Killer Heels + How to Survive Them

Also see: How to walk in high heels #alexandertechnique by Molly Bradley, Guest Blogger

high heel
high heel

High-heeled shoes are praised and painted in the most heightened and fantastical of language, almost as ornate as the shoes themselves: Jimmy Choos are “glamorous and sexy.” Vivier is “the Fabergé of footwear.” Ferragamos are “red-carpet ready.” Marilyn Monroe waxed poetic about how heels “put your ass on a pedestal”; Manolo Blahnik speaks eloquently of “the sexuality of the shoe.” Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, accused of having eight thousand dollars’ worth of shoes, protests, “I needed those!”

The power of such beautiful shoes is legendary: they’re in the spotlight of every version of the Cinderella story.

But there’s a reason they call them “killer heels.”

Our feet are complex structures. They’re generally underappreciated, but if they’re not happy, we’re not happy. Intricate networks of joints, ligaments, and tendons, they’re on duty almost all day, constantly managing the balancing acts of standing and walking. The bones in our feet constitute about a fourth of the roughly 200 bones in our bodies. When we walk, they absorb the force of at least three times the weight they manage when we’re just standing around, and they handle a much heftier load than that when we’re running.

That shock absorption travels up further than our feet. There’s a cause-and-effect relationship between our feet and our spines. As we walk, our feet carry out their “gait cycle,” a three-phase process in which one foot first hits the ground, then the whole foot is planted, and finally lifts off so that the other foot can take the next step. Movement in the joints of our feet affects joints in the greater skeletal structure. Naturally, then, any imbalance at the level of our feet will be reflected in our spines.

foot skeleton
foot skeleton

So if your joints hurt – including the 30-odd joints of the vertebral column – you should look to your feet. Are they in any shape to do their job? Are they smooth and flexible? Do you have a decent arch? Can you bend the joints of your toes to and fro, and spread those toes on command? Can you flex your ankles so that your toes point toward your nose, and then stretch them so there is almost a straight line from calf to toe? (To be honest with you, most people can’t necessarily do all of the above.)

One last thing to check: what shoes are you wearing?

When our feet fail us, we can probably blame our footwear. Men and women alike are, for whatever reason, inclined to buy shoes that are too small, too tight, and squash their toes. As women, we’re likely to be torturing more than just our toes by wearing the foot-warping devices more commonly known as heels.

The medical journal The Lancet published a study led by Dr. Casey Kerrigan on the link between high-heeled shoes and knee osteoarthritis. The study measured what they call “knee torque” induced by high heels. They found that wearing heels completely changes the way we stand and walk: it makes our quads work harder and strains tendon and joints in the kneecap. The prolonged strain and pressures, the study notes, “may lead to degenerative joint changes within the patellofemoral compartment” – in other words, may permanently damage our knees.

Further substantial effects of wearing heels are corns, calluses, hammertoes, arthritis, chronic knee pain, sprained ankles, and back problems. Erik Dalton, PhD, has noted lumbar disc compression and joint spurring in many young and well-heeled women. Heels force what is known as hyperlordosis in the pelvis: that deep curve in the small of the back. In a low-heeled shoe, we stand with 40 percent of our weight on the heel and 60 percent on the ball of the foot. In a higher-heeled shoe, our altered center of gravity can shift as much as 90 percent of our weight onto the ball, leaving just 10 percent on the heel.

By dint of wearing heels constantly and consistently, our very adaptable and gullible brains re-learn this abnormal posture as normal by the process of neuroplasticity. “In fact,” says Dalton, in an article for the Freedom From Pain Institute called “Gaga Over Heels,” “some ladies tell me they feel awkward and unstable when they kick off their heels and go barefoot.”

heel diagram
heel diagram

His article includes some interesting and visually helpful diagrams that illustrate just how dramatically heels change our posture and our stride. One demonstrates the way our ankles must accommodate the height of heels in order to keep us standing straight: “Not only are we more unstable on our feet when wearing heels,” Dalton says, “but the increased anterior pelvic tilt squashes our poor organs.” He adds: “Hopefully one day we’ll see a well-designed study testing the relationship of long-term high-heel wearing to gut problems, such as prolapsed colons, distended bladders and hemorrhoids.”

So why do we keep wearing these shoes?

It’s not absolutely clear, although those who study this and similar anthropological phenomena believe that there is sexual signaling at work. Evolutionarily speaking, males in the past were drawn to females based on qualities that indicated that fertility was high, the body was healthy, and therefore reproduction would be successful. Females sought men with muscles and body hair. Good jobs and sports cars did not factor into their choices.

Over the years, since we tend not to run around with our secondary sexual characteristics on display, we’ve learned to supplement the basic elements of attraction when searching for a mate. We get picky: in addition to bank accounts and nice things, we seek smarts, strength, svelteness, humor, physical coordination and creativity.


But many anthropologists see all this as window dressing. They insist that we still choose our partners the same way our stone-age relatives did.

One of these anthropologists, E.O. Smith, explains what’s at work when we wear heels. “Increased heel height creates an optical illusion of ‘shortening’ the foot, slenderizes the ankle, contributes to the appearance of long legs, adds a sensuous look to the strike, and increases height to generate the sensation of power and status.”  The description sounds technical, but it yields the very typical female silhouette we’re familiar with. Above the legs, heels tilt the pelvis such that the buttocks become particularly prominent, and then the chest protrudes above to balance the effects below. Footwear historian William Rossi describes this as the “pouter pigeon pose.” The overall impression, in his words, is “lots of breast and tail balanced precariously on a pair of stilts.”

