Monday, February 25, 2008

The psychology behind the $17 billion shoe obsession

17 BILLION DOLLARS.

That is the amount American women spent on shoes in one recent year (2004-2005) according to the retail and consumer- information firm NPD Group.

That's the amount of many an Eastern European country's foreign debt.

There's no denying the shoe's place in popular culture. They inspired the title of a recent film, In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette. They figured prominently in the television show "Sex and the City" whereby millions of women suddenly became aware — and desirous — of Manolo Blahniks, shoes that could easily cost more than my monthly mortgage. And who could forget when Imelda Marcos' collection of thousands of pairs of shoes came to symbolize the cruel and backwards rule of her husband over the Philippines, a country of people more accustomed to overwhelming poverty than luxury footwear.

So, what belies this shoe obsession?

While it might be tempting to turn toward a Freudian view of shoes — seeing the particularly pointy stiletto-style pumps as some sort of phallic symbol, whereby donning them, woman can reduce the inevitable "penis envy" that so consumes them according to the theory — this would be far-fetched.

Actually, I don't think it is that far off. Shoes can signal power, and they certainly have something to do with sexuality.

Consider the power that comes with wearing high heels. They add inches of height — as much 2 or 3 inches. Chimps and other animals' hair stands up when they are in the throws of a dominance show. Humans have largely lost this ability to instantly look more bad ass when the situation calls for it. Instead, we women can use high heals. Afterall, people still ascribe higher status, dominance, and even income to people who are bigger — specifically taller. If men gain power and influence with their height (41 of the past 42 winners of the U. S. Presidential race have been the taller of the two candidates*) who's to say women don't gain power when they elevate their height with high heels? They also make noise - a ton of noise. Primates, like other animals, make a raucous display when they compete for power. Shoes do this for women.

The great irony here is that although high-heels make a woman feel more bad ass, they would be a huge handicap if she ever had to defend herself. They throw balance off. Each step requires the utmost concentration until heel-wearing becomes so well-practiced it's like riding a bike. The fact that women can walk perfectly adroitly in stilettos and their relatives may indicate a certain kind of superiority. In the biological world, functioning well with a handicap signals greater health — and fitness — in a Darwinian sense. It's called Zahavi's handicap principle. You can read more about it here. It's fascinating and explains some species characteristics that baffled even Darwin.

Shoes are not simply linked with power, influence, and status — which of course the rarity and price tag add to — they are also wrapped up with sexuality. High heels shift posture - forcing the chest and derrière out, making each more prominent. They increase the definition of muscles in the thighs and calves. And, they make the wearers feel sexier.

While all of this explains the obsession behind high-heeled shoes, it does little to explain why some women must have so many of them. For that, I blame the conspicuous consumption that pervades our country and leaves us falsely believing our possessions indicate our self-worth.

* Al Gore was the only one who was taller and did not win, though he did win more of the popular vote.

12 comments:

Grizzly Mountain Arts said...

Your blog entries are always so interesting! I'll admit, I spend a little money on shoes but they're mostly Keens and NOT sexy! LOL I guess that's a sign that you're OLD when you dream of expensive shoes and they are all good for your feet :) Jo

Bijoutery said...

Another great blog. Very intersting about the presidental thing, especiall with Al Gore. I admit I usuall go more for practical shoes - and I hate heels, always afraid I'm gonna break my ankle in 'em, lol.

Callooh Callay said...

Very interesting post. I think the obsession with high heels is wrapped up with our youth culture--only the young and fit can negotiate safely in them. Unless of course you're one of those women who has worn heels exclusively and ruined your Achilles tendon (small price).

decadentdiamond said...

Fantastic post!!! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it, 'penis envy' made me smile, reminded me when I was at college and the tutor first mentioned it and how everyone burst into laughter and then embarassment when he explained what it meant .. (we were only 17!)

Meredith said...

Great article - I'll have to share this with my husband, who wishes that I would subscribe to the theory that stilettos will make me more powerful (I'm 5'1"). Then again, he is from Rome, where the diminutive fashionistas run sprints down ancient stone-paved streets in the highest of heels...Then again, my mother-in-law can no longer wear anything higher than Keds after a lifetime of such antics ;)

Nicole Solo said...

I learned to run after the bus in stilettos on the cobblestone streets of Stockholm --- I admit I'm a huge fan. It was worth the practice and now I just wish I could afford some really hot heels!

Purty Girl Designs said...

okay i have been tooo soo many blogs tonite.. and really i have so enjoyed reading yours. Dont get me wrong. love hearing about fellow etsians but really this was a treat thank you!! i am totally blog rolling you so i can come and read more. thanks!

Kinichi River Designs said...

Excellent article! Your posts are always so intelligent, insightful and interesting. Glad I found your blog. I'm much more of a practical shoe person (I'd rather chucks or barefoot, really), but I gotta admit I do feel sexier when I (rarely) put high heels on. I've often wondered about feeling that way, too. THanks for your insight!

Birkis Dorian said...

I agree with the power theory, but from more a sexual power angle. I'm not sure how important height is to female power relationships, but sexual receptivity greatly increases female power. As you pointed out, high heels are not just a social signal of sexual receptivity (ie "I chose to put these shoes on tonight"), but also actually force a woman's body into a more sexually receptive posture (back arched, posterior raised). It's way easier than having to concentrate on maintaining that pose on one's own all evening...

Shelley Schlender said...

I'm a radio journalist looking for a story for tomorrow morning that involves shoes. There's a flap in Colorado about high heels versus boots, and it'd be fun to get your comments about those shoe styles, from an evolutionary perspective of course. We could do a phone interview, but I probably need to know if you can do it by this evening.

Megan said...

Great article!! Totally justifies my shoe addiction. The thing with shoes is that they always (or almost always) fit, and that is really important when I am out shopping. Trying on jeans can be an exercise in frustration, but shoes are blissful almost every time.

Is it conspicuous consumption? Maybe. I doubt that all my pairs of shoes (and there are a LOT of shoes in my closet) would add up to more than a couple of payments on a new BMW.

Once again - great article!!

lestroischenes said...

Beautifully written and well crafted article. I particularly like the way that you managed to cover less attractive side of shoes tastefully.