A fetish for anachronism
Recently, Gal Gadot, the actress who plays Wonder Woman in the recent film version, said she'd like to make a trend of wearing flats on the red carpet . She said, "I love wearing high heels, I think it’s beautiful, it’s sexy, whatever. But at the same time, especially stilettos, it puts us out of balance. We can fall any minute. It’s not good for our backs. Why do we do it?"
Why do women do it? I know that I like that when they do. I mean, I really like heels. I might call it a fetish, though a "fetish" in the strictest terms is when an object itself becomes the focus of sexual desire. I can't get turned on by high heels themselves, there has to be a woman in them, and all my feelings are about that woman. But high heels definitely do something. It's like icing on a cake. Just icing is weird, just cake is good, but a cake with icing is all sorts of nice.
I'm far from unique in liking heels, though I may like them more than most and maybe less than a few. It's a ubiquitous cultural standard, enough so that I could spend most of my life without questioning it. But I feel tremors in the zeitgeist, kind of similar to when I feel earthquakes in Tokyo. There's a moment when things start to shake when you ask yourself if this is just the usual rumblings, or if the ground is going to shift below your feet for real.
It’s not just that heels are commonplace for women heading out for the night, and exaggerated heels are standard for women who work in professions targeted at enticing and arousing men. Women in heels show up in movies and TV shows even in contexts where women are clearly better off not wearing them. Which is a point of contention by people who see heels as being indicative of the constraints on how women are portrayed. Fair enough. I mean, if I were wearing heels, and I had to outrun a dinosaur , I’d kick of the heels first.
There are all sorts of old tropes about how what we find appealing in the opposite gender are all outward signs of health and strength and good stock for breeding with. Like wide hips are supposedly indicative of being capable of easily giving birth. Heels supposedly play a part in our fundamental instincts for attraction because they exaggerate qualities that men find fundamentally desirable in women .
It seems to me that if that were true, then it stands to reason that high heels would come into being in a more or less logarithmic way, and be pervasive throughout humankind. Shoes, or sandals, have been a part of human technology for thousands of years. Somewhere in that time, maybe because someone padded their heel for comfort or some other reason, a shoe would then exist that provides the supposed attraction assist that heels have, even if just a little. Once that moment happens, though, once some women are seen with a slightly elevated heel, that would trigger the reaction that is supposedly hard wired in men, and then there’s no backing down. From then on, each time a woman wears even just a slightly higher heel, it would be to her advantage, assuming attraction was the goal. Once heels start rising, they go higher and higher, and with each increase, the biological feedback loop is reaffirmed.
But, looking into it even just a little bit , it’s not the case at all that heels follow an evolutionary path. The thread of high heels is largely a European and maybe middle eastern thing, which already makes the biological determinism suspect. Shouldn't every culture eventually zero in on accentuating the features that drive sexual attraction? Even within just a largely Eurocentric history, heels pop in and out of relevancy for different cultures at different times. Near as I can tell, the first recorded heels are in Egypt, which might be more accurately described as platform shoes, as they were worn by Egyptian butchers to keep their feet above the blood on the floor. Sexy. Then heels kind of disappear for over a thousand years, until they show up again in France in the 1500s, where they were worn by both men and women for status. Then they go away again around the end of the 1700s. There are some other random instances here and there along the way, such as Persian horsemen who used heels as just a way to connect better to stirrups. Our current global culture’s concept of heels as being only for women, and specifically as a symbol of femininity, only goes back a hundred years or so.
And why is it that it's considered feminine? Some research indicates that in our modern globalized western culture at least, women prefer men who are taller, so, why don’t we see more high heels for men? If there are biological imperatives being assisted by clothing, why should a high heel be any less effective for men wanting to appeal to women? Men's dress shoes often have a slight heel, but given how much men would love to have any assist in attracting women, shouldn't we be on stilts by now? And wait, if women want their men to be taller, shouldn't men therefor want to have women be relatively shorter? Wouldn't putting a woman in heels make it so that she perceives all men as relatively less tall, and therefor less desirable?
The fact is that there is such a lack of high heels in both history and across cultures today, that it’s the culture that has women wear heels that is the outlier, not the norm.
Which is all fine from an academic sociological point of view. But it means that for me to accept objective facts, then I have to also accept that this very visceral compulsion I have toward heels didn't emerge out of me to find a home in a society that agrees with my internal wiring. Instead, it imprinted on me from outside, generated by a society where desires are manufactured out of directionless circumstance. Which is never that comfortable an idea. I think we all like to think that we choose our own lives and preferences, and that if anything is biologically imposed on us, then that thing is a universal.
We all accept as axiomatic that all humans feel hunger. No one has a problem being told that because you are a human, you will have a biologically imposed compulsion to eat, because we’re definitely all in that boat together. Other things seem to be in the zone of choice, and give us an identity, important for our egos. Like what your favourite music is. Sure, maybe you like country music because you were raised on a farm, or rap because you were raised in a city, but it feels like those were offered to you by your environment, and you chose to roll with them. You feel like you could have listened to rap while growing up on the farm, I'm sure some people do. You have a say in your choices, even if you haven’t really bothered to challenge them.
