Unheeled and High: Why I Ditched Heels and Found Empowerment in Flat Shoes

POV

Unheeled and High: Why I Ditched Heels and Found Empowerment in Flat Shoes

Illustration: Akshita Monga

T

he other day, I found myself fondly recollecting memories from my Class X farewell party. As many will know, this is a historic rite of passage in the life of a secondary schooler in India. For us girls, the build-up to the day comprised the reckless ransacking of the closets of our mothers to lock eyes with that one stunning saree that we wanted to carry off with all the poise that a 16-year-old could muster. I was no exception. But what I remember even more vividly was unwrapping my brand new, shiny pair of golden high heels. Like any girl that age, I was convinced that those pair of heels was my secret accessory, my getaway to nirvana. 

But it took only a few minutes for my dream to turn into a nightmare. That was the day when I noticed that the road I had been merrily skipping along to school for almost a decade, was actually a mud path strewn with stones of all shapes and sizes. On more than one occasion, I struggled to maintain my balance. I hobbled with every step and even when I stood I could not feel my toes, they had numbed. Where was the charm of the heels that I was high on? While my brain berated my silly choice of footwear, my heart sang nervously as I tried to pick my way on my three-inch towers. I kept resisting the urge to kick off my sandals and free my arches but pride told me to hang in there and smile away the painful last few moments of school. Tears collected in my kohl-rimmed eyes as the pain of almost twisting my ankles almost overrode the pain of parting ways with my alma-mater. Safe to say, after that fateful day, high heels and I have called it quits. 

In the years since, did I ever feel like I was missing out? I’d be lying if I say yes. Grounded in my flats, I have travelled through the ups and downs of life, comfortably and confidently. Along the journey, I have met several women who’ve distanced themselves from the myth of high heels – that heels make you feminine, they make you feel powerful. But how can you feel powerful when you are uncomfortable, I always wondered. And do you really need a pair of spikes to boost your confidence? 

In a Guardian essay journalist Karen Luckhurst says,  “Wearing what we like demonstrates our free will, doesn’t it? Yes it does, but it doesn’t follow that the choices we make are always sensible. 

I’m not arguing that women shouldn’t wear high heels – but please, let’s give up the pretence that they are anything other than what they are. Glamorous, yes; sexy, yes; empowering, certainly not.”

I know of friends who’d keep a pair of heels at work and some who’d carry them around in their bags, in case an occasion demanded where they need to assert their stature. But if given a choice, many I believe would almost unanimously zero in on flats as our national footwear.

I couldn’t agree more. Over the years though, I have seen the hype around heels die down. 

Today, I see women around me who walk into a pub to ring in the weekend in a pair of flats just as nonchalantly as they glide across the stage in elegant flats to collect their “Businesswoman of the Year” award. I assume like me they are not looking for empowerment in their heels. But for women in the West, some of whom still subscribe to the “Keep your heels, head, and standards high” dictum, the breakup hasn’t been as amiable. In her book High Heel, author Summer Brennan explores how women tend to gravitate toward the legend of the high heels, “There was an image in my mind of a certain kind of woman – professional, feminine, poised – that I wanted to embody. I saw these women daily, year after year, backstage to the halls of power, on benches by the ladies’ room, changing in and out of comfortable and uncomfortable shoes.”

I know of friends who’d keep a pair of heels at work and some who’d carry them around in their bags, in case an occasion demanded where they need to assert their stature. But if given a choice, many I believe would almost unanimously zero in on flats as our national footwear. I only have to look outside the window to know why practicality is the overarching factor for most middle-class Indian women. So much of our lives revolve around negotiating the ills of public transport, that when it comes to our choice of footwear, the first and last consideration is always whether or not it is commute-friendly. 

After all, a seductive gait in a gravity-defying stiletto will be of no use on a crowded suburban railway platform or on the footboard of an over-crowded bus. If anything, it’ll be a dangerous hindrance in darting across the road in the maze of motorists and vehicles where traffic lights are but blinking jewels of mockery. There are clues in history as well: In the ancient days, the “paduka” was the footwear of choice. Little more than a sole, it had a post and a knob between the big toe and the second toe. Soon enough, the creativity of artisans across the length and breadth of the country led to an array of hand-crafted tanned leather Kolhapuris and mirror-embellished mojaris and juttis, now a staple in the lives of so many women.  

The other day, I hobnobbed with a public relations executive of a leading firm. She was the epitome of poise and grace in a soft handloom saree and… a pair of smart, intricately designed mojaris that peeped gallantly from under the paisley printed border of her saree. It made me realise that maybe, we’re at a time when high heels and self-esteem are no longer in an abusive relationship with each other. Although, it’d be foolish to claim that even women who tend to prefer flats have gone through life without being forced to have a relationship with heels. But I can say one thing for sure, whoever said high heels empower women, was obviously fettered by parochialism. Ask the Indian woman if she misses the view from the top of a pair of high-heels, and she will tell you that she can gaze at the stars in the sky while enjoying the stability of a sole that remains grounded.

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