Why do women wear high heels?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from Howstuffworks.com.

Molly Edmonds: Hey, welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen Conger: And I'm Cristen.

Molly Edmonds: Cristen, did you know that we are in the middle of an epidemic?

Cristen Conger: No.

Molly Edmonds: Like, it's not even swine flu, it's not disease related, but there is an epidemic.

Cristen Conger: Breaking news on Moms Stuff.

Molly Edmonds: I was reading about it in the Washington Post. This bulletin comes to us from the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society. They said that foot problems resulting from poorly-fitting shoes have reached epidemic proportions, and pose a major health risk for women in America.

Cristen Conger: Because of high heels?

Molly Edmonds: Yes. They are the most dangerous shoes of all, and now we are in an epidemic because of it.

Cristen Conger: Man.

Molly Edmonds: I mean, you can't deny - are you going to refute the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society?

Cristen Conger: No.

Molly Edmonds: I think not. Listen to this staggering statistic. Did you know that 3.5 billion, with a B, is spent annually in the United States for women's foot surgeries, and that because of these food surgeries, women are losing 15 million work days in a year? That's according to the Washington Post.

Cristen Conger: All because of shoes.

Molly Edmonds: Yes.

Cristen Conger: Molly, this is -

Molly Edmonds: It's Bad News Bears. We are in the dark days of civilization.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, I think a lot of women know that high heels are obviously not that great for their feet, but - do you want me to give you a rundown of just how bad they are, aside from those statistics?

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, I do.

Cristen Conger: The reason why women are spending billions of dollars on corrective foot surgery is because when you put on a pair of strappy heels, the problems start with the knees. The altered posture of walking in high heels adds excess force on the knees. This is all about the pressure that you put on your legs and feet by wearing high heels. One study - this is according to that same article in the Washington Post. One study found that knee joint pressure increased by as much as 26 percent when women wear heels. And then, you're at your knees, and then we go down to the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon is tightened up and compressed when you are staying on your tiptoes. And then, we go down to the feet, and you get lovely things such as bunions -

Molly Edmonds: Ooh, it just sounds gross.

Cristen Conger: Um-hum because of those tight fitting - the toe boxes at the end of the shoe; they' re really tight. It can cause boney growths on the joints.

Molly Edmonds: Cristen, can I tell you about my favorite problem on the foot?

Cristen Conger: Yes.

Molly Edmonds: The pump bump.

Cristen Conger: Pump bump?

Molly Edmonds: It's a bump you get from wearing pumps. It's where the backs, or the straps of your heels irritate your heel, and it creates with boney enlargement; also known as Haglund's deformity, but I prefer pump bump.

Cristen Conger: That's good. And then, in addition to pump bump, you've also got hammer toes, which comes in a close second to pump bump. This is when the big toe contracts into a claw-like position. So your legs might look really good when you're wearing the high heels, but then you take them off at the end of the day, and you have some gnarly -

Molly Edmonds: Your feet are so nasty.

Cristen Conger: - scary feet.

Molly Edmonds: And that's if you don't break an ankle trying to run down the street in these things. Like, ankle injuries are a huge possibility, and just the weight you put - basically, you're putting your whole body weight on your toe. One article I was reading in the Washington Post compared this to, would you want all the weight in an airplane situated at the front so that you were nose down? I don't think so. It's gonna crash.

Cristen Conger: But we're gonna wear our heels.

Molly Edmonds: But why do women wear heels?

Cristen Conger: That's a very good question, Molly.

Molly Edmonds: That's the question of today. Why would women put themselves through these potential problems?

Cristen Conger: This torture. Well, the funny thing about high heels, Molly, is that their popularity really took off among men folk first.

Molly Edmonds: Yes. This was the most interesting fact from our research this week, is that men used to love them some high heels.

Cristen Conger: Loved high heels. Yeah, this all started - they traced the high heel back in Europe to these clodhoppers called chopines?

Molly Edmonds: Chopines.

