Today’s topic is high heeled shoes. Why do women wear the damned things, I sometimes wonder. Those women wobble around, they take longer to get from here to there, they often trip on small sidewalk imperfections, and they regularly fall and get hurt.
I will confess: my gut reaction is that a woman’s IQ relates inversely to whether that woman tends to wear accident-inducing high heeled shoes. I think of women who flock to such shoes as women who aspire to become Barbies or Princesses. Before you write a comment to protest, I realize that my gut feeling is a gross over-simplification. I also have an analogous gut feeling with regard to men who aspire to higher forms of masculinity by rushing to engage in dangerous activities such as motocross or hang-gliding . . .
I never understood high heels. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I don’t think that women who wear high heels are “hotter” than those who don’t. To the contrary, I’m annoyed by high heels. Most woman who wear them look uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that they become objects of my pity, not lust. But many other men (and women) disagree with me. For proof, take a look at almost any advertising (and see here and here and here (for 8” heels!)).
Because I appear to be obtuse regarding this particular slice of human sexual responsiveness (and a tad bit concerned about my lack of responsiveness!), I have chosen this subject of high heels as yet another port of entry into the compelling field of evolutionary psychology (I’ve written about evolutionary psychology and consumer issues before).
I’ll start things off with the downside to dangerous and uncomfortable high heel shoes. It has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that wearing high heel shoes contribute to numerous serious injuries. Here’s a list of high heel shoe-related injuries published by the Mayo Clinic:
- Corns and calluses. Thick, hardened layers of skin develop in areas of friction between your shoe and your foot. . . .
- Toenail problems. Constant pressure on your toes and nail beds from being forced against the front of your shoe by a high heel can lead to nail fungus and ingrown toenails.
- Hammertoe. When your toes are forced against the front of your shoe, an unnatural bending of your toes results. This can lead to hammertoe . . .
- Bunions. Tight fitting shoes may worsen bunions — bony bumps that form on the joint at the base of your big toe. . . .
- Tight heel cords. If you wear high heels all the time, you risk tightening and shortening your Achilles tendon. . .
- Pump bump. Also known as Haglund’s deformity, this bony enlargement on the back of your heel can become aggravated by the rigid backs or straps of high heels. . .
- Neuromas. A growth of nerve tissue. . .A neuroma causes sharp, burning pain in the ball of your foot accompanied by stinging or numbness in your toes.
- Joint pain in the ball of the foot . . . This causes increased pressure, strain and pain in your forefoot. Shoes with tightfitting toe boxes can lead to similar discomfort.
- Stress fractures. Tiny cracks in one of the bones of your foot.
High heels have also been linked to overworked or injured leg muscles, osteoarthritis of the knee and low back pain. You also risk ankle injuries if you lose your balance and fall off your high heels. See here. High heels can even be dangerous, resulting in trips to the emergency room.
Rupert Evans, an accident and emergency doctor at University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff said injuries could lead to long-term problems. Women should stick to shoes with heels less than 4cm (1.5in) if they wanted to avoid a trip to hospital, he advised. Dr Evans said he has seen an increase in the number of women being admitted to hospital with injuries caused by the fashionable footwear. Injuries ranged from sprained ankles to broken bones and dislocations – and in some cases caused permanent damage.
What kind of permanent damage? How about chronic knee pain, sprained ankles and back problems.
I’m only about 75 pages into Saad’s book, but I am impressed with his scholarship and clear writing. He has spent much of these first 75 pages making the case for the need to use the relatively new paradigm of evolutionary psychology when analyzing consumer spending issues. The status quo among most consumer and marketing researchers is to ignore evolutionary psychology, but this quite often leads to an incomplete and erroneous explanation for consumer spending issues.
I’ll get to what Saad says about high heels in a second. It is important to note that high heels are merely one of thousands of illustrations of consumer purchases that can be better understood using evolutionary psychology. Why are so many marketing researchers and psychologists ignoring evolutionary psychology? Mainly because it’s a relatively new field, and most established researchers prefer to stay within the paradigms with which they are more familiar. To ignore evolutionary psychology, though, is to have an unanchored and incomplete picture.
In many ways Saad’s book parallels arguments suggested by Geoffrey Miller (see “Shopping for Sex: wasteful consumerism and Darwin’s theory of sexual selection”).
