Why is the Red Stilleto Emoji an Issue?

An online ruckus has erupted over women’s shoes. Well, not actual shoes. Emoji shoes, the red emoji stiletto, to be specific. The ruckus all began when a public relations expert pushed the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee to create a ballet flat emoji. Why should women be restricted to a hot red stiletto – the only official women’s shoe now available in emoji-land? The public relations expert claimed in her proposal, that a pair of women’s comfort shoes would help pave the way to a more non-sexualized pictorial representation of the footwear category.

Given all the serious things which are sapping women’s energy and stealing our focus these days – reports of strong, serial sexual predators; fulltime Twitter trolls; the normal offhand misogyny that conveys our daily lives – maybe it sounds silly to discuss red women’s heels or some other aspect of women’s wardrobes. But women’s styles exert legitimate power over women’s lives, and too often, we pay a steep price for the shoes and clothes we are expected to wear. Comfort is an issue in any women’s wardrobe from a young age through to the rest of their lives, and the stiletto, which keeps us in pain and prevents us from catching that bus, embodies this notion.

The problem starts early. University of Michigan sociologist Karin Martin observed over 100 kids at five preschools and concluded that the way young women were dressed inhibited their ability to manoeuvre around. Turns out it’s tough to creep around in a dress. The women also had to track how they moved in their own clothes. Wearing a dress meant you could not follow suit once your playmates propped their feet up on a desk. The girls’ clothes were a continual source of diversion. Tights needed to be yanked up. Bows needed to be straightened. Martin watched five year old women playing dress-up with a set of women’s shoes. The girls practiced walking, their measures little as they imitated how mature girls move in heels.

Researchers in Kenyon College examined dozens of Halloween costumes, Valentine’s Day cards and action figures targeted at either boys or girls. Nearly 90 percent of the female characters in those parts of pop culture were embellished with what the researchers called “decorative clothes” – clothes that impede movement. In contrast, almost 80 percent of male characters wore functional clothes that encouraged free motion. A Spider-Man suit enables you to run and play without worrying about exposing your body or tearing your costume. A crinoline-boosted princess dress requires you to sit like a woman, manage to avoid tripping in your skirts, and keep your head upright; helping you hold up your tiara.

Things don’t appear to change much when girls become women. We wear Spanx to conceal any jiggling, because controlling our body shape is more important than comfortably drawing oxygen into our lungs. We wear skirts that must get tugged down when we walk, tops which need to be pulled up when we lean over. We wear dresses which need us to “suck in” for hours.

And then you will find the shoes. Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode started visiting professional women made late to meetings since the heels they wore required them to wait in cab lines rather than walking. This is to say nothing of the fact that frequently walking in heels may have a permanent, negative impact on your gait and leave you at higher risk for osteoarthritis. These options feel natural in a civilization where the sexual objectification of women is rampant. A study found that the more women thought of themselves as sexual objects, the less likely they were to pick clothing with comfort in mind.

I’ve been there, on the top shelf of my cupboard, where a pair of strappy heels sits collecting dust. The last time I put them on, my spouse said: “Are you sure you want to wear these? Won’t they make your feet hurt?” His questions left me speechless for a minute. Obviously they would hurt my toes. At the end of the day, I’d definitely be half-hobbled in pain. But isn’t that just what girls do?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stilettos recently, ever since I read about an event known as “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” It is a combination fundraiser and awareness campaign to resist sexual assault and gender violence, where guys actually walk a mile in women’s shoes: red stilettos. I was struck by the picture of a red stiletto-wearing man sprawled on the floor at the conclusion of the walk, presumably exhausted in the mile-long trek in such punishing footwear. And I felt tired, too. Tired of a good deal of things, but also tired of our clothes and our shoes which make it more challenging for girls to be current and effective in the world.

We’ll learn in November if the public relations experts’ suggestion was successful, when the Emoji committee makes its official statement. That little blue emoji ballet shoe will not rid the world of sexism. However, it might provide a bit of inspiration to women struggling to find balance between being trendy and being comfortable, to girls who wish to appear good but also need to have the ability to run if they need to. Do emoji shoes matter over the long list of critical issues facing women? Of course not. We have many battles to fight. It would be fine if our wardrobes did not slow us down along the way.

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