Cristen Conger: Chopines, and chopines were worn in the 16th and the 17th centuries. They were essentially just giant blocks of wood, sometimes as tall as 20 inches high that became popular first among Venetian courtesans, and they were basically used to elevate your feet from the grit and grime that you would be walking through.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, it was a practical purpose. The streets were dirty back then in Europe, so you wanted to keep your elegant clothing clean. So wearing these very high, essentially platforms it sounds like, was a way to denote the fact that you had the money to keep your elegant clothes clean, unlike the ragamuffins on the street. But men loved these, and they loved also being the accessories for women who needed help, obviously, walking down a street in a 20-inch platform chopine.

Cristen Conger: And then, we have the invention of the actual high heel. We go from the block of wood to the heel sometime around the end of the 16th century. This made high heels a little more practical.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, in fac t, men liked them because it was easier to get in your stirrup when you went off horseback riding. But for women, it made the foot appear small and dainty, and just like the chopine, it's just this ultimate marker of status. It's basically showing, I'm not a peasant. I don't have to go out in the streets and work. I'm gonna stay here in these impractical shoes.

Cristen Conger: Right because they wouldn't have to go out and labor. And then, when they were out, they were elevated above all of the filth.

Molly Edmonds: Metaphorically and physically.

Cristen Conger: Yes, exactly. And their popularity really took off in France in the Court of Louis XIV, who loved him some heels.

Molly Edmonds: He did. In fact, he and the people he said were okay, they were the only people who could wear heels in his presence. He was famous for his red heel.

Cristen Conger: Yes. He loved his red heels that were sometimes even painted with scenes of his military victories and things like that.

Molly Edmonds: Now, he was one of the last big guys to be into high heels. Men were beginning to abandon them by the 1730s, but you know, France went through some problems after Louis XIV.

Cristen Conger: A little thing called the French Revolution.

Molly Edmonds: And at that time, you really wouldn't want to be marked by your nobility. Basically, they sent Marie Antoinette off to the guillotine in her heels, and everyone was like, well, I don't want those.

Cristen Conger: Yeah. So they kind of die out of fashion, but then they come back in the late 19th century.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, and again, it happens in France. People were flocking to Paris, also places like New York, living this very cosmopolitan lifestyle, lots of nightlife. When they reappear, they're very much entrenched as female footwear. It's a very strong gender marker.

Cristen Conger: And the revival of the high heel came along when roads started to be paved. When you have the wide boulevards that are actually being taken care of, it's a lot easier to walk, and so a lot more women were out just taking strolls and parading around, and they wanted to show off their dainty well-heeled foot.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, no more cobblestone. But do you know what was interesting to me is that even though these women were promenading down alleyways in their fashionable heels, that even when they went to work for women's rights, they did not abandon the heel. You would think that it being this very feminine thing, that women who were trying to get equality would put them in their closet and say, we're like men, we want votes too. But actually, suffragettes made a big point about wearing heels because they wanted to prove that just because they go the vote, they wouldn't lose their femininity.

Cristen Conger: Right, Molly. They even played sports in high heels. There were some high-heeled tennis shoes that women back then would wear as they played tennis, which I think they should just bring that back for Wimbledon next year, just a special exhibition game.

Molly Edmonds: Okay. Let's keep moving. So stock market crashes. You'd think that luxuries like shoes would die away.

Cristen Conger: Right.

Molly Edmonds: No. They became even bigger. They were especially used in movies because they helped people escape these awful dreary lives, and the war would not stop high heels either. Even when there were materials that were rationed that had been previously used for high heel shoes, they found ways around them.

Cristen Conger: Right. They used a lot of wood, even snakeskin, and kind of got creative with the materials they were using.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, they did not stop making heels just because of the war. In fact, we owe the stiletto to WWII because they had all these new mat erials that they had been using for the war, like steel, and that's how they came up with the strong material that could support a foot on such a tiny heel.

Cristen Conger: Right, and since then, thanks to the steel heel, stilettos have been en vogue really ever since, what, the '50s and '60s.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah. I mean, basically, you're not limited anymore by physics. When they were making these wooden heels and they would and reinforce them with pegs, you still couldn't go to high because the wood would just snap, but now, the sky is the limit.

Cristen Conger: Yes.

Molly Edmonds: Or is it?

