Shoes are humankind’s oldest invention to aid mobility. Thousands of years before a clever Mesopotamian first tilted a potter’s wheel up onto its side to make a chariot, or a nomad tamed the first wild horse on the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe, people began fashioning shoes from leather or plant fiber to make it easier and less painful to get from one place to another. For the earliest humans especially, our survival depended on movement, toward prey and away from predators, for we have long been both. It is not surprising, then, that many of our earliest stories are concerned with flight and pursuit.
From the creations of Vivier, to Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin, and Alexander McQueen, so many modern high heel designs embody ideas of metamorphosis. The fashion gods transform women into something other than human. They become plantlike, animallike; elevated, but easier to catch and subdue. Flowers to be gathered and collected on their tall, thin stalks. Beasts to be caught and trophied. In some of the more elaborate incarnations, employing protruding feathers and exotic hides, the wearers appear to be in the process of turning into ravens, or reptiles. There are high heels that resemble paws and hooves.
The original fairy tales are far darker than the cleaned-up versions we have presented to our children since Disney came on the scene. The myths that are their thematic forebears were, of course, even stranger. Before the rejected little mermaid became sea-foam, her tender new feet pained for nothing, Ovid’s nymphs were being turned into fountains. Before Cinderella’s dog and horse were changed into footmen to escort her to the ball, Ovid’s huntress Diana was changing men into prey animals, a bachelor into a buck, as punishment for seeing her naked against her wishes. In Ovid, lovers become lions or flowers. The bereaved become birds. People of all kinds and character become rocks, trees, streams, islands, stars. A peacock’s tail feathers are the eyes of slain Argus. Juno changes Callisto into a bear for bearing her husband, Jupiter, a child; later, they are made into constellations, the she-bear and her hunter son.
Ovid’s descriptions of these metamorphoses are graphic and physical, with each change of bodily state described in almost erotic detail. Bodies stretch, reach, shudder, and crack. Diana does not just transfigure her tormentor—she covers his flesh in a dappled buckskin and injects him with the frenzy of the hunted, changing not just his anatomy but his blood. The humans who are turned into beasts feel the spine arch forward, their hands and feet hardening into hooves, their hominid minds erased by animal panic. When they become trees, like Daphne—the nymph who is transformed into a laurel tree while being pursued by the god Apollo—they do so from the feet up, rooted and immobilized first and foremost.
Daphne’s main problem was her beauty, and speed was her defense. “Stubbornly single,” as Ovid put it, she roamed happily through woodland thickets with no desire for marriage, love, or sex. When Apollo sees her, he becomes fixated, intent on hunting her down to possess her. But Daphne is fast and—at least at first—can outrun the attentions of the unwelcome Olympian. Apollo is a god of poetry, healing, music, truth, and the sun, and yet in the ravishment-heavy stories of the Metamorphoses, even he is a predator.
He begs as he chases her, telling her to stop, saying he is no enemy, while invoking various carnivorous images: the wolf at the lamb, the lion at the deer, the eagle at the fluttering dove. He is none of these things, he promises, though each vivid, devouring metaphor has already been conjured. Romance as predation. It is love that impels him to follow her, he says, and thus she should have pity on him.
Daphne, in desperation, prays for her beauty to be taken away, so that Apollo will no longer desire her. But cruelly, she is robbed of everything but that: “She had hardly ended her prayer when a heavy numbness came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches. The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish roots; her head was confined in a treetop, and all that remained was her beauty.”
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid is obsessed with the flight and pursuit of women. So many of his metamorphoses take place because of women wishing to avoid men, or god-men, and the trickery it takes to overcome them. Were we only as safe as the speed at which we could run? In an essay about high heels, I’m sure you can guess where this is going. What better way to tame these fleeing women than to literally root them to the soil? The biggest theme in Ovid, other than metamorphosis, is rape. Jupiter rapes Io, a mortal woman, and turns her into a cow. Because Ovid’s women would bear no husbands, their pursuers change them into animals and submit them to husbandry. Story after story concerns women’s mobility and the impediment to that mobility, imposed on them by powers beyond their control.
“Yes,” Sylvia Plath once wrote in her journal, “my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night … ”
Beauty invades Daphne like a virus. It replaces everything else that she might have been, until she is no longer even human.
To the English-speaking world, beauty is a load-bearing word. It is the steel in the high heel’s shaft, a linguistic caryatid. It’s an amorphous ideal and a disembodied virtue akin to truth or love. It’s a thing that, in its purest form, will bring tears to the eyes (“It’s just so beautiful”). Handsomeness on the other hand—that clumsy, rarely heard masculine equivalent of beauty—is used for almost nothing. Handsome, yes, but not handsomeness. A beautiful man can exist, but in being described so he has ceded some of his masculinity. Beautiful means something that handsome won’t stretch to cover.
