Bad Shoes and the Author Who Takes Them On

It happened in Milan at a 2008 Prada fashion show.  “I was having a panic attack, my hands were shaking,” a runway model recalls.  “Some of the girls were crying backstage, they were so scared.”  Why the dramatics—An Act of terrorism?  An explosion? Had the prime minister been assassinated? No. These women were fearful of walking down the runway in the season’s extremely high heels. Two models tripped and fell; they were helped to their feet by members of the audience. One was so badly shaken she went backstage and never emerged. The other finished her walk carrying her shoes and received a standing ovation.

So begins Leora Tannenbaum’s new book, Bad Shoes and the Women Who Love Them (Seven Stories Press). At once  fanciful (with illustrations by Vanessa Davis), disturbing, informative, understanding and preachy, it is a captivating attempt to address the reality that many women—including feminists– insist on wearing “sexy” shoes but need some ground rules for how not to wreck their feet in the process.

What’s really interesting about Tannenbaum’s approach is the artful way that she pulls you in, empathizes, withholds judgment, then stuns you with her analysis.

She does this at the end of the book, after romps through chapters on what you should know about your feet, on “toetox” (cosmetic surgery of the foot), on the history of high heels and on the sex life of women’s shoes. Then, after gaining a reader’s trust, she asks, ever so gently, that the reader consider the “many parallels we can draw between Chinese footbinding and Western women wearing high heels.”

Thus begins a bulleted list of nearly two pages that should give any woman pause. She writes:

In both cases, the foot is permanently deformed … a sexual fetish object is created, the practice is an assertion of femininity for the wearer and an affirmation of masculinity for the men, mobility is limited and the restrictive state regarded as sexually alluring … if a woman refuses to participate in the practice, she is regarded as deficient or deviant … the shoe is an instrument of illusion …women wearing high heels also display their feet to look as tiny as possible … and the paradox: In both cases, the practice proves that one is able to handle pain and exert a sense of control and discipline over her body, demonstrating a perverse kind of strength.

So will women listen to Tannenbaum’s practical advice?

Next to me at Tannenbaum’s May book launch at Tip Top Shoes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a young woman in a heel so high that a physiatrist next to me is literally agape. While the author is speaking, all of us in the line of sight of this young woman are gaping, too, at her Giuseppe Zanotti aqua-and-orange strappy stilettos, with the pointiest of toes. They belong in a craft museum, not on a woman’s foot.

“What’s the deal with those shoes?” I finally ask. She tells me she wore them to be provocative, she loves the way they look, but the reality is “There’s no way around it; they’re not comfortable.” Until Bad Shoes, she thought of bad feet as her mother’s problem. Now, she says, she’s willing to think about what could be in store for her feet down the road and to maybe cut back on wearing and walking in her Zannottis, admitting that the book was a conveyor of “news you don’t want to hear.”

As for Tannenbaum, practicing what she preaches, she wore a pair of Thierry Rabotins with a two-inch heel, rounded toe and black  sequins, considering them a compromise between the good and the “just a little bit ‘bad’” (i.e., sexy) shoe. She got them at Tip Top, where shoes run into the hundreds in price. Most women can’t afford footwear like that. But the mission of Tannenbaum’s little book is not taking on that matter of social inequality, or the reality that designers keep designing torture shoes, women’s magazines keep promoting them and celebrities—yes, including feminists—keep wearing them.

It’s a how-to book, after all, as in how to live with foot binding until the miracle happens and we all decide not to bind our own feet anymore.

Fun package, scary message.

Image from / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. This is bollocks. I think wearing high heels has nothing to do with feminism, or fashion for that matter. It depends on your motivation. If you are wearing heels or sexy clothes for a man or to conform to an ideal that society depicts, then yes, it may be considered anti-feminist. But if a woman wants to feel sexy for herself and she enjoys wearing heels, etc then why not? What’s wrong with wearing makeup and sexy clothes to feel good for yourself? I can’t think of anything more feminist than feeling good about yourself and make your choices accordingly.

  2. To commenter Luna: I’d like you to ask yourself, just WHY does wearing makeup and high-heels make women feel “sexy”? Why does it make them feel good about themselves? Why does a woman need to make an outward fashion statement that is in line with current cultural standards in order to feel sexy FOR HERSELF?

    I don’t buy the line that women find high heels “more comfortable” than other types of shoes. They want to wear them because they care about what other people think about them, and even what they think about themselves is dictated by what other people think!

    As for myself, sneakers and tennis shoes for me, thanks, I have back and foot problems enough as it is!

  3. I am pretty over other women telling me I must be crazy to wear my five inch heels. Ya know what? No, they dont hurt (seriously). No, I’m not wearing them for my Ior any) man. And you know what? I LOVE them. High heels demand a certain posture. Yes, they force your foot to point at an angle (something I always found reminiscent of ballet- not bondage), but that angle also encourages you to walk taller and it creates a strut. Women (who traditionally walk in a manner that is quieter, more reserved, and takes up less space than a man) suddenly are forced to walk in a manner that portrays confidence. I dont want to wear armadillo heels, I dont want to wear pointy heels (I dont think anyone likes squished toes), but when I walk in a room feeling as good as I do in my favorite foot architecture- I Do expect everyone to be wowed at the power house that just came in the door.

  4. Women are colonized. Some women may be convinced there is nothing wrong with the accoutrements of that colonization, but that just speaks to the power of social conditioning. There is nothing innocuous about societal expectations of women. They are meant to keep women subservient, our health and well-being be damned.

  5. @Luna and Jenn:

    You didn’t read the indented paragraph above at all, did you? One name for this sort of thing is “internalized misogyny”; another is “denial (ain’t just a river in Egypt). All of us have it–it’s just a matter of identifying it and getting it out in the open.

  6. Yes, the issue is WHO is deciding what is sexy? I have often heard women who wear high heels, use this argument that "they make me feel sexy, it's not about men." I support my sisters choice to wear what she wants and won't fight against those who choose to wear heels. However, like other comments above, I would raise LOTS of questions. Why do we think high heels are sexy? Why do we think shaved legs are sexy? etc… What makes this feminine? Simply put, Men Do. The patriarchy has determined what is fashionable, what is sexy. In this case, they have decided that shoes that make women's butt and breasts stick out, that make it difficult for them to walk (or run away) that force them to walk in small measured steps are sexy. Surprise, surprise. I like fashion AND I like being comfortable. I am aware that the more comfortable I dress (usually) the less appealing I am to men (Thank goddess) Think about what would happen if we all got dressed everyday without giving an "F" about what men think. That is radical and that, I think would be sexy as hell.

  7. I cannot thank you enough for the blog.Much thanks again. Really Great.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Toni_KatVixen, Robyn Okrant. Robyn Okrant said: RT @msmagazine: What to make of feminists who wear high heels? […]

  2. […] a lot about stiletto heels, or as I think of them, Weapons of Mass Destruction, from the book Bad Shoes and the Women who Love Them by Leora Tanenbaum. It is smart and well-researched.) The "Prison Warden" […]

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