Which of These Shoes Makes Women Feel More Powerful: Heels or Flats?
You're a woman getting ready for a big job interview. You're obsessing over your outfit, are worried about running late and are already sweating in anticipation. You need to feel as comfortable, secure and at ease as possible. And yet before running out the door, you slip on a pair of sky-high heels.
Why? It's a decision that makes no practical sense, as the current backlash against heels points out. Heels are painful health hazards that do more than just tire out our feet. From flight attendants and waitresses pushing back against heel mandates to the "heelgate" controversy at this year's Cannes Film Festival, women are rebelling against the societal expectation that their feet must be bent vertically. Hell, even Barbie has abandoned her perma-arched feet in favor of the occasional flats.
Real women seem to be doing the same. Sales for flats at companies like Asos and Carvela have seen over 30% and 90% increases this year, respectively, according to Grazia. Net-a-Porter is having trouble keeping lace-up flats in stock thanks to celebrity-inspired popularity. Birkenstocks and Tevas have made bona fide comebacks as the "frumpy" trend takes over, while the rise in "athleisure" has found more and more women slipping on sneakers.
With all the heel backlash and flat enthusiasm, you'd think women would reject heels altogether and embrace flats as the more empowering shoe, as a trend report from Fortune suggests they are.
But women's relationship with heels is more complicated than that.
For many of the women surveyed by Mic, via a Google form, heels are their go-to shoes when they want to dress "powerfully" at work. Heels help us command attention and flip a switch in our minds that takes us from "girl" to "woman." Heels, it turns out, hold a special, albeit nonsensical, place in our psyche. Here's why.
The more flats we wear, the more special heels feel.
Out of the two dozen women surveyed by Mic, 17 of them said they mostly wear flats to work, proving the sales data true. That's especially the case when your work environment doesn't require it. As one 25-year-old woman pointed out, the fact that she works with kids means heels are reserved for special occasions when she wants to look sexy or fancy. Heels "mean business," either in the office or at an event.
That's especially the case when a flats-loving woman wears heels and it seems like she's crying out, "Hey, look at me! I'm dressing up!"
"You look like you are dressing up and take your work seriously. You look like you are ready to take on a challenge instead of just being comfortable," said another 31-year-old woman.
"I give the impression that I put in more effort into my outfit than I usually do. In my field, heels are worn for special occasions or presentations and talks," said one 24-year-old. "Therefore, wearing them means I am dressed for a 'special' event, or at least something I believe to be special or important."
Added height helps us feel powerful.
The few extra inches is about more than just the illusion of height. Standing taller signals a more professional, dominant and powerful look, said the women. When it comes to networking and making an impression, they pointed out the importance of looking someone else in the eye and commanding attention. It also makes you more noticeable in a crowd.
"As a shorter woman in a male-dominated field, heels put me at their (literal) level. As a young woman with management responsibility, I feel heels give me some credibility," one 25-year-old woman wrote in.
"When I go to networking events in particular, I find it important to be taller and so more noticeable. But it's hard to stand that long in heels. I end up shifting from foot to foot a lot!" one 27-year-old said.
"I want something that makes me a little taller and changes my stride, but not a skinny stiletto that's going to have me teetering around," said one 23-year-old woman. "The point is to look strong and confident, not like the leaning tower of Pisa."
At 5 feet, 10 inches, one 31-year-old woman said that if she wears heels it's purely a confidence play. "I just want to be glorious," she said.
Flats are for kids — heels say "grown-up."
If you ever wore you mom's heels as a kid in order to feel more "grown-up," you're not alone. In fact, part of that sentiment still stays with many women as they get older. You're forced to stand up straight while in heels, as opposed to walking or even shuffling along in flats. That change in posture, from a slouch to a straight stance, makes all the difference.
"Flats are less intimidating, more 'girly' as opposed to 'womanly.' They're comfortable and always work-appropriate, but a simple pair of flats tends to make me feel younger," said one 23-year-old woman. "I already look young, so it's not ideal."
"My posture [in flats] is less self assured and I feel more childish since I associate wearing flats with being an insecure preteen," said one 25-year-old woman.
Wearing heels is a choice — or it should be. For some women, heels are oppressive and pointless, even a misogynistic standard created by men's conception of femininity.
But for others, as painful or impractical as they can be, they allow us to be more confident and attention-grabbing while wearing them. And women, it turns out, aren't afraid of tapping into those power dynamics. If we can stand a little taller, straighter and confident in a way that feels good, why not?
July 22, 6:28 pm: This post's headline has been updated.