Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The rural life: Achilles’ heels

I could not, for the life of me, figure out what was wrong with her. The young woman and I were both guests at a wedding, and as she made her way to her seat, her halting, stilted gait was like that of an elderly matron.

Yet this girl was no more than 15 and otherwise healthy looking and beautiful, my goodness! Trim and shapely, she had lustrous hair falling in soft curls below her shoulders and the face of a Seventeen model. (The face would’ve been even more attractive without the look of pained concentration.)

As she crabbed her way down the aisle, one of her elbows rhythmically jutted to the side at a bizarre angle; it seemed a subconscious effort to help herself along — sort of like Walter Brennan on “The Real McCoys.”

Still puzzled, I dropped my gaze to her feet. Aha! The shoes! She was wearing maybe five-inch pump heels, the type whose height and forward “thrust” were not only making her unsteady on her feet, they were also causing her to nearly walk out of the shoes with each step.

I could definitely relate. Though my own heels were much shorter, they were also open pumps, and I was crimping my own gait a tad to keep them from popping off.

All of which brought the question back into my mind: Why are we women still wearing these ridiculous shoes, anyway?

I know why. Heels, especially high ones, are made to maximize a woman’s attractiveness. They make her appear taller, longer-legged and more feminine. Sexier. Women naturally walk differently from men; research in the UK has shown that high heels accentuate that difference. (Yes. Someone has actually studied this.)

That’s not to say heels are always flattering, as the girl at the wedding proves. But popular culture has been crazy for high heels ever since the character Carrie Bradshaw strutted her Manolo Blahniks on the television program “Sex and the City.” We women have responded accordingly. Today it’s not unusual to see professional women wearing sky-high heels to work.

That glamour comes at a price. High heels position the foot unnaturally, and prolonged wear causes problems ranging from ingrown toenails and bunions to nerve damage, torn ligaments, osteoarthritis of the knee and low-back pain.

Just ask Sarah Jessica Parker, who played the stiletto-wearing Carrie Bradshaw. In an article on in March, she was quoted saying “the chickens are coming home to roost” with respect to her foot abuse.

“I went to a foot doctor and he said, ‘Your foot does things it shouldn’t be able to do. That bone there … You’ve created that bone. It doesn’t belong there,” the actress said.

High heels hurt us — in the moment and over the long term — yet still we wear them. It’s weird.

Heels have a curious history. They weren’t originally intended for walking. They showed up as early as the 9th century as a way to stabilize the feet of mounted warriors as they stood in their stirrups to shoot their bows. (The heels on modern cowboy boots similarly serve to keep feet from slipping through stirrups.) King Louis XIV of France wore high-heeled shoes in the 1700s, passing an edict that only nobility could wear heels in his preferred color — red.

For women, heel heights have gone up and down over modern decades, but only recently have the highest heels gained such widespread popularity.

Appealing or otherwise, I can’t wear the highest heels — not the 4- and 5-inchers. At my age, I can use all the extra glamour I can get, but not at that price. Three inches is tops for me, and that only for the dressiest of occasions.

The opposite of the high heel, I suppose, is the athletic sneaker. Humble but functional, the sneaker is super-comfortable, provides maximum support and protection for the foot, and promotes a natural gait.

I’ll never forget the first time I wore a pair of modern Nikes of the beefed-up footbed variety, as compared to the thin, flat soles of, say, a pair of Converse. It was heaven! Not only did my feet feel pampered, more important, my stride felt steady, confident, ground-covering. I could conquer the world in these shoes! Not the fashion world, obviously. The real world.

I remember thinking at the time, “Why would anyone ever, ever wear anything but these on their feet?”

Why, indeed. Moreover, in this day of the so-called liberated woman, why would we ever choose to wear killer heels, instead?

It’s puzzling. High heels may be our Achilles’ heel, but we just can’t seem to quit them.

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer, a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat, pretty much lives in sneakers and clogs. How about you? Leave a comment online, or contact her at

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is an award-winning journalist and author with three published books to her credit. Currently she is a senior editor with Horse & Rider magazine. Jennifer lives in rural Latrobe with her husband, Hank; their daughter, Sophie Elene; and the family’s assorted animals.

Discussion | 13 comments

  • MorrisOctober 11, 2013 - 12:02 am

    Duh...because they are HAWT! Simple really. In fact, this is how they became known as 'heels' in the western cultures: Ladies put them on. Dawgs chase them. Ladies yell 'HEEL!' at man. Dawg 'heels'. Just kinda stuck in the vernacular as the women discussed amoung themselves over a nice white wine spritzer.

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  • J.F. MeyerOctober 11, 2013 - 8:20 am

    Interesting theory, Morris, and makes some sense, I'm sorry to say.

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  • robertdnollOctober 11, 2013 - 9:32 am

    don't wear them,your minds are what men find sexy

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  • J.F. MeyerOctober 11, 2013 - 10:19 am

    *Love* that thought, Robert. Also, reader Gail Tarbell contacted me separately by e-mail, and her comments were so insightful I asked her if I could share them with everyone. She said yes, so here you go: “I enjoyed reading your article on the Achilles’ heels of fashion. Being a wannabe fashion diva, I stocked up on the cutest heels, a few reaching the 4-inch status. Being 5’11”, I didn’t need the propping up but enjoyed the fashionable foot décor. Through the years, those fashionable heels sit on the shelves in my closet and I find that wearing the comfortable tennis shoes, Born, Keen’s, Merrill, Naturalizer, and other ‘ground covering’ brands make your feet so much happier. When the feet are happy, your body is happy! And you’re right, you feel energetic, as if you could handle anything. I still love those diva heels and keep a few for those special occasions, but I am now selling those I cannot wear on eBay for others to enjoy while I now stock up on good footwear.” Smart lady!

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  • robertdnollOctober 11, 2013 - 10:23 am

    i might be interested in a pair

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  • James E.October 11, 2013 - 11:57 am

    At some point in their lives, women realize they have been wearing heels for the benefit of men -- if men love heels so much they should wear them!

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  • J.F. MeyerOctober 11, 2013 - 1:39 pm

    Men used to wear heels--fancy ones!--but they quit. Maybe women will quit one day, too.

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  • James E.October 11, 2013 - 1:42 pm

    Ms. Meyer, and didn't the men look silly in their high heels. Women of the World revolt -- no more high heels.

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  • swileyOctober 14, 2013 - 7:47 pm

    Love all these men's comments. But I have always thought, most of the fashion choices women make are in fact to impress other women, sorry guys. I suppose the 15 year old in Ms Meyers story has probably not figured this out yet.

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  • PatriceOctober 15, 2013 - 8:34 am

    swiley, in all fairness....I know you are absolutely correct! I think the men's assessment here is true from their "generations" point of view. Women's needs have changed. This girl of 15 has not had time yet to figure this out. With guidance she will. :)

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  • PatriceOctober 15, 2013 - 8:38 am

    Correction: "some of the men's assessment here"

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  • cookie65October 15, 2013 - 9:25 am

    The greatest insult to women's fashion is it is determined in large part by individuals who don't prefer women. I think I said that in a politically correct fashion.

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  • cookie65October 15, 2013 - 9:27 am

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