When Beloved Art Forms Hold Us Back

The first thought that comes to mind when I see a woman’s stiletto shoe is “Oh, hell no.” This modern form of torture device might be sleek and beautiful, but it puts undue stress on the foot causing sometimes permanent damage to bones and nerves, not to mention blisters, swelling, and pain in the Achilles tendon. That’s to say nothing of the increased risk of twisted, sprained, or even broken ankles.

When I see these shoes, I see an industry that has worked for centuries to create fashion that holds women back. Wobbly high heels leave women unbalanced. They have traditionally made it harder to keep up with fast-walking male colleagues, required us to steady ourselves when going up stairs by grabbing a banister or a man’s arm, made it more challenging to carry, say, a heavy box of files. Even women who are pretty skilled at walking in these types of shoes admit to near mishaps.

When I see these shoes, I see centuries of pressure on women to put beauty and fashion before comfort, skill, health, and even fun. No one can really let loose and dance with total abandon wearing shoes like this. High heels were designed to draw the male gaze down past a tight calf to a delicate ankle and a dainty foot. As a short woman, I’ve been pestered to wear high heels to add some height to my frame.

When I see these shoes, though, I also see art. We revere many of our great designers in much the same way we revere great artists. Few things reflect our personal artistic expression more than fashion. Even my friends who hate high heels (myself included) own at least one pair, partly because something about them caught our eye. For me, there’s still great fun in getting dressed to the nines now and then, and that includes flashy shoes, although I quickly slip them off under the dinner table.

The Generation Z kids do not appear to be the slaves to fashion my generation was. I’ve seen them wear Keds with their prom dresses. I’m curious if the pandemic will lead to lasting change in fashion. I’ve heard many women boast that they have not worn a pair of high heels in nearly a year (since the lockdowns started). Will we be willing to embrace them again when things go “back to normal”? I hope not. I hope this is the stimulus we need to finally break free of these gorgeous shackles.

Like so many artists, it’s up to designers to shift and pivot and start to give women shoes that are still unique, still artsy, and still beautiful but won’t leave us crying in pain at the end of the day. We’ve excused a lot of bad art over the centuries because it was deemed “fashionable.” Most of the time, we eventually outgrew it. It’s time for us to outgrow our attachment to fashion that holds women back and causes us injury, no matter how gorgeous it may appear. We can display these pieces in fashion museums, we can keep a pair or two to show the grandkids, we can hold on to our memories, but it’s time for us to demand a new kind of art. One that lets us dance freely.

Do you agree?

Teresa R. Funke

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