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Glamour that comes at a high price

03 June 2016

HAVING thick ankles, fallen arches, and poor balance, I have never been one to wear high heels. The very thought of trying to totter about on them induces a mild sensation of vertigo. I recognise, though, that some women — even one or two clergywomen of my acquaintance — look really good in them. By which I mean that they look smart and confident. (I don’t recommend wearing them when saying mass, any more than I recommend dangly earrings. The potential distraction factor shows a lack of charity to the congregation.)

High heels produce an artificial walk that many find attractive, a sashaying walk of power and invitation. Men do not wear them, of course. Only very short men, like Nicolas Sarkozy, build up their heels, and then they are wedges rather than points.

High heels have been in the news since PricewaterhouseCoopers sent home a temporary employee who turned up to work wearing flat shoes. The head of St Albans High School for Girls, Jenny Brown, commented shortly afterwards that business suits on women did not look good without high heels. She went on to say that they “are beautiful in their tapering leanness, their sinuous arches, and the magic physics of them — holding with perfect precision and pressure such weight on a pinpoint heel”. Hmm.

It was the lyrical quality of her prose which bothered me, suggesting an addiction to something that is not a very good idea. Scholls have just bought out a slip-in sole that is meant to reduce the agony that many suffer by wearing high heels. Even Ms Brown acknowledged that it was not healthy “to clamp your toes into a masochistic machine for hours”.

So here is a fashion that causes pain, and that may, in the long term, injure the feet of women. Perhaps women who wear them regard their business and party lives as sport. Like footballers and ballet dancers who risk arthritis, they accept the risk of bunions and hammer-toes along with potentially permanent problems to their calves, tendons, and backs.

I cannot make up my mind whether high heels are a liberating personal choice or a sign of cultural enslavement. But I do remember reading about the 20th-century missionary to China Gladys Aylward. She, with other Christians, campaigned against foot-binding, the cultural eroticisation of pain which condemned women to hobble along on what were then called “lotus feet”. The point is that people saw these as beautiful, as a sign of power and status. I wonder whether people in a hundred years will think high heels look beautiful, or wonder why we tortured ourselves in the name of glamour.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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