Headlines > High heels – empowering or oppressive?

Posted on June 29, 2016


Rosa Chalfen discusses the stiletto craze hitting Japan and the women stepping up against discriminatory dress codes
In Tokyo this week, thousands of women are being encouraged to wear high heels to improve their self-confidence and posture. The Japan High Heel Association (JHA) is charging women 400,000 yen (£3,000) to complete a six-month walking etiquette class, which 4,000 women have already finished.

The managing director, ‘Madame’ Yumiko, claims that high heels help Japanese women “become more confident” in a society where “women are not expected to stand out or put themselves first.”

Although Japan is a highly developed country with the third biggest economy in the world, it still regards itself as a deeply patriarchal society.

Many women are still expected to give up work after marriage, and 57% of women in Japan say there is male-female disparity in their work place.

However Yumiko also claimed that, “Japanese women walk like ducks… with their bottoms sticking out… it looks ghastly.” She suggests that wearing heels will correct bad posture created by a tradition of wearing kimonos and flat sandals.

In recent months, high heels have sparked controversy everywhere, from London offices to the Cannes Film Festival

Critics have dismissed Yumiko’s claims as “crazy” and sexist. Social commentators such as Mitsuko Shimomura say, ‘There’s no relationship between wearing high heels and women’s power.”

And many Western women would seem to agree with Shimomura. In recent months, high heels have sparked controversy everywhere, from London offices to the Cannes Film Festival.

‘Heel gate’ was brought to media attention in May, when Nicola Thorp was turned away from her job as a receptionist at a corporate finance company in London for wearing flat shoes.

It is still legal in the UK to make women wear heels to work, despite the pain and damage caused to the feet by regular wear. Recognising the plight of working women, male staff at Stylist magazine wore heels for a day and actress Julia Roberts walked bare foot down the red carpet at Cannes in protest.

What I think
As much as I would like to be able to dismiss high heels as a patriarchal torture device, I can see why 78% of women still wear them to work. They’re painful, inhibiting and definitely don’t make you better at your job; but the feeling of power that comes with having a few inches over everyone else is probably a cause of their popularity. As someone below average height, towering over my friends once in a while is particularly satisfying.

High heels give a sense of power; but are they really empowering? In a society like Japan’s, which is more patriarchal than most developed countries, the idea that women are being encouraged to wear heels seems particularly laughable. Women don’t need shoes to empower them; we need equal work opportunities as men, and a society that doesn’t trap us in social conventions.

So wear high heels if you want to, but remember that there is so much more to a woman than her shoes.

Rosa Chalfen
Rosa is small but fierce. She likes writing, acting and making feminist statements, and is currently studying for her GCSEs.


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2 Responses to High heels – empowering or oppressive?

  1. Leo July 14, 2016 at 11:06 am #

    This makes me think that people feel the need to constantly dance to other people’s tunes; in other words, they feel the need to fulfill other people’s expectations of how they should look and act.

  2. Lenny July 10, 2017 at 2:35 pm #

    I don’t see how forcing a dress code on women or creating a society where it is an untold rule that they have to wear high heels, particularly empowers women. It should be a choice but right now for many women it feels more like an obligation.

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