Women can do anything men can do — except walk

  • Froma Harrop / Providence Journal columnist
  • Saturday, November 8, 2003 9:00pm
  • Opinion

I gaze on the instrument of the sisterhood’s destruction. It is a shoe. The toe ends at a sharpened point. The 6-inch heel makes a spike. Step hard on a lawn, and you’re halfway to Australia.

Frankly, the sisters in my circle don’t wear such devices. As for myself, I hobble in sensible 2-inch pumps.

But these platforms of pain are all over the stores and at all price points. They’ve been around for several years, so women must be buying them. Why organized feminism hasn’t protested these tools of tootsy torture is beyond me.

Can you imagine the reaction if deforming footwear were being pressed upon the poor women of Ghana? It would become an international cause. The United Nations would run panels on societal pressures that drive women to balance their heel bones on spikes. It would launch CAFI, the Campaign Against Female Immobility. But since this is about Angelina Jolie inflaming her Achilles tendon at a movie premiere, it’s OK, we guess.

Human-rights activists did protest the practice of foot binding in China. For centuries, Chinese girls had their feet tightly trussed in cloth to stop them from growing — and forced into the shape of "golden lilies." The women could barely walk, and then with pain. Historian John King Fairbank called foot binding a cruel "social evil" that marked "the low status of women in the Old China."

Don’t eat while you read this, but some women in the Victorian era had their small toes cut off to create a slim foot. Modern Americans don’t slice off digits. They just stuff their rectangle-shaped foot into a pencil-sharp toe. The surgery comes later, in the form of bunion removal.

What’s the point, so to speak? Alison Lurie explains in her book "The Language of Clothes" that high-heeled, narrow-toed shoes "are considered sexually attractive, partly because they make the legs look longer — an extended leg is the biological sign of sexual availability in several animal species — and because they produce what anthropologists call a ‘courtship strut.’ "

(The Saturday Evening Post put this more simply in a 1950s rhyme: "The girl with low and sensible heels, is likely to pay for her bed and meals.")

The "tiptoe gait" of the high-heeled woman, Lurie adds, assures a man that the woman cannot outrun him. Clearly, such was the agenda in Chinese foot binding and the Nigerian practice of loading a woman’s legs with heavy brass wires.

These primitive — definitely pre-feminist — thinking patterns obviously survive to this day. Many American women believe they should be able to do anything men do, except walk.

Women should know, however, that wearing high-fashion footwear over time creates permanent disfigurement. The orthopedic changes don’t simply disappear when the stilettos are removed and bunny slippers put on.

Dr. Noreen Oswell, a podiatrist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, treats a lot of Hollywood people. So in terms of shoe-related foot injury, she’s seen it all. High heels cause the biggest problems, she says, because they push all the body weight to the ball of the foot.

"Neuromas can be really debilitating," she points out. They’re enlarged nerve growths between the toes. A contracted Achilles tendon is painful, and prevents some women from ever feeling comfortable in a flat shoe again.

Spikes also lead to metatarsalgia, a pain in the ball of the foot. Then there’s pump bump, also called Haglund’s deformity — an enlargement at the back of the heel bone. High heels are very hard on the knees. That’s why women need more knee-joint replacements than do men.

Some of Oswell’s patients weren’t wearing high heels, but were stepped on by someone who was. Spikes can cause fractures.

"I know the Beverly Hills stars are not going to leave my office and wear tennis shoes," Oswell says. Some patients just say, "Treat me, then put the heels back on."

Oswell does try, though, advising patients to wear walking shoes to the supermarket and "reserve the heels for the Academy Awards."

For those of us who need no convincing, there’s still no escape from the stiletto martyrs. Every weekday, Katie Couric wakes up America on "Today" with coffee, a sunny smile and Marquis de Sade heels. Last summer, she showed her colonoscopy to promote the early detection of colon cancer. Next time, I suggest she share X-rays of her tortured metatarsals.

Froma Harrop’s e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com.

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