A tufted chest of fine white feathers or a black back covered in silvery hair. A protruding pink behind like a swollen valentine. The plane of a woman’s foot tilted upward to add length to the leg, or the sway of her hips when she walks. What is beauty, and what is it for?
In 2012, a British research team recorded the way women walked in heeled shoes of varying heights. They found that high heels exaggerated what they called “a female gait,” thus making them more sexually attractive to men. Morris and his team categorized the wearing of high heels by women as “supernormal stimuli,” akin to when animals or insects attempt to attack or mate with inanimate objects that mimic triggers of attraction or violence in their own species’ physiology, even when the thing doing the mimicking had crossed over the line of verisimilitude into abstraction, or even farce.
There have been as many studies, if not more, aimed at finding out what makes women’s bodies sexually desirable to men as there have been on how nonmale bodies fall ill and how to cure them. Many try to argue that certain body types, or “symmetry,” are indicators of health and reproductive fitness, framing sexual attraction as a noble, logical—if subconscious— scientific impulse. But this is frequently not only scientifically inaccurate but racist in practice, elevating particular Eurocentric features and body types as superior to others.
All of these studies trying to find the biological or geometric logic of human beauty, with or without high heels, are doomed to fail. Fittingly, they can only scratch the surface, offering a superficial snapshot of passing cultural preferences that have already become ingrained.
In her 1990 book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes, “The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behavior that that period considers desirable: The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.”
The beauty celebrated in popular culture cannot therefore be explained by geometry or the biological sciences because it does not indicate true biological or even reproductive fitness. Rather, the utility that beauty claims to broadcast is not a biological utility but a social one.
Because women are generally smaller than men in stature, smallness—that is, thinness, daintiness, delicacy, and sometimes shortness—has frequently been taken as a signifier of human femininity and hence, beauty; so have softness, roundness, and fat, which are also characteristics more commonly found in female bodies than in male ones, and so different societies have, at different times, celebrated these traits instead of smallness, or alongside it. Depending on which stereotypes of polar femininity one has decided to tease out (with maleness as its opposite), a woman with a very small body and a woman with a very large, fat body could both be seen as embodying feminine ideals, though of course there are plenty of fat, small, and round men, and muscular, tall, lean women. Averages have atrophied into metaphor, and our ideas of gender have grown dependent on an exaggeration of contrast that extends beyond the reality of human sexual difference, what is called gender dimorphism.
An overwhelming majority of animals spend most of their adult lives as either male or female. This is not the case for many species, nor for certain individuals within a species—including, in important ways, our own—but it is the dominant system. When animals reproduce sexually, it is called dioecy, wherein there is a male role and a female role to be played, biologically, with some version of egg and sperm.
When the males and females of a dioecious species look very different from one another, beyond just the sex organs, it usually indicates a division of reproductive effort. As the biologist Dr. Daphne J. Fairbairn writes, “The division of reproductive function between males and females is almost always associated with visible differences in morphology between the sexes.” That is to say, the more different they look, the more different will be the labor involved for reproduction. The less gender dimorphism found within a species, the more likely it is that the males and females of that species will have an egalitarian relationship, where force is not used in copulation, and child-rearing duties are shared.
Some of the most equal romantic partnerships in the animal kingdom can be found among colony seabirds, with the penguin, the puffin, and the albatross. In each instance, both partners look the same. Emperor penguins, for example, are not sexually dimorphic. The males and females resemble one another and are roughly the same size, although males are slightly heavier than females. They share harmonious relationships of mutual effort, even if their tasks are not identical. In heterosexual penguin courtship, it is usually the male’s role to broadcast availability and the female’s role to seek out and select a mate, but they share the responsibility of incubating, feeding, and raising that year’s progeny. Same-sex penguin couples have been observed enacting similar mating patterns and will sometimes take eggs from male-female penguin parents to hatch as their own.
In primates, on the other hand, pronounced sexual dimorphism is common. Male gorillas often weigh twice as much as female gorillas, and a gorilla troop usually consists of one adult male and several adult females who are under his reproductive aegis. Without a mature silverback alpha male to protect them, young gorillas are vulnerable to infanticide by other adult males. The silverback makes all decisions for the group and does not take care of the young, although he is responsible for his group’s safety. The males sometimes force mating on females, while the females protest both vocally and physically. Whether or not you want to call this rape depends on how comfortable you are with ascribing human social phenomena to the animal world.
