
Across this great country of ours, heels are being packaged into their little boxes and sent away, in exchange for shoes that allow the foot to be just a foot. One could point to our innate desire for comfort as the reason, but it’s likely the result of athleisure’s continued dominance.” Interestingly, high heels were actually designed for men, because height was a desirable physical attribute to convey power and wealth. In a piece for Racked.com Jennifer Wright wrote, “Depictions of high heels date back to Ancient Egypt.
However, heels really became popular in 15th century Persia, where they were worn by male equestrians. According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator from the Bata Shoe Museum, “When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more easily.” Heels were intended to be an instrument of war, rather than one of seduction.
Messengers from Persia began traveling to Europe, and they brought their heels with them. European male aristocrats may not have been shooting a bow and arrow while riding a horse, but they did realise that if you wore high heels, your feet would not be covered in horse shit, or, indeed, any of the muck you might find on the grounds of a Renaissance city.”
Then, sixteenth century Italian courtesans stared wearing high heels “as a kind of sexy androgynous symbol.” A little later, aristocratic women adopted them, and then, as it invariably happens, other women copied the trend; over time, men ditched these painful shoes, and they became the exclusive preserve of women, because, well, they make them look more slender and give them a hip-swaying walk that is considered sexy.
Quite like the Chinese custom of binding the feet of girls, so that when they grew up, they had that shoulder-bowed mincing gait. As a result of Ishikawa’s tweet, a hashtag #KuToo was created, echoing #MeToo, combining the Japanese words for shoe (kutsu) and pain (kutsuu) — just a vowel separating the two!
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.