Saturday, May 1, 2010

Adrienne Rich and Heels


white v-neck t-shirt (American Eagle)
sand swing jacket (H&M)
gray jersey print skirt (H&M)
cork wedges (Michael Shannon via DSW)
white flip flops (Gap)

In one of my classes recently, we discussed Adrienne Rich's 1980 essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."  Rich lists high heels as one of the ways men use their power "to confine [women] physically and prevent their movement." She argues that heels are thus part of the "cluster of forces within which women have been convinced that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable."  A few of my classmates pointed to this passage specifically and admitted to feeling conflicted because they like to wear high heels.

I tried to make the point that in 2010, we can wear high heels differently than women could in 1980.  I believe that because of the advances made in the past 30 years by women like Rich, it is now possible for women to wear heels assertively.  One of our professors uses this Ann Richards quote as part of her email signature:
"If you give us a chance, women can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."
This is the spirit in which I like to think I wear high heels.  I hope my choice to wear heels indicates that I'm capable of managing all of my responsibilities, thinking critically about my work, and taking an interest in fashion and style.  I'm conscious, though, that others do not always "read" heels in this way.

As I thought this through, I realized that I don't have very many "traditionally feminine" high heels in my closet.  I prefer wedges, and I don't own a single pair of stilettos or pointy-toed pumps.  Evidently, I'm also drawn to thick straps.  Though I probably wear the black almond-toed wedges more than all of my other heels combined, all six of these pairs are in somewhat regular rotation in my wardrobe:

While taking the photos for this post, I couldn't help but wonder if I stay away from shoes that are coded as overtly "feminine" because I don't really believe that I can wear shoes like that assertively.  My heel collection is certainly much different than Katie's or Anne-Marie's, both of whom seem comfortable with more traditionally feminine styles.  On the other hand, I think my collection of heels makes sense given my general aesthetic preferences.  I don't own a single item of apparel that has a bow on it.  I think one of the reasons I wear belts so regularly is because I'm really drawn to the look of buckles.  Until recently, I preferred pleats to ruffles.

For this look, I thought I'd photograph both pairs of sandals that I considered wearing.  One of the things I previously said I liked about heels is that they make me stand up straighter, but my posture in both of these photos is so terrible that I'm not sure that's actually true.  (As a side note, posing for these photos is, for me, definitely the most difficult element of contributing to this blog.  Fellow fashion/style bloggers, can you empathize?)  I ended up wearing the flip-flops.  After this mental exercise, I find myself feeling thoroughly ambiguous about heels, but I'm glad I've begun to think more critically about how, when, and why I wear them.

Work Cited:
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. W W Norton & Co Inc, 1993. 203-224. Print.  Google Books.


  • How do you respond to Adrienne Rich's criticism of high heels?  
  • Am I right in suggesting that the ways in which we can wear heels have changed since she composed this groundbreaking essay?  I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this issue.
  • Do you wear high heels or do you opt out of this trend?  Why?


Anonymous said...

Okay, I don't think the white flat sandals are flip flops....they are much improved over flip flops and look much dressier. You know that I don't wear heels in the traditional sense - I am too uncoordinated to walk in them, and I don't have the avialiability of men being tall enought for me to do so comfortably. I do think that men think more of women who wear the "feminine heels" and that has always bothered me....why can't I be considered feminie without wearing something that is bad for my feet and legs.....sore feet is another sypmtom of aging....and the bad part is they seem to continue growing....ugh!

Vickie Chambers said...

You two speak for yourselves, I love heels. And yes, I do feel more confident when wearing them. I would agree that the times have changed, and wearing high heels is much more apropriate than it used to be, and I'm grateful for that.

They can be pretty comfortable when you pick the right ones and break them in properly.

In other news, LOVE this skirt. So excited about having access to a whole new wardrobe soon :)

Scholar Style Guide said...

Mom, I'll have to have you read this essay while you're in town so we can discuss it. It sounds to me like the ideas you are resisting are the very things that Rich dislikes about heels: they inhibit women's movement, they're a physical restraint put on men by women, and they're generally one of the ways men exert control over women. I think you'd find her point of view quite empowering.

As Vickie points out, though, many women today choose to wear heels for very different reasons than the "traditional one," which Rich would suggest was to please men or fulfill their expectations.

And Vickie, if you're willing to elaborate, I'd be really interested in why wearing heels gives you that confidence boost.

I will add that heels tend to have the "click-clack" feature that (in my opinion) signifies assertiveness. I think I began embracing the click-clack shoe when I was walking the halls as a high school teacher. To me, the click-clack says "Yes, I'm coming. I mean business. And you had better be ready for me when I arrive."


Mae said...

I got into a long email argument with a party promoter over his party's dress code that mandated that women wear heels. I told him that it was oppressive, sexist, and just plain not good for our health to be required to wear heels. He insisted that there was no harm and that the goal was to "keep it classy". Enforcing dress codes is actually a trend in parties that attract "urban" revelers (that is code for black people). I already found these dress codes racist, but he took the cake by adding sexism to the mix.

That being said, I don't wear heels often because I have arthritic knees, flat feet, and I am starting to have back and shoulder problems. So, in addition to needing to up my yoga and weightlifting game, I have to find professional and stylish shoes that are also comfortable. Such is life; I have never experienced the oppression/pure sexiness that is a stiletto!

Scholar Style Guide said...

Thanks for weighing in, Mae! It is definitely disturbing that there are so many ways in which people try to disguise sexism and racism. I'd suggest that even the term he thought was acceptable- "keep it classy"- indicates that he was being classist, as well.

I wonder how this party promoter might have tried to "keep it classy" if any of his well-heeled women had taken their heels off when their feet started to hurt inside the party. I see this happening all the time, particularly when women are dancing.

You've got me thinking about "comfortable" heels-- I'll start thinking about a post on that subject. Thanks!


Brooke said...

I wore heels to class on Thursday night and I decided NOT to go to the bathroom during break because of how tedious my heels were. I didn't want to risk the treacherous walk down the hall. That is rather problematic. So I guess it depends on the heel. If I'm wearing cute but manageable heels, I love them. But cute but impossible to walk in platform peeptoe heels? Then I agree with Rich (and I'm a huge fan of Rich, so I do tend to agree with her on a lot anyway). Very interesting post, Liz!

Nate C said...

Thanks for linking to a post that occurred prior to my discovery of your blog! I'm really glad I got to read this, mostly because it's great to see that we agree on the topic of women and power.

I was lucky enough to hear Ms. Rich speak, as she came to do some reading at Colorado College while I was there. She was fascinating, and I'm a great admirer of her talent and sense of responsibility as an activist. I just don't agree with her views on topics which, in my mind, reduce women to products of a male environment.

I think you've hit the nail on the head with your closing thought...and it is that attitude that is required to wear heels well. Nothing is less attractive than poorly worn heels. Wearing them is a choice, and wearing them well requires practice, posture, and confidence. Practiced, confident women with good posture are attractive to me (and many lesbians I know would agree).

I don't want to stray from the topic of your blog...but if you ever want to hear the story about earning an A in Feminist Theory by arguing that pornography is empowering through a deconstruction of Catharine MacKinnon's Only Words as reductive and contrary to female progress...just ask.