Tuesday 14 August 2012

What's up with high heels?

For a number of years I have theorized that if I took two pictures of the same woman except in one photo the woman was wearing flats and in the other the woman was wearing high heels, guys would invariably prefer the photo with the high heels. It seems a given. It seems like an a priori truth. Of course I'm a guy so my opinion may be a tad affected by my hormones.

But at some point, being not only a testosterone fueled guy but an inquisitive one, I wondered why high heels are supposedly more attractive and when I say attractive, I was wondering if this was sexual in nature. Wait! Isn't it all about sex? Ha ha. There's that primordial urge again. Yeah, yeah, yeah, FTD delivers on Saturdays, romance is not dead, but at the heart of it, in our genes (jeans?) is the hardwired compulsion to propagate the race.

Today's word of the day is lordosis. This refers to the ventral arching of the back that is the curve of the back is inwards towards the stomach. According to my research it would seem others before me with a long list of letters after their names have posed the same question about high heels and made the connection to the birds and the bees, namely "lordosis behavior", a physical sexual posture seen in female animals. The back is arched inward (ventral arching) which helps to elevate the hips as an invitation to mate and as an aid in intercourse. Yes, this shows up in the Kama Sutra but is better known on the street as doggy style.

All of this apparently connects back to high heels for two reasons. First of all, the heel changes a woman's posture so that her derriere is raised and her chest is pushed out resulting in a certain curve of the spine. There's the connection to lordosis behavior. Secondly, it would seem we all have some innate sense of the proper length of the human leg for the purposes of mating and high heels apparently extend the female leg to what is considered a more favorable length. That favorable length is considered part of an evolved mate-selection mechanism where length means better long-term health and hence a better partner. It seems both curious and amusing to think we can reduce a man's wide eyes and wolf whistles to a scientific explanation based on animal behavior. On the other hand, when a woman calls a man an animal there may be more to it than just a comment on the man's unflinching singularity of purpose.

High Heels: empowerment or oppression?
The debate rages on. While some so-called experts associate this fashion accoutrement with sexual objectification, others see it associated with power. Flats may be comfortable but seem to say demure. Heels project power and one woman pointed out the natural result of getting to the same eye level as male colleagues.

There is however a limit. Yes, high heels are inextricably linked to sex but going too high can be too sexy. Professional situations demand a professional look and the consensus of opinion that while a three or four inch heel is acceptable, anything higher is just too much of a sexual message. Oh and it would seem that stilettos are always a no-no at work.

NBC News quotes Dr. Helen Fisher, anthropology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who believes sky-high heels are just too sexy for most workplaces:

"High heels thrust out the buttocks and arch the back into a natural mammalian courting — actually, copulatory — pose called 'lordosis,'" Fisher said. "Rats do it, sheep do it ... lions do it, dogs do it. ... It is a naturally sexy posture that men immediately see as sexual readiness. [Heels] are a 'come hither' signal. ... When women wear high heels at work, they send sexual signals that should be avoided if they want to be taken seriously."

The Science
From Redbook quoting Jena Pincott, author of "Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?":

The stuff you strut is more sensual when you're up on your toes, says Pincott: "Heels force your pelvis to tilt so that both your rear end and chest stick out." One study showed that leg lengths 5 percent longer than average are the most attractive, so for most women, a 1.5- to 3-inch heel would create the ideal leg length. "This attraction might be evolutionary, because long legs are associated with better long-term health, which would appeal to a mate," says Pincott. "Plus, much like a peacock flaunts his feathers, which are really quite heavy and a nuisance, a woman teetering in heels can show off her fitness and coordination."

I believe the study referred to above is a 2008 Polish one called "Adaptive preferences for leg length in a potential partner":

It has been shown that height is one of the morphological traits that influence a person's attractiveness... we study how leg length influences attractiveness in men and women. ... male and female pictures with shorter than average legs were perceived as less attractive by both sexes ... Because leg length conveys biological quality, we hypothesize that such preferences reflect the workings of evolved mate-selection mechanisms.

