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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

The psychology behind the obsession with high heels

It seems to be one of those unspoken ideals that carries through generations. High heels are the perfect wardrobe staple for any woman. Regardless of who any given woman is, and what she does for a living, chances are she has at least one pair of high heels in her closet (and yes, wedges count…any shoe that elevates the heel from the ground is a high heel). Most fashion trends come and go, but high heels remain a constant fashion staple in the modern world, and the fact is that they probably always will be. We are a society that obsesses over quality innovations, and the evolution of the high heel is an innovation in the footwear industry that continues to reign. Regardless of if the high heels are a pair of custom made shoes, or a luxury staple that women everywhere lust over, the fact remains that high heels carry a sense of obsession in both the women that wear them and the men those women encounter whilst towering around in them. It is a challenge to find shoes which are as aesthetically pleasing as it is comfortable, but Tuccipolo has succeeded where others have failed.

You would think that the mere concept of forcing one’s foot into a shoe that is, quite literally, designed to force the foot into an unnatural state for hours at a time, would be off-putting for women. The increased risk of certain injuries does not seem to have an effect on the masses of consumers at all, and in all honesty the risk of injury appears to be rarely felt among those who are bold enough to force themselves to wear invasively high shoes day in and day fact, one could argue that the consistent familiarity with wearing high heels makes the women who are confident and familiar with wearing them safer in heels than in flats, and also safer than the women who only wear them on occasion. Practice does make perfect, after all. Millions of pairs of high heels continue to find their way from the shelves into the closets of consumers every year, and the obsession only deepens with each passing generation.

The effect is strikingly obvious for men: most men associate women wearing high heels with having a stronger sex appeal. There is genuine research and studies done to back this theory up. A 2014 study found that a woman who stood on the street and asked passing men to fill a survey was, or who “accidentally” dropped a glove got more positive responses when she was wearing heels as opposed to flat shoes. The same was found when she was sitting at a bar. To men, it would seem, a woman’s heel size “exerts a powerful effect on men’s behaviour”. Psychologists have studied this in depth, and they have found that the male participants in their studies all considered the high heel to be an assertive brand and exploration of femininity – hence the appeal. There is an element of vulnerability to a woman when she wears high heels, as well as a prominent accentuation of the female shape (in particular, the legs and ankles) that appeals to men.

The obsession with high heels likely derives from the fact that the act of putting on a heeled shoe and walking around tends to accentuate the womanly gait. It might sound silly, but there is actually a study on this exact topic that was carried out relatively recently (in 2013, to be exact). In essence, the study used point-light displays on screens to represent the body as a series of markers placed on key limbs (similar to how one would place pins on landmarks on a world map). In this particular experiment, the dots are presented as a perceived formation on the screen. Because participants only see dots moving, the impact on preferences or attractiveness has a lot to do with movement patterns and not the static physical aesthetic. The perceivers are exceptionally effective at bringing to sense the patterns of movement in point-light display dots. The result is that the participants are able to tell the difference between male and female gait; simply looking at moving dots that represent the movement of a whole figure allows one to allocate the walk as either male or female.

This study was titled ‘High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of female attractiveness”. The aim of the study was to compare the ratings of women walking in flat shoes with the same women walking in high heels, in order to conclude if walking in high heels enhances the attractiveness of gait. The findings of the study suggest that all walker’s attractiveness was more significant in heels than it was in flat shoes. Both male and female viewers of the study agreed which were the more attractive and unattractive walkers – and all agreed it was the high heeled walkers (who were, as mentioned, the very same walkers who walked in the flat shoes for the study). The study concluded that wearing high heels makes women look more attractive by making them seem more graceful, more feminine. The reason for this is that high heels exaggerate some gender-specific elements of female gait (including greater pelvic rotation, and a higher number of steps per minute, among other things). With the study’s findings in mind, it seems fair to definitively determine that the obsession with high heels is psychological as well as fundamentally physical.

The high heel has been a fashion staple for decades and in all likelihood, it is not going anywhere any time soon. One of the few fashion innovations that captured and obsessed the whole world, the high heel has made its mark and continues its long reign over the footwear industry, as millions of pairs continue to fly off the shelves and into women’s closets year after year. The obsession with high heels is something unique, as it lures in both females and males. High heels are one of the fashion stables that were designed to accentuate a woman’s shape, and it is for this reason that they have never seemed to have gone out of fashion – nor are they ever likely to. The high heel is the royal ruler of the global kingdom of footwear, and the reign is far from over.

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