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High-heeled footwear (often abbreviated as high heels or simply heels) is footwear that raises the heel of the wearer's foot significantly higher than the toes. When both the heel and the toes are raised equal amounts, as in a platform shoe, it is technically not considered to be a high heel; however, there are also high-heeled platform shoes. High heels tend to give the aesthetic illusion of longer, more slender legs. High heels come in a wide variety of styles, and the heels are found in many different shapes, including stiletto, pump (court shoe), block, tapered, blade, and wedge.
According to the Spine Health Institute, 72% of women will wear high heels at some point. Annual statistics of women wearing high heels daily have fluctuated between 1986 to 2003, from 68% to 39%. Women wearing high heels daily according to age, were split into three ranges: 49% of women 18–24 years old; 42% of women 25–49 years old and 34% of women ages 50 and older. Women wear heels for different reasons, such as: special occasions (77%), parties and dinner (50%), dancing (33%), and to work (31%).
According to high-fashion shoe websites like Jimmy Choo and Gucci, a "low heel" is considered less than 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters), while heels between 2.5 and 3.5 inches (6.4 and 8.9 cm) are considered "mid heels", and anything over that is considered a "high heel". The apparel industry would appear to take a simpler view: the term "high heels" covers heels ranging from 2 to 5 inches (5.1 to 12.7 cm) or more. Extremely high-heeled shoes, such as those exceeding 6 inches (15 cm), strictly speaking, are no longer considered apparel but rather something akin to "jewelry for the feet". They are worn for display or the enjoyment of the wearer.
Although high heels are now usually worn only by girls and women, there are shoe designs worn by both genders that have elevated heels, including cowboy boots and Cuban heels. In previous ages, men wore high heels as well.
In the ninth century, Persian horseback warriors wore an extended heel made for keeping feet from sliding out of stirrups. This kept riders still when they needed to stand up and shoot arrows.
Medieval Europeans wore wooden-soled patten shoes, which are regarded as the ancestors to contemporary high heels. Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, traces the high heel to Persian horse riders in the Near East who used high heels for functionality, because they helped hold the rider's foot in stirrups. She states that this footwear is depicted on a 9th-century ceramic bowl from Persia.
It is sometimes suggested that raised heels were a response to the problem of the rider's foot slipping forward in stirrups while riding. The "rider's heel", approximately 1 1⁄2 inches (3.8 cm) high, appeared in Europe around 1600. The leading edge was canted forward to help grip the stirrup, and the trailing edge was canted forward to prevent the elongated heel from catching on underbrush or rock while backing up, such as in on-foot combat. These features are evident today in riding boots, notably cowboy boots.
Since the Second World War, high heels have fallen in and out of popular fashion several times, most notably in the late 1990s, when lower heels and even flats predominated. Lower heels were preferred during the late 1960s and early 1970s as well, but higher heels returned in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The shape of the fashionable heel has changed from block (1970s) to tapered (1990s), and stiletto (1950s, early 1960s, 1980s, and post-2000).
Today, high heels are typically worn with heights varying from a kitten heel of 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) to a stiletto heel (or spike heel) of 5 inches (13 cm) or more. Extremely high-heeled shoes, such as those higher than 6 inches (15 cm), are normally worn only for aesthetic reasons and are not considered practical. Court shoes have conservative styles and are often used for work and formal occasions, while more adventurous styles are common for evening wear and dancing. High heels have caused significant controversy in the medical field lately, with many podiatrists seeing patients whose severe foot problems have been caused almost exclusively by high-heel wear.
The wedge heel is informally another style of the heel, where the heel is in a wedge form and continues all the way to the toe of the shoe.
In terms of design, high heels can be seen with plain construction or with embellishment. Depending on the design concept, embellishment materials include leather, wood, metal chain, plastic appliqués, lace, and others. The majority of embellishments are for aesthetic purposes. The rest are for functional support.
Pros and cons
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The case against wearing high heels is based almost exclusively on health and practical reasons, including that they:
- can cause foot and tendon pain;
- increase the likelihood of sprains and fractures;
- make calves look more rigid and sinewy;
- can create foot deformities, including hammer toes and bunions;
- can cause an unsteady gait;
- can shorten the wearer's stride.
