Ladies – don’t let companies bring you to heel

Iona Bain

There are two things that men will never understand about women. One is the agony of childbirth – although I’m prepared to accept that a swift kick in the downstairs department for men may be approaching the same world of pain. The other is the sheer hell of being compelled to wear shoes that are too uncomfortable.

Unless a man has a certain penchant for ladies dressing, there is no way he can fathom the irritation posed by wearing high heels. They force our feet into a distorted position for hours on end, meaning we tense our leg muscles and lean forward when we walk. We have to watch where we step lest we trip on a kerb, loose paving stone or grate. Where others regard stairs and escalators as a useful way of access, we see them as the potential cause of our untimely death. We look on with dread at fast moving crowds, puddles and large gaps between the train and the platform. If we have picked a particularly vertiginous heel, even the prospect of standing up for more than ten minutes at a time can seem like a very slow but effective form of torture. Sometimes, we strain every sinew of our being just to keep the wretched things on our feet.

Some of the most quietly embarrassing and painful things that could happen to a women inevitably involve the word “heel”. Shoe flying off mid-walk (heel), falling over (heel), sinking into the lawn at weddings (heel), wobbling as we walk into an important meeting or date (heel), being left behind (heel), heel snapping, heel accidentally stabbing into our foot, heel, heel, heel. Hell, more like.

Yet we walk out of the house, get on public transport, go to work, run, dance, stand for hours on end and perch on ludicrously uncomfortable bar stools with these efforts strapped to our feet.

I say ‘we’ but actually, I tell a lie. I have, for the most part, given up on heels. Life is too short. I wear them only when I have short distances to walk or if I’m getting a lift somewhere and back (and I live in London so that’s…er, never.) When I do wear them, I go for unashamedly “practical” styles. Never have I been more proud to sound like my mother when describing a (rare) new pair of heels to a friend. “I can walk in them! I can stand in them! They are so comfortable, you see, they’ve got this cushion on the sole of the foot…” I can report quite openly that Clarks, once the uncool destination for school shoes, do some really fab heels that look positively designer (although their flats, ironically, are a different matter…but I digress.)

It’s hardly the stuff of stiletto-shaped fantasies, I know, but I no longer care. I want to go about my everyday life unimpeded. I want to walk down the street without worrying if I’m going to make a prat of myself. I like the freedom to, you know, get on an escalator and walk down it without having to consciously place every step.

No longer do I subscribe to the orthodoxy commonly peddled in the media that you have to wear heels to look “smart”. Having worked in different offices at various stages in the past five years, I can happily report that women are finding more and more wonderful ways to look stylish and professional without having to don ridiculous heels.

Nor do I believe girls need them to look “sexy”, whatever that means. I recently attended an awards ceremony wearing flats, not least because I have been experiencing some issues with my back recently. It was such a relief to glide in and out of conversations, skip up and down the stairs, move freely on the spot and come home sans painful feet. I felt quietly confident. Moreover, I received my fair share of compliments on how I looked and not one person remarked on the fact that I was wearing flats (it helped that they were beautiful and sparkly – proof that you don’t need to chuck the Choos and endure orthopaedic sandals that would make your grandma wince).

That’s the crux of the matter. In truth, nobody with half a brain really cares anymore about what you wear, so long as you do your job well, dress nicely and get on with your business. We do still live in a looks-oriented world, I won’t deny that, and women shouldn’t feel that being taken seriously involves looking dull or traditionally “masculine”. Those who have mastered the art of dressing well without compromising themselves (either physically or psychologically) are, ironically, the ones who look most attractive to others. They give off a mystique, an irresistible air of self-confidence that others (men and women) find magnetic.

It’s only a small coterie of retrograde dinosaurs – men AND women, I should clarify – who cling to the belief that heels are what makes a woman acceptably female. It’s a depressingly limited way of thinking that sometimes rears its ugly head, as in the case of Nicola Thorp, who was sent home from a temping job with PricewaterhouseCoopers because she was wearing smart black flats.

Instead of being ostracised, Ms Thorp should have been applauded for dressing in a way that meant business. Her willingness to wear flats actually meant she was taking her job seriously, that she was likely to concentrate and be on the ball, not just finding an excuse to play dress-up or draw attention to herself.

All too often, highly pronounced heels are an unnecessary distraction both for you and for others. The distraction doesn’t really stem from you looking genuinely more attractive, but rather because you are making a statement that you wish to look conventionally feminine, that you want to fall within a traditional image of woman as fashion plate, clothes horse…ornament.

Women, however, can no longer afford to be just ornaments, unless their goal is to marry a footballer. We are fortunate that we have opportunities that weren’t automatically available to our mothers and grandmothers. We can earn our own money, live on our own and make our own decisions about our lives. However, it is also through necessity as well as choice that we have to be career-minded. Modern relationships, often forged in the flighty world of online dating, can be very fragmented for people in their twenties. Serious relationships often start later and end prematurely, both in and outside marriage. The rate of women in their twenties, thirties and forties who have never married has soared in the last three decades. Even if a young woman does meet someone, she still needs to bring her own deposit to the table in order for the two partners to get on the housing ladder. How can she do that if she isn’t earning her way in the world?

Add to this the gender pay gap and incidents of sexism (subtle and overt) which punctuate the life of every young woman, and it’s clear we have an uphill battle to get taken seriously. We still need to do everything in our power to perform at our best and show that we aren’t any less capable than our male colleagues.

If you live a life where you simply waft in and out of cars, walk on smooth red carpets, sit down a lot and get your tootsies massaged by flunkies with supple hands at the end of every day, heels are eminently do-able. We can try to copy the supposed ideals of dressing set by female celebrities, paid to wear certain shoes and attend fashion shows. But we will soon run ourselves down and give up.

Most women have to live in the real world, with all the financial and professional responsibilities that entails. They should give themselves – and their feet – a break.

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