When the males and females of a primate species are closer in size and appearance, things can get more complicated. Male chimpanzees are only slightly larger than female chimpanzees, but their society is nevertheless male-dominated, though less violently so than with gorillas or orangutans. Bonobos, on the other hand, sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees, also have males that are slightly larger than females, but their society is described as matriarchal. This has largely been attributed to the fact that the bonobo females have been able to form alliances with one another and frequently dominate the males, as a group. What they lack somewhat in physical strength they make up for in teamwork—employing social technology. Rather than forcing copulation on the females, male bonobos instead spend a lot of time with the females in the hopes that they will choose to mate with them. (And they do. Bonobos are a species without concepts of sexual ownership or homosexual stigma.)
In our natural state, human beings are only slightly sexually dimorphic. We live in vast colonies, like seabirds, and unlike any other large mammal. Pound for pound, male versus female, we’re not too different from chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest evolutionary cousins. Men tend to be bigger, heavier, faster, and stronger than women, and usually have significantly more facial hair and slightly more body hair. However, unlike nearly every other sexually size-dimorphic species, human sexual size difference has enormous overlap. Although males are, on average, five inches taller than women (about an 8 percent size difference), only 9 percent of men are taller than the tallest woman, while only 5 percent of women are shorter than the shortest man. We are, in fact, somewhat less sexually dimorphic on all fronts than would be expected for a primate of our size. But what is perhaps most interesting when it comes to humans, gender, and external attraction is that we may be the only species that actively seeks to exaggerate our biological differences in sex.
Fairbairn writes, “Although our sexual differences are only modest when placed on the scale of animal diversity, we are acutely aware of them in our own lives, and our sex or gender is likely to influence our cultural and social interactions as much or more than it influences our biology. Often our basic biological differences are reinforced and exaggerated by our culture so that even minor, average differences are treated as though they are fixed, dichotomous traits. This does not reflect biological reality.”
We are big fans of supernormal stimuli. Through culture—that is, style, fashion, and grooming—most human societies have sought to make men and women appear more physically sexually dimorphic than we actually are. Women are expected to have more hair in some places, and much less or even no hair in other places where hair naturally grows. Throughout history, women’s clothes have been designed to alter the shapes of our bodies in ways far more severe than the clothes designed for men, marking a clear gender difference. In modern times, as the gap between men’s and women’s clothes has narrowed, the gap between strictly men’s and strictly women’s shoe styles has only widened, so that women wearing the most womanly of women’s shoes are expected to appear as if they have dramatically smaller feet than their male counterparts.
Usually, these cultural alterations to women’s bodies seek to make them smaller, frailer, weaker, slower, more youthful, and more encumbered. By accident or design, women’s fashions and cultural condition have long served to slow us down and make us easier to dominate. Culturally, we like to masquerade as a more violent, patriarchal species of ape than our physiology would indicate. Rather than following our biological destiny based on sex difference, according to Dr. Fairbairn, we are, in fact, defying it.
Throughout history, different human societies have sought to increase their own sexual dimorphism, insisting that a woman’s body must be smaller, softer, rounder, fatter, thinner, more protected, have less hair, or be more passive than it naturally is. She is expected to do this in order to more fully inhabit the social position marked “female.” To be acceptable, respectable—that is, worthy of respect—she must fit inside a constantly shifting, imaginary series of unfolding boxes. Men’s bodies are preferred to meet certain specifications of maleness, too. But it is women’s bodies that have been most often manipulated, legislated, controlled, and contorted. A number of those cultural practices have been aimed at the feet.
Walking is important, not just as transportation and means of escape, but as metaphor. Most of all, walking is the experience by which we orient our body and mind in relation to the world. And if walking is how we understand ourselves as minds and bodies in relation to the world, then to disrupt walking is to disrupt the relationship between self and world. In light of this, it is worth examining what the ubiquity of unmanageably high heels says about the dark dreams of our dominant culture.
The word tramp, now a little outdated in all its usages, can have very different meanings. As a verb, it means simply “to walk.” A tramp, then, means “one who walks.” But as Rebecca Solnit reminds us in her book Wanderlust, as a noun for a man, a tramp is a vagrant, while as a noun for a woman, a tramp is a whore. In both of these are reflected modern ideas about class and sexual control for men and women who are seen on foot in public. By this logic, a man who walks is simply poor, whereas a woman who walks is considered amoral, and sexually indiscriminate. Streetwalker, a public woman, woman of the streets, Solnit reminds us, are all terms that mean prostitute. Women, and our sexuality—because a woman is often seen to be her sexuality—are not supposed to travel. If we do, the world says, you may be seen as belonging to whoever is able to catch you. It says it cannot be held responsible for what monstrous metamorphoses may occur.
Summer Brennan is a journalist and the author of The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America (2015), a finalist for the 2016 Orion Book Award. A longtime consultant for the United Nations, she has written for New York magazine, Scientific American, McSweeney’s, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications.