It’s widely believed that women persist in wearing high-heeled shoes, despite what can be considerable discomfort, for aesthetic reasons. But what if, on some level, we’re attracted to high-heeled shoes because we associate them with social status?
That’s the theory proposed in a recent Sociological Images blog post by Lisa Wade, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles whose research focuses on the relationship between social inequality and the body.
Wade suggests that, historically, wealthy women embraced high heels to distinguish themselves from women of lower classes. Working women were far less likely to be able to endure high heels while on their feet all day, and those who were counting their pennies weren’t likely to splurge on impractical footwear. And once the idea that high heels signified affluence had taken hold, women from all walks of life aspired to wear them.
It makes sense. But I’d like to suggest that our associations between high heels and social status may be changing, just as our associations between body mass and social status have changed over time. It used to be that an ample girth signified someone who could afford luxurious food and didn’t have to
perform manual labor for a living. These days it’s a slim physique that suggests to the world you’re someone who can afford nutritious food, exercise equipment, and a personal trainer.
Just as hundreds of calories can now be purchased very cheaply from any fast food chain, high-heeled shoes can be found at discount stores or online at price points that most people can easily afford. Meanwhile, wealthy women are investing as much or more in the health of their feet as in maintaining a toned physique.
As you all know, high-quality comfort footwear isn’t cheap in any sense of the word. Many of today’s affluent women are saving their four-inch Louis Vuitton heels for special occasions, choosing instead to spend most of their time in a high-end comfort shoe—something a woman of means can appreciate not just for its gorgeous leathers and tasteful detailing but also for its low heel, a spacious toebox, and room for her custom foot orthoses (which, of course, also are not cheap).
If history is any indication, the embracing of comfort footwear by the social elite will have a trickle-down effect, eventually increasing pressure on manufacturers to create footwear for the discount-store demographic that provides the same foot health benefits at a fraction of the price. And that can only be good for your lower extremity patients. Yes, the manufacturers of those discount comfort shoes of the future will probably cut some corners on quality in order to bring the price down. But isn’t your patient still better off in a discount comfort shoe than in a discount high heel?
In the meantime, there are still plenty of women who can afford to splurge on a pair of high-quality comfort shoes just as they might have once splurged on a pair of designer heels. Maybe they just need to believe that the former, not the latter, is the classy choice.