On May 19th, it was reported that multiple women, including some with medical conditions, were turned away from a screening at the Cannes Film Festival for not wearing heels. ScreenDaily reported that the festival “did confirm that it is obligatory for all women to wear high-heels to red-carpet screenings.”
The ensuing furor forced the festival to retract that statement the next day, stating that “there is no specific mention about the height of the women’s heels as well as for men’s…the department [ScreenDaily] was directed to on Monday for explanation of red carpet regulations might not have been aware of the ‘right information’ when they told us that heels were ‘obligatory’ for women.”
What really struck me about the Cannes incident is the disconnect between the women’s experience of the event – several reported being reprimanded by event staff for their shoes – and the official stance of “no such thing as a heel requirement”. It reminded me of the numerous conversations I’ve had with well-meaning people, mostly men, who honestly could not understand why so many women wreck their feet with heels. Why do women make this clearly irrational choice?
In many situations, women are either obligated to wear heels, or are treated so differently based on whether they wear the heels or not, it becomes a de facto obligation. Since the obligation is often unspoken, everyone who is not directly subjected to it gets to believe it’s not real. Oh, but it is. It’s usually not as egregious as the Cannes incident, but it’s very real. Consider a few examples:
Many women’s clothes are designed with heels in mind. The proportions look “off” when worn with flats and the connotations can be damaging professionally: the same skirt that looks sharp with a three inch pump will look juvenile with a flat. You can still wear the flat, sure. You’ll just be much more likely to be mistaken for an intern.
A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior found wearing higher heels increased the likelihood of getting help from passerby men (but had no effect on passerby women), as well as decreased the time it took to be approached by men at a bar.
A woman who wanted to wear flats at her wedding was told she “wouldn’t look like a woman” and was “not taking her wedding seriously”:
A job placement advisor informed female students that flats were not allowed at interviews:
A high school student in a speech competition had a scorecard with the only comment being about her lack of heels:
A former SpaceX executive who spent five years walking through 550,000 square feet of industrial space saw her choices being between “downgrade my shoes and have uglier shoes” and “keep wearing my pretty shoes, but then I would end up with ugly, deformed feet”.
These examples are illustrative, but by no means exhaustive. This is the reality that shapes many women’s relationship with their footwear. In that light, even extreme choices like elective foot surgeries to be able to wear heels begin to seem rational. But because the obligation is subtle, not usually visible from the outside and often internalized, we then get treated like we are doing it all to ourselves and for no logical reason. The situation is much like your older sibling hitting you with your own hand and saying, “Stop hitting yourself! Why are you hitting yourself? Stop it!”
I am a professional shoe nerd. I love shoes. This article is not about heel-bashing. Loving heels is not stupid. Enjoying looking at other people wearing heels is not evil. But please, let’s acknowledge the pervasive flat shaming that informs women’s footwear choices. Let’s stop pretending the pain that comes with wearing heels is entirely self-inflicted. And for the love of all that’s good, let’s stop inserting the heels requirement into so many social and professional situations for so many women, shall we?