Cristen Conger: Or is it? But Molly, along with the stiletto, okay, as opposed to a platform or a chunkier hill, with the stiletto in particular, you have this new shape of a woman's body because of what a stiletto does to the female form. Kind of like when you were talking about the illustration they used in the Washington Post where all the weight in the airplane is moved to the front. That's kind of like what a stiletto does. It actually adjusts your body so that it tips you at the buttocks 20 to 30 degrees back, and then also pushes the bust line out. It creates more of an exaggerated female curve.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, and it makes your legs look longer. So if there's a benefit to be had from the high heel, people say it's because it makes the female form look pretty amazing, so it's beneficial to have these women walking around in high heels because it makes them more attractive to men.

Cristen Conger: Right, but at the same time Molly, the stilettos also become this undeniable cultural sex symbol.

Molly Edmonds: Which is why some people don't like it. There are certainly people who would argue that it's a male vision of what a sex symbol should be. We put these women in these shoes, we elevate their butts, make their legs look longer, and that's how we'll find them attractive.

Cristen Conger: Right, and comparing it to antiquated things like corsets and foot-binding, all compressing a woman's body to make this supposedly perfect form, which is actually unhealthy at the end of the day. For instance, Sheila Jeffreys, who's the author of Beauty and Misogyny says that men have traditionally demanded that women walk and dance in pain, and gain great sexual satisfaction from this. So that's sort of like kind of the extreme anti-high heel view because of what it does to the female form.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, and on the other hand, you met women who just like the way they look, like the art of it, and if you are looking for a good benefit to throw out in terms of sex life, let me offer you this, which is from BBC News. There was this study done in Europe that, 66 women under the age of 50, that when they held their foot at that angle to the ground, a 2-inch heel thereabouts, it showed that their pelvic muscles were stronger.

Cristen Conger: Right, and so the thinking was, by this urologist who was doing this study, since women were getting this unintentional pelvic exercise, they would be better in the bed.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, better sex life if you wore heels because those are the muscles that get traditionally weakened by childbirth and the passage of time, but if you've got these women walking around it, it keeps the muscles strong. Now, I'm not gonna buy this argument personally Cristen.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, this argument was done by a self-avowed high heel addict, so she might have been maybe tweaking result - I don't know. Maybe she just wanted another reason to buy a new pair of heels.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah. Sometimes you start out with your hypothesis, and find a way to meet it.

Cristen Conger: Right, but there was another interesting point raised about this image of women in heels in a column in The Guardian by Hannah Betts, and she was saying that spikes are also a form of armor for women, especially in the workforce. If you put on a pair of very attractive high heels with a well-fitting suit Molly, you feel -

Molly Edmonds: You feel good.

Cristen Conger: You feel pretty powerful.

Molly Edmonds: In fact, Patricia Field, who did the costumes for Sex in the City in that same Guardian article said that she always used stilettos to symbolize character's sexual power and their independence. So I mean, do with that what you will.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, there are definitely arguments, you know, pro-heel, anti-heel arguments, but it's interesting to know that we do have really got men to thank for high heels being popular.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, and maybe they'll come back. You know, during the '70s, during the disco age, that's when men started wearing some heels again. It could come back.

Cristen Conger: Some platforms.

Molly Edmonds: I am personally not a fan of the heel, Cristen. I like to be comfortable, and I rarely find heels comfortable.

Cristen Conger: Well Molly, here's a little tip from a British physicist who actually worked out an equation for the maximum heel height formula that a woman can wear. He took, let's see, the probability that wearing the shoes will turn heads, against the number of years of experience you have wearing high heels, against the cost, and the time since the shoe was in the height of fashion. And then, the most critical element of this, which is unit of alcohol consumed while wearing these heels. He found that women can't wear any higher than 5 inches -

Molly Edmonds: Before they'll fall.

Cristen Conger: Before they'll fall, especially if they are consuming alcohol.

Molly Edmonds: See, now that's the thing. That's what I'm trying to get at. I do not need a shoe that requires a formula to figure out how much you can wear, particularly if there's gonna be alcohol involved. It's just too much work, so I personally, on behalf of all flip-flop, ballet flat wearers everywhere, did a little research about whether that's better than a high heel. It's not.

Cristen Conger: What?

