When I was younger, I had made it a point not to visit those people who had more shoes in their houses than books. Similarly, I adored women who are comfortable in their own skin; and was turned off by those who are uncomfortable in their own shoes. And then I got married. I was slowly made to understand how a woman desires a new pair of shoes.
The female foot has been revered as an erotic incitement in many cultures. Small, narrow and soft; the features of a woman’s foot have been appreciated throughout history. For a thousand years in China, it was considered cultured and sexually attractive for a woman to have bound feet. Beyond weekly washing and perfuming, the feet were kept bound tightly at all times. With a few exceptions, until the Renaissance, women’s footwear was less interesting in the West because it was less visible under the longer garments worn. Except longer toes, platforms, and Chinese & Turkish embroideries over the next few centuries, nothing exciting was observed until the stiletto heel, paired with a sharp pointed toe, as the most aesthetically flattering shoe-style ever designed. In its reaction, a low-heeled, square boot came back into fashion in the mid-1960s, and the early 1970s saw the return of the platform and the sports-shoe phenomenon. Since then we have only seen on-off repetitive periods of these trends.
We would like to believe that life is not about the shoes, but about the people wearing them. However, it seems that for a good number of liberated women it is a case of true love with their shoes. It appears that finding a pair of shoes is like looking for a partner for them; they perceive themselves as the right or the left foot as couples when looking for a perfect match. Perhaps their shoes pin them to the world in such a way that they mediate between them and their environment. Such a fascination with shoes was popularized by film stars like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth; and has become an essential component of the modern woman’s wardrobe.
Most women will tell you that they love their shoes because of the way they make them feel. They seem to be an intimate extension of their bodies and say so much about their persona, aesthetics, and social status. They have a sculptural quality to them as the shoes displayed in wardrobes look are like an exhibition; a work of private art. Clothing, when not worn, just lies there flat and lifeless; but shoes have a sovereign quality, which may explain why women’s obsession with shoes seems to be reaching new peaks. Shoes may also provide a foundation for the image that women want to broadcast to the world. They wear them as a way to experiment with aspects of their identity in a less committed way than any other visible marker such as a hairstyle. Many women are willing to play with their shoes in ways they don’t frolic with other sections of their wardrobes.
It is said that there are two kinds of women in the world; those who love shoes and those who had the misfortune to be born without the ability to experience total bliss of finding a pair of perfectly designed pumps in the right size at half price. While the sales of most things plummeted due to COVID-19 lockdowns, business of female footwear went up. This may have something to do with the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is released when we buy something. Its level keeps rising until we make the payment; following which it goes down because the guilt creeps in, except if the item being purchased is a pair of shoes. The explanation lies in the knowledge that shoppers rationalize shoes as a practical acquisition that can be worn multiple times; therefore, they hold on to the pleasurable feeling longer. These delightful feelings are intensified when women choose high heels. Like most animals, we are actually wired to associate height with power. High heels can literally raise status because we are taller when we wear them. Also, in previous centuries, only the wealthy wore high heels — everyone else had practical footwear to do manual labour.
I am not sure how many of you have seen an office-door-sign that said, ‘The higher the heel the better you feel”. It is said that the reason modern heels are so uncomfortable is because they were designed by men who never had to wear them. However, women love wearing high heels because they can transform their outfit and lift their mood. In the modern professional context, many women wear the high heels because they make them feel empowered. When a woman wears high heels, she also assumes a primal mating position called lordosis, which triggers erotic fantasies among men. In addition to the way they look from behind, our minds are organized in a fashion that may associate feet with sex. The area of the brain that communicates with the genitals is right next to the area that deals with the feet. These regions share neural crosstalk, which may be why shoes can be erotic.
Most men do not attempt to grasp the intense relationship between a woman and her shoes. However, if they want insight about their personalities, feet are where they should concentrate. Psychiatrists propose that you can predict how a woman grooms the rest of her body from how she takes care of her feet. Meanwhile, wedges and low-heels, wide heels— but not flats— indicate that she feels insecure. Not surprisingly, women sporting brightly coloured shoes tend to be more playful and risk takers. Peacock tendencies mean that she could be more challenging, and may expect to be put on a pedestal. Wearing Ballerina-flats means that she is a woman who puts comfort above style. Women wearing flip-flops, if they are not at the beach, may be too laid-back. However, women in sneakers are not low maintenance as they look; they may be getting ready to jog or play tennis or walking to work, but they are ready for action. If she is wearing expensive closed-toe conservative pumps, she values her work a lot; but a pair of expensive riding boots means she likes to binge on luxuries.
By now we might be fairly certain that what women really want are: shoes. However, shoes really ever fit and if they ever do, they are too expensive. It is, therefore, known that an average woman, who can afford, owns 20 pairs of shoes and more than half of them are never worn. It is as if a designer made something just for them; a coveted work of art to be looked at, and perhaps occasionally touched. Psychologists, who reckon there is something deep and dark about women’s love of footwear, themselves have nothing else to offer except keep buying them and putting into the wardrobe but never wear.
Research also shows that one in five women admits to keeping shoes in the living room, scattered around the house or even in the boot of her car. But really, it is just because those shoes are uncomfortable; and women want to be able to walk to the train without cringing and run for the bus without spraining their ankles. That is despite the fact that they may have never taken a train or ridden a bus for years. Some of them e.g., Penny Smith, could even buy an expensive car or a flat with the amount of money they spend on their shoes. But homes and cars don’t make your legs look long and beautiful, do they?
If you are one of those who is still trying to understand the wearing of high heels at the airport, podiatrists also highlight that heels over two inches are a risk factor for chronic foot and ankle pain. Nonetheless, more women than men suffer pain from their footwear; and more women than men say that they are prepared to suffer for the sake of their shoes. When heels were first added to shoes in the 1590s they were only about an inch high and expressed the status of the wearer. Heels were reintroduced on ladies’ footwear during the late 1850s, but did not find universal appeal until the late 1870s.
Women’s liberation was reflected in the high heels and the elevated soles that put women on an equal footing with men; therefore, they are not planning to give that up in a hurry. Podiatrists also say that women’s shoes are tighter because they are designed to fit firmer around the toes and the heel. They are especially made to make women’s feet look as slim as possible. The trick is that if you bring the shoes home and they are still too tight, take them to a shoemaker to stretch them. Just keep in mind that natural fabrics like leather stretch more than synthetics. This may also debunk the common myth that flats are always better for you than heels.
As for as men are concerned, they will never understand that, for a woman, the only difference between everybody and somebody is all the shoes. Men remain happy with the old Cosby jokes, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes”. Women on the other hand would tell you that a pair of great heels was much more satisfying than a man. They lasted longer, and better yet, they didn’t leave us for someone younger and prettier.
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.