Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Heel appeal

Many women are expected to wear high heels at work, despite the damage they do to the wearers' feet, knees and backs. Shouldn't women have the choice to wear something healthier and more comfortable?

The British Trades Union Congress says yes, of course they should. They've just passed overwhelmingly a motion that employers should carry out risk assessments on women wearing high heels.

They say high heels result in two million working days being lost every year through permanent physical damage, and women should be free to wear more sensible shoes that don't cause injury.

Yet shop workers, office staff, airline crew, hotel employees and others are required to wear high heels as part of their dress code. Ubiquitous health and safety regulations apparently don't apply to harmful footwear.

Not surprisingly the TUC motion hasn't been universally welcomed. Those women who're addicted to high heels can't see what all the fuss is about. As far as they're concerned, heels are glamorous and intimidating and get them more respect in the workplace, particularly from male colleagues*.

Union delegate Loraine Monk said women shouldn't be lectured to about what to wear. "This well-meant motion will see the union movement portrayed in the media as the killjoy fashion police."

Come again? If you point out the damage high heels can do you're being a killjoy? So if you point out that long hair can get caught in machinery, or bare flesh may lead to skin cancer, does that make you a killjoy too? If there's anything that kills joy, it's a bad back and painful feet.

I frequently see women clumping across offices or shopfloors in obviously uncomfortable shoes they must be dying to remove, yet traditional workplace dress codes say a woman doesn't look professional or authoritative unless she's wearing them. So how come men are instantly endorsed without having to teeter three inches off the ground?

Stilts belong in the circus, not in the office.

*See for example the outraged protest against the "shoe police" by Flic Everett in the Daily Mail

Johann Hari of the London Independent has a superb article today about the relentless cult of the stick-thin female body and its destructive effects on ordinary women.


  1. hi nick,
    i cant walk in heels so this isnt an issue to me. thats both blessing & curse....

    my local shopping centre has a very popular function centre next door so often when i sclep up the shops of a weekend i see people dressed to the nines for a wedding or suchlike. the dichotomy between my slobbing around gear and the glad rags always amuses me but i digress,the funniest is the beautiful young things in gorgeous dresses, killer shoes and groomed to within an inch of their lives, sexy as all get out except that they CANT WALK!!
    it ruins the whole thing :)

  2. Hi Nick
    I think we have to look at why women feel they have to 'power dress' in the first place. We are not accepted as equals in the work place and anything that gives us an 'edge' be it real or imagined, or, for the wrong reasons (to appear sexy) is grasped with both hands. It has become part of the dress code, as is wearing a suit for men in certain jobs.

    If we all went around wearing sensible lace-ups we'd be rebuked for dowdiness and / or lesbianism!I used to always wear flat shoes because my Husband is not much taller than me and I didn't like to be higher than him when out.However now I am really enjoying wearing a shoe with a heel!

    I know what you are saying about health problems, but I hope that it is left up to us as to whether we ruin our health, not the Nanny State!

    PS. I like to wear heels sometimes but could never walk in 'killer heels'!

  3. It does one's head in, this outdated stuff, doesn't it? It makes me feel women haven't advanced one iota when an employer can still dictate the mode of dress his female employees wear.

    I see the 8" heels example set by Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham and despair of women ever being set free from these self-imposed (in a lot of cases) chains.Isn't it all about the provocative pelvis being thrust out or some such?

  4. You have opened a can of worms there Nick. I am all for abolishing the high heel requirement, but a lot of vested interests will block such moves by TUs. The list of vested interests can be quite staggering and some unexpected ones will crop up! I am not a follower of conspiracy theories, but here is one waiting to be opened up for public scrutiny.

  5. Kylie - Yes, what's the point of looking perfectly groomed if they're hobbling along in shoes they can't cope with?

    Suburbia - I agree heels can give you an edge, which is why women should be able to choose whether they wear them or not. I also agree flats can lead to absurd sexist comments. And you're also right about stopping the nanny state dictating!

    www - Absolutely, employers shouldn't be able to lay down a rigid dress code, aside from looking presentable and wearing clothing that's safe.

    Ramana - Plenty of vested interests indeed, including male fetishism and wanting women's sex appeal to beguile the customers!

  6. I agree with Suburban about the nanny state. But that said, even as a personal choice, super high heels (what Hedgehog calls "needle heels") are just insane for work. Who can really pull that off? It's a feat of balance, strength, and coordination just to walk across a room in those, let alone spend a 9-hour day in them!

    Tangentially... I'm a fan of the kitten heel--a heel, but not too high.

    Also, a well-kept secret is that platform heels are incredibly comfortable to wear. Not usually appropriate for the office though.

  7. Leah - Kitten heels and platform heels are much more sensible. So why aren't they an acceptable alternative? Or are women themselves setting a high-heels dress code, I wonder?

  8. I had no idea that high heels were considered power dressing. Not over here they're not. I am the queen of the sensible shoe I'm afraid and I work in an extremely corporate environnent.

  9. Baino - Very glad to hear it. Oz workplaces are obviously a lot more sensible than British ones. And are they equally unconcerned about ties and suits?

  10. Gosh, I never knew women were forced to wear high heels at work - pretty sure it doesn't happen over here in sensible NL - and certainly not at my workplace.

  11. Conor - It looks like it's about time Britain came into line with other countries and emerged from the dark ages....

  12. I just read the article in the Independent: it's very good. Is it really true, do you think, that tha rise of powerful women goes along with the stick-thin bodies and vice versa? It sounded convincing but it seems a bit easy to link it so simply.

    I battle with myself constantly about whether i'm happy as I am or whether I would be happier if thinner. No, not happier - more content with whom I am.

  13. I've never seen any woman having to wear heels, but I work in engineering companies

  14. Liz - It's an interesting idea but I can't say I'm convinced. I think there are more fundamental motives for starving oneself but I'm not sure what - masochism, self-discipline, self-denial?

    Thrifty - I can't see engineering companies insisting on high heels myself! Hard hats, maybe....

  15. I couldn't agree more. In the past I was forced to wear them, but rarely do anymore even though at 5'1", I like the extra height.

    They are absolutely dangerous and longterm constant wear will destroy ones back, legs and feet. No fashion statement is worth that.

    As for women only being respected when they are on stilts, it's terribly unfair, sexist and yet another way in which women are controlled.

  16. Heart - Some women's insistence on wearing high heels despite the health risks is rather like the reckless consumption of alcohol. I don't think they really believe they could pay dearly for it in the future.

  17. Thrifty - Ah, not hard hats then. Rubber shoes and rubber gloves maybe....

  18. I am 6'1". I laugh at high heels!

  19. Meno - Slightly taller than me in fact! In which case you certainly don't need high heels, for work or anywhere else.

  20. Nick, the only time in my life that obligatory footwear came into play was back in my school days. The nuns insisted we wore black indoor shoes while in school.

    In all the companies for which I worked never were shoes/heels part of the picture. I do remember way back when churches, schools and Concert halls pleaded with women not to wear stilettos as they ruined the floor covering.

  21. Grannymar - That's remarkable that none of your employers ever expected heels. Glad to hear it. Re ruined floors, I know people whose floors have been badly damaged by thoughtless visitors in high heels.