Are High Heels Feminist?

High Heel, the second book from award-winning investigate journalist Summer Brennan, is a short read that mixes research with anecdotes to examine gender performance and sexual identity. Brennan ultimately addresses the question of what it means to be a woman through the history of heels—from fairytales and film to foot-binding and glam rock.

A wearer of heels, Brennan uses high heels as a lens through which to examine rape culture, pain, femininity, fashion, and beauty culture. Are high heels good? Are high heels feminist? What does it mean when women (and men) choose to wear them? The answers are complicated. High heels were initially seen as masculine, invented for men as riding footwear, but during the Enlightenment, men’s fashion became more practical while women’s fashion became more binding.

Heels prevent a woman from moving quickly and as freely as she otherwise might. Today, they are an expected part of professional women’s garb. For example, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently showed her Instagram followers that she stands on bags of frozen broccoli after walking around in heels for twelve hours each day. And with their male counterparts donning business suits at games, women basketball coaches frequently wear power suits and high heels courtside to portray a professional and appropriate image—even consulting stylists on how to put together their “work uniforms.”

Brennan ultimately lets the reader decide the meaning they impart on high heels, but she is openly critical of the gender stereotypes and sexism that accompany this iconic footwear. “How can we retain and celebrate a woman’s sexuality and femininity, while freeing her from sexual objecthood? What are women even like outside of patriarchy?”

Take Action! Learn more about the history of high heels in this fascinating read.

High Heel (Object Lessons), Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.