High Femme in High Heels

The CHRONICles is a fortnightly column by Caroline Marie McDonagh-Delves and Rachel Charlton-Dailey discussing life with chronic illness, chronic pain and disability.+

Content warning: this column will regularly discuss ableism and topics relating to disability.

Maybe I watch too much TV. Maybe my fashion sense is too much influenced by 1950s pin-up girls. Maybe I was a dominatrix in a former life. Fact is, I think high heels are a huge part of femininity and I’ve always loved them. The problem is, I can’t wear them any more.

First of all, whatever shoes I wear have to have arch support in them for my flat feet. Secondly, heels aren’t exactly good for the balance, and at least half of my recent falls have happened while wearing heels. Thirdly, no matter the ball of the foot cushions you put in, achy feet strike quite quickly with fibromyalgia.

I can mostly get away with them for a meal out, as long as I don’t have to walk to the toilet too often and the taxi picks me up from right outside. I also might wear some for a photo shoot one day.

I didn’t actually get into high heels until quite late compared with my friends. Some of the girls I went to primary school were squishing their toes in their highest heels for discos and shows while I was perfectly happy with a pair of dolly shoes (okay, I may have been a little jealous).

See, because my mum is also disabled, it just wasn’t something that was really a thing in my house growing up. I was 15 before I learned how to properly walk in heels, just in time for my high school leavers do; where I wore heels for the photos and then abandoned them for dancing.

I wore heels on my graduation day. Small, 2 inch and bright green (little nod to my Irish heritage.) I hope that I looked confident as I strode across that stage in my cap and gown.

We’re all aware of the effect that heels have on the body when they’re worn. They make you taller for starters, which is excellent when you’re not much above 5 feet tall and don’t like being at other people’s armpit level. They also make the buttocks and breasts more prominent – those symbols of female fertility that seem to drive the men crazy (because evolution is both cis- and hetero-normative). For me, they made me feel like the sexy woman I was starting to worry I wasn’t.

When my knees first started to hurt, I had to stop wearing my tiny self-esteem boosters at exactly the same time I began to limp, and later to waddle like a penguin if both legs hurt as much as each other. It was a double whammy of ‘there goes your sexiness’ and I felt like it was over for me on that front. There’s nothing sexy in the way I walk, and I can’t even give myself a boost with some four inch beauties. I can’t as readily compare myself to any woman in any office on TV if I’m in a pair of Converse.

Heels are now getting beyond me. I can wear some in a meeting and then change back into my trainers when I get back behind my desk. I did a similar trick at the Nopebook Launch: on for the photos and off for the networking. If I go out, I have to go sensible. After looking longingly at my friends’ shoes since being a pre-teen, I had a very brief love affair with what I hold up as one of the symbols of femininity.

And now, I have had to concede defeat to my own body. One of the items in my toolkit of femininity is no longer fit for purpose. I can’t take it anymore. My beloved beautiful high heeled shoes have to take their position in the back of my wardrobe, not to be seen again outside of restaurants and house parties and the boardroom. And, although I still have red lipstick and black eyeliner; although I’ve added to the 1950s pin-up look with tattoos and hair colours; I still look at my feet and feel like that one element of my feminine identity is going to be completely lost in no time at all.

It shouldn’t bug me, but it does.

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