Saad cites studies showing that 80% of shoe purchases are for sexual attraction. It has been suggested that wearing high heels creates “the visual illusion of lordosis (arching of the back when a female is in a sexually receptive position) and furthermore accentuates the body curves that are particularly appealing to men.” (Page 75). Saad cites further research showing that a 2-inch heel results in a 20 degree “lift of the buttocks:
High heels may well be the most potent aphrodisiac ever concocted. When worn by women, the high heels sensuously alters the whole anatomy-foot, leg, thigh, hips, pelvis, buttocks, breasts, etc…. men are perfectly frank in admitting that high heels stimulate their sexual appetite. They seldom fail to express their predilection for them, and women, consequently, assign to stilted shoes all the magic of a love potion.
Saad recognizes that the wearing of high heels has been well-recognized by authors and songwriters over the years. Women appearing in pornographic photos and videos and women who work as strippers often wear high heels. Saad notes that dance routines performed by women wearing high heels “could be more safely and comfortably performed with less enticing foot attire.” He cites studies showing that the economic cost incurred as a result of wearing high heels is $16 billion annually (“time taken off work to recover from foot surgeries, medical costs, etc.”). He cites further studies showing that
“for a substantial number of podiatry-related injuries or conditions, women outnumber men up to 40-to-1, with the suspected culprit in many instances being the wearing of high heels.”
Evolutionary psychology has a lot to offer anyone considering why women would insist on wearing such dangerous shoes. It offers an explanation that is systematically anchored within human biology. It offers “ultimate” explanations (why a particular behavior, cognition, emotion or morphological trait has evolved to its current form in a Darwinian adaptive sense), not only “proximate” explanations (how mechanisms operate and what factors influence the workings of such mechanisms). Nonetheless, many scholars “have abdicated our biological and Darwinian heritage” to embrace an “all-encompassing standard social science model” (SSSM) obsessed with characterizing the brain as a “general-purpose problem solver” at the disposal of homo economicus (rational “economic” man) (Page 20, 31). This is true of many scholars in the field of anthropology, sociology and psychology. These many SSSM advocates argue that
Culture cannot be broken down into smaller units of analysis. It simply exists sui generis. Second, social phenomena must be explained using units of analysis at the social level. Hence, to try to explain a social phenomenon using the minds of those individuals comprising the group can lead to the onerous accusation of being a reductionist. Third, by rejecting biology as an explicative force in shaping human behavior, SSSM effectively rejects the idea of a universal human nature. Fourth, human behavior is thought to be unconstrained in its malleability as it is assumed that humans are born with empty slate or tabula rasa minds.
What are the major differences between evolutionary psychology and SSSM?
much of this theorizing within the evolutionary psychology framework seeks to address the ultimate origins of a particular phenomenon (i.e., the adaptive roots) whereas the SSSM has almost completely focused on proximate mechanisms. Second, whereas evolutionary psychology posits that the human mind is comprised of domain-specific context-dependent modules, the SSSM argues that domain-general context-independent processes guide human behavior.
Evolutionary psychology has many successes to its credit. It is thus easy to make the case that evolutionary psychology is being unfairly dissed by the establishment. Here are some of the success stories: evolutionary psychology has offered biologically anchored explanations for morning sickness as a natural and beneficial phenomenon, a naturally-occurring distaste for potentially harmful food occurring during the embryonic period when key organs are forming. It has characterized fever as an adaptive reaction rather than something to simply bring down with aspirin (as many doctors still recommend. See Why We Get Sick (1996), by Randolph Nesse, for this point). Evolutionary psychology is completely comfortable with the findings that the demotion of one’s social status is a more dramatic punishment for men than women and that men are more driven to have multiple sexual partners than women.
Evolutionary psychologists don’t give that deer-in-the- headlights reaction to universal “cultural” findings, such as the fact that men possess a near-universal preference for women whose bodies adhere to the .70 waste-to-hip ratio. When male CEOs tend to be taller than average men (and presidents, too), evolutionary psychologists roll up their sleeves and get to work—that fact doesn’t just sit out there like an intellectual singularity. Evolutionary psychologists make good use of findings that sexual infidelity is the greatest threat to a man’s reproductive interests whereas emotional infidelity most threatens women. There are countless other illustrations that evolutionary psychology has a right to sit at the same table as those who wear the SSSM hat. My favorite example (from page 40 of Saad’s book) is the study that asked women to rate the pleasantness of the smell of T-shirts worn by men. The study found that women who were in their periods of maximum fertility could somehow detect the symmetry of those men by smell alone– fertile women judged that the T-shirts worn by symmetrical men were more pleasant than those worn by non-symmetrical men. What does SSSM do with a study like this? It tucks it away as something curious, but fails to offer any all-encompassing biologically based framework. SSSM often misses the boat where evolutionary psychology sets sail.