There are women for whom the desire to appear sexually attractive is secondary. They wear heels to assert confidence, status, and power. Zoe Mayson, a business psychologist and speaker at Black Isle Group Leadership Communication in the UK, says, “I work a lot with men in suits around a boardroom table, and I would never lead a session in flats. Heels give me gravitas that I would not have in lower shoes. Heels get you noticed and give you physical stature, which in turn, gives you power, without compromising your femininity.”

It’s all under the table, so to speak – but why is there something wildly attractive and powerful about a woman running the show while she has something about the length of a penis attached to the bottom of her foot? About a woman who’s running the show, but couldn’t run to save her life?

dressed in white
dressed in white

Beyond the pain, this is the ultimate paradox of high heels: the fact that such debilitating dressing on a woman’s body is supposed to suggest strength and fortitude inside it. But though the psychological illusion is well-maintained, not every woman accepts it. More specifically, it’s often the women outside Western fashion culture that see through the ruse. Genevieve Araque, a woman blogging in the Middle East, points out the absurd and unfair notion of heels being a sign of empowerment. “High heeled shoes, in my mind, are a symbol of objectification. Women in the Western world are told by the media, every day, that their worth is directly tied to their sexual attractiveness,” she says, citing sources she found disturbing: “I stumbled upon a particularly disturbing clip from Today pushing high heels as empowering. [But] if it’s easier for your male co-worker to walk up and push you over, you’re not coming off as strong and powerful!”

Moreover, Genevieve talks about the Western perception of hijabs, the Muslim head covering, as a personal and empowering choice for Muslim women, and takes issue with the fact that heels combined with hijab are supposed to be the image of the empowered Middle Eastern woman. “Western media seems to be guiding us to see Western fashion as being a badge of empowerment. It’s upsetting even just on the level of suggesting that the cultural dress of foreigners is not as good as [theirs]. Add to the fact that Western fashions are hardly empowering to women, and it’s just outright shameful.”

Just in case we as a nation hadn’t noted our own insanity, rest assured that other nations certainly have.

In the same way that precarious high heels are associated with the sexy and the youthful, the bold and the socially superior, flat and stable shoes are associated with the sensible and the apologetic, the elderly and the physiologically unsound. They’re the shoes referred to as “mom shoes” (which has over three hundred million hits on Google) and, worse, “grandma shoes” (with almost thirty million hits). Go ahead and Google them yourself: the results will only be broad-heeled, low, and generally tasteless high heels, or sneakers and flats. While shoes like ballet flats can be perky and cute, even charming in their own way, they are rarely, if ever, considered sexy.

For years, then, it’s been an inevitability disguised as a choice: choose flat and sensible shoes that will, at most, get you a rating of “cute” – or choose high heels which, despite their danger, will elevate you at least to “hot.”

But more and more, we are beginning to have a real choice.

There are, fortunately, fashion-forward shoe designers who are also human beings, and they’re taking comfort into consideration. The magazine Shop Etc. hosted its first “Comfortable Heel Awards” in 2006, and pointed out designers like Colin Stuart (for Victoria’s Secret) for his platform sandals, Coach with its “Vivien” slingbacks, and Tara Subkoff for Easy Spirit – the company whose shoes “look like a pump [and] feel like a sneaker.” Cole Haan also got a nod, as did Aerosoles. The name of the latter doesn’t sound particularly elegant, but their shoes come in a range of looks, from casual to dressy and high-heeled, while concealing foot-savvy features like rubber soles and supportive interior structure. They’re a far cry from Manolos or Choos, but they’re not without flair or attractiveness.

There’s also an interesting selection to be found at Harry’s Shoes in Manhattan. Harry Goldberg began a family shoe store in the Bronx in the 1930s, and his son Joseph Goldberg relocated the business to the Upper West Side in the 1970s. Since then, the store has been a sanctuary for the footsore. For years, almost all the shoes looked like tugboats. But recently, they’ve crept toward stylish and sexy without sacrificing their trademark comfort.

On our own, there are certain rules we can follow to be as comfortable as possible and do the least damage possible in heels. Shop Etc., the magazine that hosted the Comfortable Heel Awards, offers this advice: Seek the best padding inside the shoe. Look for rubber soles – they’ll grip the floor and conform to your step. Choose rounded toes over pointy toes, and wedges over stilettos. Test shoes out on a hard floor, since as the magazine notes, “Every shoe feels better on carpet!” The pros also advise not to scrimp and save on footwear: padding and supportive technology will cost more, but they’re worth it.

exercise in heels
exercise in heels

And last, if we are going to wear heels, we might as well learn to wear them well: an ample array of classes are cropping up that are specifically geared toward walking and working out in high heels. Crunch Gym in Danville, California offers one such class, designed by a senior vice president of programming at Crunch, Donna Cyrus. “‘It’s not a fitness class in high heels, it’s a class to teach you how to walk safely in heels,’” says Cyrus. The class includes exercises that strengthen various muscles that play demanding roles in walking in heels (calves, ankles, abdominals), strutting, cat-walking, and dancing. A spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association called these classes “disasters,” but acknowledges that since women are going to wear heels, “‘it’s important to wear them wisely.’”

Mindy Kreis, group fitness coordinator at Danville Crunch, sums it up nicely: “‘Heels aren’t going away any time soon, so it’s better to learn how to walk in them properly so you don’t get injured.’