But something like a sexual fetish, or a political belief, or an ethical stance, or other parts of our identity, doesn’t sit so well in a space between compulsion and choice. Some things feel like an absolute truth even though others disagree. In the current political climate, most people resolve that conflict not by considering how the foundations of what they assume to be objectively true might be more fluid, but by insisting that other people are dysfunctional if they don't share the same foundations.
For me, accepting that I might not have my fetish for high heels if I had been born elsewhere or elsewhen means accepting that even fundamental pillars of my identity are created outside of myself. Not that an appreciation for heels is a cornerstone of my identity, but it's one symptom of the broader concept of everything I find sexy, which is definitely an issue of identity. As fundamental as it feels to have a visceral sense of arousal toward something, I absorbed these concepts through social osmosis.
If my attraction to heels is completely arbitrary, then I have to also wonder what else is. Women with small waists and big tits and a nice ass and long legs and all sorts of Barbie doll stereotypes. Or, specifically in my case, everything that I like about women kinda has some origins in Linda Carter as Wonder Woman , the succubus from the D&D monster manual , and Oh Wicked Wanda .
We’re born with a brain that has some features factory installed, like the feeling of hunger when food is needed. But other things are more like templates, in a ready state, waiting to be configured by opportunity. It might be the case that people aren't born with a biological imperative to specifically find women with longer legs more attractive. We’re just born with an imperative to find sexual appeal in something . As long as you find something that drives you to want to pursue sex, then evolution doesn’t care what exactly that is, it only cares that it matches relatively well to available options in your pack, and that you feel it strongly enough to get to work. Does it seem to your particular developing brain that your society is telling you that sexually available women wear heels? Then your brain wires itself for that contingency.
That's actually a very effective evolutionary strategy if you think about it. If we are too hard wired for specifics, then we'd be at risk of losing intraspecial attraction if the environment changes. What if everyone was hard wired to like dark skin, but people were forced into less sunny climates by drought, and everyone's skin lightened? Much better to have people competing for the attentions of the most attractive member by localized standards than according to a species wide platonic ideal
Is it so bad to discover that some ideas are imprinted on me, the same way a duckling attaches to a parent? Any time you are beholden to something that is determined by others, even if no one did it deliberately, is an uncomfortable loss of control. It feels like if my fetish for heels was optional, than I’m subject to people with sociopolitical positions on issues like gender equality to come along and tell me that my imprint was wrong, as the expectation that women wear heels is the tip of an iceberg of all kinds of subjugations that women face. Ultimately, this feeling I have, a feeling I don’t feel like I can change, is being condemned, and I get condemned along with it.
What if society moves on, the long term fashion for heels is deprecated, and I’m just standing around like an asshole longing for a time when women looked the way I wanted them to? I've floated the idea that heels, or tight skirts, or small waists, or maybe any and all standards of attraction, are arbitrary with some of my guy friends, and most of them resoundingly reject the idea. I can't help but feel that they cling to biological determinism about what makes a woman sexy, be it heels, red lips, big breasts, or whatever, because it’s a form of self assurance that the things they like won’t, can’t, go away. I empathize, I feel it too. Although I'm sure imposing standards on women that compel them to certain clothes and make up and attitudes must look like a symptom of men who have a need to control and subjugate women as an expression of power. Maybe that's true. But, I think anyone who holds power in society is driven to hold onto control because of fear, not expectation. Nothing makes you feel as mortal and alone as the world going in directions you don’t think you can steer toward.
Intellectually I can agree that no woman is obligated to look in any particular way just because I like it, just as no woman can tell me what I should appreciate. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a negotiation that takes place between me and society. Whether any woman dresses how I like is between her and me, and as long as we both feel we have the choice to opt out, then fine. The thing is, while I guess that a lot of women feel a pressure to wear heels imposed by the world, I feel like it’s at least as hard for me to stop being attracted to something as it is for her to resist social pressure. Maybe harder? Just like you can’t ask a gay person to be straight, or vice versa, can you ask me to not be attracted to things I’m attracted to?
I’m not being rhetorical, I honestly don’t know. It seems intuitive that gender preference runs on a deeper level than footwear preference. But really I don’t think it’s about levels or priority. What we’re attracted to and why is not an ordered stack of layers, I suspect it’s more like a big tangled mess of wires. Trying to pull one out means untying a bunch of others, and if the whole thing comes undone, then what’s left? A tangle is an identifiable thing, the opposite of a tangle is a nothing.
Fortunately for me, so far, society has not moved on too much from my imprinting, though I do miss crimped hair. I’m not suffering a lack of women willing to broadcast attractiveness on the same wavelength that I receive it. But it could happen, and I just have to hope that the more fundamental wiring of my brain can evolve alongside society. Otherwise, I have to come to terms with being a fossil.