Molly Edmonds: It is unfortunate. In this Washington Post article that we keep citing, one podiatrist said that the only thing that flip-flops do best is carry patients into my office. It's because there's no support. You can't walk around in a city all day with basically just a wedge of plastic under there. And to get that signature flip-flop sound, you've gotta move your heel away from the shoe surface, so it creates tension in your foot, which just worsens painful conditions in the foot. We're always gonna have this battle between function and fashion when it comes to footwear because the only thing they really can recommend to us are sneakers.

Cristen Conger: Sneakers?

Molly Edmonds: And you know, there is just gonna be outfits that we ladies have that will not tolerate a sneaker.

Cristen Conger: Or Molly, you could make it work.

Molly Edmonds: How Tim Gun?

Cristen Conger: Just creativity and confidence.

Molly Edmonds: Well, the rule of thumb is, if you want something a little more concrete than Cristen's creativity and confidence is that -

Cristen Conger: And magic.

Molly Edmonds: If you are going to wear 3-inch heels, only wear them for three hours. So save them for your nights out, for dinner, and then get rid of them. Don't wear them every day. Save your feet sometimes. And maybe go a little lower because I was reading in this infamous Washington Post article that a 3-inch heel puts seven times more stress on you than a 1-inch heel. So basically, if you make small little sacrifices, maybe some kitten heels one day, then some stilettos, we can win this battle of fashion versus f unction with Cristen's creativity and confidence.

Cristen Conger: I'm just gonna try and bring back the chopine, myself, so keep an eye out for that guys.

Molly Edmonds: Along with four men to help you get around town.

Cristen Conger: Yes, as usual.

Molly Edmonds: It is as usual. Speaking of things we do as usual, shall we do some listener mail?

Cristen Conger: Yes, please.

Molly Edmonds: So we got a lot of response about whether men liked video games more than women.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, I think my two favorite responses were from Ryan and Nick. They both wrote in because when they saw the episode title, Do men like video games more than women, they read it as do men like video games more than they like women, and it gave them both a little bit of a chuckle.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah. I think one of them even said, like, yes, there are times when my wife's nagging me that I'm gonna like my video games better.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, it's understandable.

Molly Edmonds: And then we also had a lot of responses to things we mentioned about what gender you choose to play the game in. We had Brit write in, who was talking about how Playstation Home is the Playstation network equivalent to Second Life, Sony's attempt to break into social networking. Out of curiosity, on the first day of the test launch, she made up a female avatar and immediately she's got male avatars catcalling her, making lude comments to her. She tried to explore the different areas. So she gives up, creates a tall, male avatar, and that was the only way she could go through the whole thing in peace. But then, on the other hand, we've got Tom who says that there are a few benefits to being a female character, like while you do get that very explicit, unwanted attention, he finds that if you have a female avatar, you get more help from other gamers. So on several games where my player was a female and my friend's character was a male, Tom writes, I was able to advance a lot quicker and easier because people were more likely to help me. So there are advantages. Our last example is not about being in an actual game, but being in the gaming world. She works at GameStop, or she worked there, and she said that when male gamers came in and saw that there was a girl there who talk intelligently about games, that they became immediately inclined to view girls who liked video games as potential romantic pursuits. Perceived scarcely meant that being asked, that was a daily experience for herself and the store's other female workers, a volume that has never been duplicated in any of Loren's other jobs before or since.

Cristen Conger: All right, well, we've got a reading list and a video game list combo to close things out today. This is from Trevon, and Trevon lives in Tallahassee, Florida, in case anyone was wondering. He is reading this summer a lot of things, and I will pull out three of them. He is reading Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, good choice, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. And then, for a couple video games he's playing semi-often, he says, Resident Evil 4, Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports, and Legend of Zelda, Twilight Princess. Thanks for writing in Trevon.

Molly Edmonds: Wow. He's got a lot of video games and a lot of books on his docket.

Cristen Conger: He's a busy guy. Trevon doesn't waste a lot of time.

Molly Edmonds: Well, if you can waste just a little bit of time, you may not see it as a waste of time to email Cristen and me -

Cristen Conger: We don't see it as a waste of time.

Molly Edmonds: We certainly don't. We love your emails. Email us at momstuff@howstuffworks.com. If you want to waste a little time online, you could read our blog, again, not necessarily a waste of time. It's How-To Stuff, and if you want to find out more about fashion through the ages, again, you're gonna want to head over to Howstuffworks.com.

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