This shoe ain’t made for walking

High heels cripple your feet, give you bunions and do terrible things to your back – and what’s worse, they are getting ever higher. So why on earth do so many women inflict such pain upon themselves, asks Hadley Freeman

Personally, it’s always the veins that get me: those poor, popping veins straining out of their nearly vertical feet. Then there are the ligaments of their toes, quivering and painfully visible, like guitar strings. And it’s getting worse.

The recent photos of Charlize Theron and Victoria Beckham wearing six-inch heels confirm what any woman who has been in a shoe store in the past year already knows: heels are getting higher than ever before, with four inches becoming the norm from the high street to Bond Street. Yet instead of looking at these pictures of celebrities barely able to walk in their £450 shoes and saying, “Tchuh, seeing Charlize and Vicky hobbling about in that footwear proves my long-held belief that you have to be pretty dumb and desperate to want to be a celebrity“, many female customers are following their precarious example. When Gwyneth Paltrow wore a five-inch-high pair of Russell & Bromley shoe boots (ankle boots, but cropped around the ankle), the store sold out almost instantly. At the Prada show last September, I counted at least three models falling on the runway because of the height of their heels. Instead of taking this as a bad sign, fashion editors seem to be following suit.

Looking back just a few years ago, when heels of two-and-a-half or three inches were considered acceptable, is like looking at photos of Marilyn Monroe, a shapely size 14, and being told she was considered slim in her day. Those were simpler times, kinder times and, one cannot but suspect, healthier times.

Oh yes, this is the 21st century. Previously considered insurmountable barriers for women have been broken, glass ceilings shattered and exciting medical advances made daily. Yet when it comes to footwear, women seem to be voluntarily choosing to return to the days of footbinding, crippling themselves in the pursuit of neat little feet. You can’t help remembering the times when women broke their ribs to narrow their waists. Plus ça change.

As you might have discerned by now, I am not a fan of high heels, never have been. In fact I’ve lost friends through wearing them, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The very few times I’ve reluctantly hoisted myself up into a pair for some social occasion, I’ve spent the entire evening grumpy, immobile and longing to leave. I hadn’t even left the room at one such party when I heard an old acquaintance mutter – one who I haven’t seen since, incidentally – “Christ, what’s up with her?”

“Up” was the operative word in that question because I was up, all right – up about four-and-a-half inches in a pair of designer shoes I’d bought after having been promised that this label was the most comfortable around. Here’s a hint: magazines and heel devotees often say things like, “Oh, you just haven’t worn good heels. When you wear Manolo Blahnik / Jimmy Choo / Christian Louboutin shoes, you don’t feel like you’re wearing heels at all.” They’re lying. The only way you might not know you were wearing heels is if someone slipped them on your feet while you were sleeping, and even then they’d probably pinch you into wakefulness.

Yet why do I, the flat-shoed shorty among heeled giants, feel like I’m the only one who sees the obvious? It’s like being back at school in PE, where everyone else around me seemed to vault nimbly over wooden blocks and trot effortlessly around football pitches for hours, while I couldn’t even make physical contact with a ball.

But unlike then, now at least I can rest on my sense of superiority: I know I am right. I don’t care what anyone says about high heels giving women “a good shape” or “confidence” (truly, there’s nothing that makes a woman feel more confident than aching feet and immobility), there is nothing natural or attractive about walking on one’s tiptoes.

As a fashion writer, I am clearly not anti-fashion. Nor am I averse to what my mum might call “making an effort”. I spend more money every month on straightening my Jewfro than I ever spent on rent, and I own so many clothes I recently had to buy another wardrobe, which I now keep in my sitting room. But to me, high heels are the sartorial equivalent of dieting: someone, somewhere decided that they improve a woman’s look and every year the bar gets set higher, the desired look is more extreme and, if one takes a step backwards and looks at it all with fresh eyes that haven’t become accustomed to the practice, less attractive.

Just as only blinkered fashion freaks find jutting bones and concave thighs aspirational, only those with a similarly niche mindset could possibly be drawn to the idea of women teetering about all day on the poor squashed balls of their crumpling feet. So just as I refuse to sacrifice lunch for the noble cause of shrinking myself to a size six, so I reject high heels. Some things just aren’t worth the effort.

To see someone flailing around like a baby fawn attempting to master the skill of walking is to see in action the definition of “idea gone too far.” Surely the idea of getting a pair of shoes that look beautiful but are too high to walk in is on a par with buying a car that looks nice parked in the drive but doesn’t actually have an engine. And that’s before we get on to the health hazards. Yes, they crush your feet, permanently warp your toes (ooh, sexy!), give you bunions and throw your back out, to say nothing of broken limbs due to falling.

The girls in stilettos might have longer legs at the party. But surely one who is wearing pretty flats with a cocktail dress, gaily dashing about talking to people and, if I do say so myself, RULING the dancefloor is a damn sight more attractive than some mopey Mary sitting on the sidelines, admiring her shoes. Maybe my legs do look stumpier than Gwyneth’s. But I bet I’m a lot more fun at a party.

If all this hasn’t convinced you to give up the heel, I’ll hit you with one last tale. About a year ago I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. I felt pretty much paralysed from the neck down. Eventually I managed to get myself to the doctor who packed me off to an osteopath. The specialist looked at my frozen back muscles and said pityingly, “Do you wear high heels? Your back and spine are all out of shape and I see this often in ladies who wear high heels.” You see?

In fact, it was probably caused by my fondness for gigantic handbags – but that’s another story.

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