- can render the wearer unable to run;
- can exacerbate lower back pain;
- alter forces at the knee so as to predispose the wearer to degenerative changes in the knee joint;
- can result after frequent wearing in a higher incidence of degenerative joint disease of the knees. This is because they cause a decrease in the normal rotation of the foot, which puts more rotation stress on the knee.
- can cause damage to soft floors if they are thin or metal-tipped.
The case for wearing high heels is based almost exclusively on aesthetic reasons, including that they:
- change the angle of the foot with respect to the lower leg, which accentuates the appearance of calves;
- change the wearer's posture, requiring a more upright carriage and altering the gait in what is considered a seductive fashion;
- make the wearer appear taller;
- make the legs appear longer;
- make the foot appear smaller;
- make the toes appear shorter;
- make the arches of the feet higher and better defined;
- according to a single line of research, they may improve the muscle tone of some women's pelvic floor, thus possibly reducing female incontinence, although these results have been disputed.
- offer practical benefits for people of short stature in terms of improving access and using items, e.g. sitting upright with feet on floor instead of suspended, reaching items on shelves, etc.
During the 16th century, European royalty, such as Catherine de Medici and Mary I of England, started wearing high-heeled shoes to make them look taller or larger than life. By 1580, men wore them, and a person with authority or wealth was often referred to as "well-heeled".
In modern society, high-heeled shoes are a part of women's fashion, perhaps more as a sexual prop. High heels force the body to tilt, emphasizing the buttocks and breasts. They emphasize the role of feet in sexuality, and the act of putting on stockings or high heels is often seen as an erotic act. This desire to look sexy and erotic continues to drive women to wear high-heeled shoes, despite causing significant pain in the ball of the foot, or bunions or corns, or hammer toe. A survey conducted by the American Podiatric Medical Association showed some 42% of women admitted that they would wear a shoe they liked even if it gave them discomfort.
Types of high heels
Types of heels found on high-heeled footwear include:
- cone: a round heel that is broad where it meets the sole of the shoe and noticeably narrower at the point of contact with the ground. It is closed on the front back and sides.
- kitten: a short, slim heel with maximum height under 2 inches (5 cm) and diameter of no more than 0.4 inch (1 cm) at the point of contact with the ground
- prism: three flat sides that form a triangle at the point of contact with the ground
- puppy: thick square block heel with approximately 2 inches (5 cm) length in all dimensions.
- spool or louis: broad where it meets the sole and at the point of contact with the ground; noticeably narrower at the midpoint between the two
- stiletto: a tall, slim heel with minimum height of 2 inches (5 cm) and diameter of no more than 0.4 inch (1 cm) at the point of contact with the ground
- wedge: occupies the entire space under the arch and heel portions of the foot.
- viennese: the heel is longer than the shoe itself and is impossible to walk on, only found on fetish shoes, just for sitting or lying down.
Men and heels
Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator for the Bata Shoe Museum, traces the high heel to male horse-riding warriors in the Middle East who used high heels for functionality, because they help hold the rider's foot in stirrups. She states that the earliest high heel she has seen is depicted on a 9th-century AD ceramic bowl from Persia.
Since the late 18th century, men's shoes have featured lower heels than most women's shoes. Some attribute it to Napoleon who disliked high heels; others to the general trend of minimizing non-functional items in men's clothing. Cowboy boots remain a notable exception, and they continue to be made with a taller riding heel. The two-inch (5 cm) Cuban heel featured in many styles of men's boot derives its heritage from certain Latino roots, most notably various forms of Spanish and Latin American dance, including Flamenco, as most recently evidenced by Joaquín Cortés. Cuban heels were first widely popularized by Beatle boots, as worn by the English rock group The Beatles during their introduction to the United States. Some say this saw the re-introduction of higher-heeled footwear for men in the 1960s and 1970s, in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta's character wears a Cuban heel in the opening sequence. The singers Prince and Elton John were known to wear high heels. Bands such as Mötley Crüe and Sigue Sigue Sputnik predominantly wore high heels during the 1980s. Current well-known male heel wearers include Justin Tranter, lead singer of Semi Precious Weapons, and Bill Kaulitz, the lead singer of Tokio Hotel. Popular R&B singer Miguel was wearing his trademark Cuban heels during the "legdrop" incident at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards.Winklepicker boots often feature a Cuban heel.