And from Wikipedia: High heeled footwear:

In modern society, high-heeled shoes are a part of women's fashion, perhaps more as a sexual prop. High-heels force the body to tilt, emphasizing the buttocks and breasts, highlights of a woman's sexuality. They also emphasize the role of feet in sexuality, and the act of putting on stockings or high-heels is often seen as an erotic act. This desire to look sexy and erotic continues to drive women to wear high-heeled shoes, despite causing significant pain in the ball of the foot, or bunions or corns, or Hammer toe. A survey conducted by the American Podiatric Medical Association showed some 42% of women admitted that they would wear a shoe they liked even if it gave them discomfort.

Final Word
Okay, as much as I or anybody else can dress this up as behavioral science, or the ebbs and flows of fashion, there does seem to be some fundamental connection to the biological nature of our most primordial of urges. Sorry folks, it really does always come back to sex. Then again, instead of trying to sweep this under the rug maybe we should admit it right up front and come to accept that men are men and women are women. Vive la différence!

Personally I am amused by my own behavior. I hear the telltale click of heels on the floor and I just have to look. "I'm not going to look. I'm not going to look." I can't not look. "D'oh!" It is as instinctive as breathing. Okay, I do try not to stare but I myself have to chuckle when I realise that it isn't just me, it's men in general. The click of a heel is like a Pavlovian bell which makes our heads turn. Sometimes I watch other men as a woman in heels walks by and it is quite hilarious to see the craned necks. Yes, sometimes you may think to yourself "oink oink" but I for one will try to be polite by giving you an admiring look as opposed to an alarming stare. (Old joke: It's only a leer if the woman is not interested.) And don't forget that if you sometimes find those looks worrisome, imagine how worrisome it would be if you didn't get any looks at all.

But trust me, as long as there is breath in this old body, I'll keep looking. This is where I wolf whistle. :-) (YouTube: wolf whistle)


Wikipedia: Lordosis
Lordosis is a medical term used to describe an inward curvature of a portion of the lumbar and cervical vertebral column.

Wikipedia: Lordosis behavior
Lordosis behavior, or mammalian lordosis, is a physical sexual posture seen in female mammals, including mice, cats and many others, the primary characteristic of which is a ventral arching of the spine. During lordosis, the spine curves so that the apex points in the ventral direction. That is, the spine arches inward toward the abdomen.

Surprising Sex-planations: The Science Behind Sex
You know that sex makes you feel closer to your guy, that stilettos are totally hot, and that hitting the sheets together feels completely different from satisfying yourself solo — but have you ever wondered why?

NBC News - Sep 23/2009
Do high heels empower or oppress women? By Laura T. Coffey
OK, ladies, think fast: Do high heels empower women in the workplace, or do they oppress us and ultimately harm us?

Ethology (site in Russian, this paper in English) - 2008
Adaptive preferences for leg length in a potential partner
by Piotr Sorokowskia, Boguslaw Pawlowskib
Here, we study how leg length influences attractiveness in men and women. Stimuli consisted of seven different pictures of a man and seven pictures of a woman in which the ratio between leg length and height was varied from the average phenotype by elongating and shortening the legs. One hundred men and 118 women were asked to assess the attractiveness of the silhouettes using a seven-point scale. We found that male and female pictures with shorter than average legs were perceived as less attractive by both sexes.

Wikipedia: High-heeled footwear
High-heeled footwear (often abbreviated as high heels or simply heels) is footwear that raises the heel of the wearer's foot significantly higher than the toes. When both the heel and the toes are raised equal amounts, as in a platform shoe, it is technically not considered to be a high heel; however, there are also high-heeled platform shoes. High heels tend to give the aesthetic illusion of longer, more slender legs. High heels come in a wide variety of styles, and the heels are found in many different shapes, including stiletto, pump (court shoe), block, tapered, blade, and wedge.


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BigLittleWolf said...

Most entertaining! And intriguing! Especially given my own musings on well-heeled footwear of late, and my personal passion for shoes of the haut talons sort.

As for the various power theories, for some women, we feel more powerful in a bit of a heel (whether we're eye-to-eye with a man or not). But I don't think we consciously perceive it that way. We feel more together, more competent, more polished, just as we might by having on a well tailored skirt and jacket, and a touch of makeup.

By the way, nice shoes in the illustration. (Where can I find those?) :-)

Walker Thornton said...

Interesting. I've never been a wearer of heels.. At 5'7" and a wayward, braless child of the 60's and 70's heels didn't fit into my image of self.
I can't really speak to the feeling of power except to say that the most important perception of power women can generate is to be comfortable and confident in who they are and for some, how they look.