09 October 2008

On the Politics of Stilletos

The shoes, not the knives.

In a conversation about an article discussing Michelle Obama's appearance and apparent level of self-acceptance over at Shakesville, the fact that she wears flats rather than high heels was brought up as a sign of her refusal to kowtow to societal expectations of what a professional woman in the public eye looks like. It was then mentioned that she is six feet tall: my height.

And that got me thinking about the funny way that heels fit into our society's policing of women's appearances. On the one hand, they are seen as a symbol of femininity--and particularly the feminine ideal that has been constructed by men and imposed on women, whether we find it appealing or not. In fact, I'd say that heels, along with makeup, are the first symbols of imposed femininity that get tossed out the window in a show of defiance by feminists who wish to reject society's expectations for women. In a way, they've become shorthand for submission to those expectations, for appeasement of the male gaze. And there's some truth to that. But then we get to the other hand: if you are a woman above a certain height (5'9", 5'10"? Certainly once you hit 6' it's a given), you are too tall. You become threatening, unladylike. And there ain't no way that you're going to wear high heels without catching serious flak for it. "Why do you need those? You're too tall as it is," is a common one. Some people will even tell you that you aren't "allowed" to wear anything higher than a running shoe. High heels become something that proper women, appropriately feminine women, get to wear. When you wear them, it's emasculating. You just have to hope that one day, you'll be lucky enough to find a man taller than you--because, apparently, that is the natural order of things and, for many men, having a female partner who is of equal height to or taller than them is a fate worse than death--who will grudgingly accept your excessive height, so long as you stick to flats.

I've take enough crap over the years for my height that height issues have become a deal-breaker for me. I tend to be attracted to smaller men (in fact, I feel downright threatened by men who are significantly taller than I am and have never managed to date one for long), which means I've ended more than a few relationships because men just couldn't deal with my size (or other aspects of my physicality: I'm also quite muscular for such a slim build, and just plain don't fall into the "delicate flower" ideal).

And then, one day, I decided I didn't care anymore. I love the way I look in heels, and I love the way they make me feel--towering, powerful and yes, sexy. And I bought my first pair of 4-inch stilletos. I was in a new relationship at that point, and actually took my 5'9" partner shoe shopping with me. His enthusiastic reaction to my choice--largely because he could see how amazing they made me feel--was one of the big cues that this was a relationship I wanted to stay in. We're getting married next summer, and damned if I won't tower over him at the wedding.

Since then, I've bought several pairs of high heeled shoes. And every time I well them, I still feel that little thrill of rebellion, and I still think I look like I could take over the entire world when I stand in them in front of the mirror. For me, high-heeled shoes are a way of magnifying and owning my height and my power as a tall woman who is beautiful on her own terms. To throw my stilletos out the window would not be a rebellion or an affirmation of my independence from patriarchal norms (though I don't for a moment disbelieve that it is that for a great many women); it would be submission. It would be just another way of sitting down and shutting up, of being a nice girl and fading into the background, of not rocking the boat. And I refuse to do that.

I think that stories like mine bear remembering when we start talking about the politics of women's appearance, especially in terms of conformity and defiance of social norms. One woman's total submission is another's glorious rebellion, and vice versa. If we keep the nuances in mind, if we remember that every woman's relationship with her body and appearance is an intensely personal one, then maybe we won't be so quick to judge other women's choices. And maybe we can look at those stories, those little personal victories, and celebrate them.

1 comment:

belledame222 said...

...congratulations, btw!

word verification: "pantsms."

the last one was "lumphead." I swear.