The stiletto of certain kinds of high heels can damage some types of floors. Such damage can be prevented by heel protectors, also called covers, guards, or taps, which fit over the stiletto tips to keep them from direct, marring contact with delicate surfaces, such as linoleum (rotogravure) or urethane-varnished wooden floors. Heel protectors are widely used in ballroom dancing, as such dances are often held on wooden flooring. The bottom of most heels usually has a plastic or metal heel tip that wears away with use and can be easily replaced. Dress heels (high-heeled shoes with elaborate decoration) are worn for formal occasions.
Other uses for specialized high heel protectors make it feasible to walk on grass or soft earth, but not mud, sand, and water, during outdoor events, removing the need to have specialized carpeting or flooring on an outdoor or soft surface. Certain heel protectors improve the balance of the shoe and reduce the strain that certain high heeled or stiletto shoes can place on the foot.
Foot and tendon problems
High-heeled shoes slant the foot forward and down while bending the toes up. The more the feet are forced into this position, the more it may cause the gastrocnemius muscle (part of the calf muscle) to shorten. This may cause problems when the wearer chooses lower heels or flat-soled shoes. When the foot slants forward, a much greater weight is transferred to the ball of the foot and the toes, increasing the likelihood of damage to the underlying soft tissue that supports the foot. In many shoes, style dictates function, either compressing the toes or forcing them together, possibly resulting in blisters, corns, hammer toes, bunions (hallux valgus), Morton's neuroma, plantar fasciitis and many other medical conditions, most of which are permanent and require surgery to alleviate the pain. High heels, because they tip the foot forward, put pressure on the lower back by making the rump push outwards, crushing the lower back vertebrae and contracting the muscles of the lower back.
If the wearer believes it is not possible to avoid high heels altogether, it is suggested that the wearer spend at least a third of the time they spend on their feet in contour-supporting "flat" shoes (such as exercise sandals), or well-cushioned sneaker-type shoes, saving high heels for special occasions; or if it is a necessity in their job, such as a lawyer, it is recommended that they limit the height of the heel that they wear, or, if they are in court, remain seated as much as possible to avoid damage to the feet. It is recommended to wear a belt if possible with heels, because the elevation of the foot and extension of the leg can cause pants to become looser than wanted. In the winter time, one could use seat warmers with heels to relax and loosen muscles all over the body.
One of the most critical problems of high-heeled shoe design involves a properly constructed toe-box. Improper construction here can cause the most damage to one's foot. Toe-boxes that are too narrow force the toes to be crammed too close together. Ensuring that room exists for the toes to assume a normal separation so that high-heel wear remains an option rather than a debilitating practice is an important issue in improving the wearability of high-heeled fashion shoes.
Wide heels do not necessarily offer more stability, and any raised heel with too much width, such as found in "blade-heeled" or "block-heeled" shoes, induces unhealthy side-to-side torque to the ankles with every step, stressing them unnecessarily, while creating additional impact on the balls of the feet. Thus, the best design for a high heel is one with a narrower width, where the heel is closer to the front, more solidly under the ankle, where the toe box provides room enough for the toes, and where forward movement of the foot in the shoe is kept in check by material snug across the instep, rather than by the toes being rammed forward and jamming together in the toe box or crushed into the front of the toe box.
Pelvic floor muscle tone
A 2008 study by Cerruto et al. reported results that suggest that wearing high heels may improve the muscle tone of a woman's pelvic floor. The authors speculated that this could have a beneficial effect on female stress urinary incontinence.
The high heel has been a central battleground of sexual politics ever since the emergence of the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. Many second-wave feminists rejected what they regarded as constricting standards of female beauty, created for the subordination and objectifying of women and self-perpetuated by reproductive competition and women's own aesthetics.
The British-American journalist Hadley Freeman wrote, "For me, high heels are just fancy foot binding with a three-figure price tag", although she supported the freedom to choose what to wear and stated that "one person's embrace of their sexuality is another person's patriarchal oppression."
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