Evolutionary psychology thus appears to be a fruitful approach for examining the female use of high heel shoes, given that evolutionary psychology has often provided “ultimate explanations for universal, persistent, and seemingly unshakable sex differences in mating behavior.” (Page 9) Many universal “cultural” traits can be meaningfully anchored in terms of curious Darwinian “modules,” including survival, reproduction, kin selection and reciprocation. (Page 15). Despite the many successes of evolutionary psychology, most social scientists still adhere to “the foundational tenets of SSSM with its exclusive focus on culture, learning, socialization, domain-general mental mechanisms, and proximate issues.”
Why look at the decision to wear high heels shoes through the lens of evolutionary psychology? Because “a great majority of our consumption choices are manifestations of our innate human nature, which has been shaped by a long evolutionary process. Accordingly, evolutionary theory can enrich our discipline by proposing different ways for tackling existing phenomena and/or identifying novel research streams that might have been difficult to isolate without the appropriate evolutionary lens.
Saad is not arguing that evolutionary psychology should replace SSSM but, rather, evolutionary psychology can and should be consulted to complement existing research traditions. Combining these methodologies into a multi-perspectival approach gives us a better all-around explanation. (Page 17). It’s not that evolutionary psychology has all the answers. It’s getting clearer, however, that evolutionary psychology can often offer fruitful approaches to many problems to which SSSM merely shrugs. This is particularly clear in the issues raised by consumer behavior, the topic of Saad’s fine book as well as writings of Geoffrey Miller.
What would evolutionary psychology offer to the question of why women would wear dangerous shoes? The hovers about the life-and-death struggle over mate selection (whether or not a woman believes she is interested in having offspring). Just like the growth of the peacock’s tail, the choice to wear high heel shoes is a dangerous thing to do in one sense (it can lead to a broken neck at the bottom of a stairwell or a slower bird who is nabbed by a predator) whereas it is often enough an effective strategy for attracting a mate who is impressed with the display of physical prowess (whether that prowess is balancing on those little stilts or hauling around all of lots of long feathers).
It’s not that wearing high heel shoes automatically improves one’s chances for finding a high quality mate. It might do the opposite. How’s that?
The mechanics of sexual selection (Darwin’s other theory of evolution) bring us full circle to my comment at the beginning of this post; my gut reaction to the thought of women wearing high heeled shoes is that those crazy shoes cause women to look clumsy, contriving or even desperate. Perhaps I have this general reaction because so many of the women who wear high heel shoes are not sufficiently physically coordinated to take advantage of them. Wearing high heeled shoes rather than flat shoes is a lot like choosing to run a high-hurdle race instead of a race without hurdles. Wearing high heel shoes is putting on a more dicey display. It is taking a chance that one is sufficiently physically gifted (or practiced) to make the wearing of such issues look easy. Men who find high heel shoes to be sexy accept the wearing of such shoes as a filter to separate women who are physically gifted from those who aren’t. Those men are placing their bets that women who look comfortable wearing those crazy shoes will be better mates that will be more capable of producing and raising their offspring.
Many women are made to look foolish when trying to balance on those tiny heels, thereby diminishing their chances of finding a mate. They would have been better off not wearing high heels, at least leaving potential mates wondering whether they could have looked physically impressive had they worn them. It reminds me of Ben Franklin’s famous quote: It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
What about those women who make it look easy to do high-heeled acrobatics? Successfully wearing such shoes can serve as a truly noteworthy display of Darwinian fitness in the eyes of most men (maybe even me). Wearing high heels is the podiatric version of the peacock’s tail. The choice to wear high heels shoes is the decision to attempt a difficult maneuver with the hope that one will stand out in a good sense (rather than draw the pity of people like me). To wear high heels shoes proficiently is to put on a display of physical fitness that is not easily matched by most other women. To wear high heels shoes well is essentially to perform the equivalent of a circus act-to walk on miniature stilts all day long at the office. To wear such strange shoes as though it’s not a big deal is to get a “leg up” on the biggest life-and-death issue that any animal ever faces: the quest to transport one’s genetic essence into the next generation.
The battle is not necessarily over for women who master high heeled shoes. Well, for some men, maybe it is over—for some men, the finessed use of high heels might serve as a token for a high level of general health.
For many of us men, however, life is not a one-sport display. It is akin to a decathlon; there are many events to consider. People like me need to see much more than the ability to balance on high heels. I, for one, am more impressed with other types of physical displays. There are many candidates, such as lack of fatigue, alert eyes, good hair texture, or the ability to participate in sports. Other men look to other types of displays for “sexiness,” such as a woman’s ability to run a company, play classical music on a cello or talk philosophy. Whatever form “sexiness” takes, however, evolutionary psychology digs deep for ultimate explanations—it seeks to anchor phenomena deeply into the only place that ever really could matter: into human biology.