Comfort or confidence: the heels versus flats debate

Recent research has highlighted the potential risks and perceived benefits of wearing heels. We wade into the debate

women changes her rivet high heels pumps to much more comfortable sequin ballerina shoes because of a veins suffering and foot blows. Getty Images
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The controversy around high heels made headlines again this month, when researchers from the University of Aberdeen shared their findings from a review that examined 506 related studies, in a bid to sum up both the risks and benefits of wearing heels. The results, which were published in the BMC Public Health journal on August 1, showed consistent evidence linking high heels to an increased risk of bunions, musculoskeletal pain and injuries to the wearer. However, the overall risk of potential injury was deemed moderate. At the same time, the review indicated that wearing heels increases a woman's attractiveness – to herself and to men – and that many choose to wear them for social and cultural reasons. We put forth the points of view of an avid heel-wearer and a shoe-lover who is seldom seen out of flats. 

'Shoes are meant to facilitate movement, not serve as shackles' by Luxury Editor Selina Denman

"Sorry madam. Not tonight."

The words are polite enough, but the look that comes with them is dripping with disdain. I have been judged, and I have come up short. Literally.

"No heels, no entry," the doorman adds, his gaze flickering to my feet before reverting to a state of simian-like impassivity.  

I'm tall. About 5 feet 10 inches, give or take, and in even the most inconsequential of heels, I tower over many a man. Growing up in Cyprus, which has a ­population that is almost Hobbit-esque in proportions, it was not unusual for me to be the tallest person in any room at any given time.

But that's not why I love flat shoes.

In London, there is a phrase used to describe a certain type of footwear: the "taxi-to-dinner" shoe. The idea, of course, is that this is as far as you can reasonably expect to walk in them. I find the premise perplexing. Fight or flight is the most primal response that humans have in their survival arsenal, so why would we routinely make a fashion choice that completely removes one of those options? Usain Bolt can run 100 metres in 9.58 seconds – most women that I see hobbling about in sky-high heels couldn't cover that distance in 20 minutes.

I want to be free to move as I like: to be nimble and quick and stable as I corner. Freedom of movement is a basic human right, after all. And shoes are meant to facilitate movement, not serve as shackles.

I have great respect for women like Victoria Beckham, whose towering heels have become almost an extension of their bunioned feet, like some kind of crazy evolutionary anomaly. But even Beckham last year declared that she "couldn't do heels anymore".


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Don't get me wrong, I've not always been immune to the hype. A couple of years ago, I "invested" in a pair of Christian Louboutins, because I bought into the warped thinking that every woman of a certain age should own at least one pair – like they were some kind of badge of honour. A Louboutin shoe is a thing of great beauty – and mine are no exception. A ­vertiginous silver stiletto heel is topped by a series of barely-there black, white and neon-orange straps. They are gorgeous ­… and utterly unwearable. They are like some kind of niche torture device that wouldn't be out of place in the Tower of London. The rack, the ­manacle and the red-soled sandal. I have vague ideas about hanging them on my wall like some kind of post­modern art installation, because they are far more akin to sculpture than functional footwear. 

I understand the appeal of heels from a purely ­aesthetic point of view. In theory, they make you stand taller and straighter, they lengthen the leg and accentuate the stride. That's the theory. In practise, there is nothing less attractive than a women shuffling about at the end of an evening because her heels are too high and too painful.

"Part of the beauty of high heels is a woman in ­motion, so if she's walking like a hobbled horse, then I don't care how beautiful the shoes are, I consider that unsuccessful design," Mary Alice Malone, the designer behind London-based shoe brand Malone Souliers, said in a recent interview with The National's Luxury magazine. Now that's a woman after my own heart. 

Of course, these are not sentiments shared by the doormen who routinely turn me away from Dubai's esteemed nightspots just because I am wearing flats. Apparently you can't go for a decent dinner these days and expect to be have pain-free feet as you eat.

I am a feminist, and proudly so (thank you, Emma Watson, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for making it OK to say that in public again). And this all reeks of old-fashioned sexism, in a city that already places a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way. In Dubai, heels are just the icing on a cake that includes Botoxed foreheads, tattooed eyebrows, fake eyelashes, designer dresses and the very latest It bags. Heels feed into an already imbalanced, archaic and superficial notion of femininity.

People, whether they are male or female, should have the right to choose how they present themselves, as long as they aren't hurting or offending anyone. And my favourite bejewelled espadrilles are just about as inoffensive as it gets.

I understand that I can't roll up to a fancy Dubai eatery in a pair of flip-flops. But flat shoes have undergone something of a renaissance, and I now have my pick of designer espadrilles, bejewelled gladiators, metallic brogues and embellished slides. The latest Roger Vivier collection is a case in point: ­animal-print slides are topped with the brand's signature diamanté buckle, while bejewelled open-back sneakers are lined with fur. Fancier than most heels I've seen this season, they prove that style and comfort don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Actress Emma Thompson perhaps best articulated it during the 2014 Golden Globe awards, when she walked onstage barefoot, telling the audience: "I've taken my heels off as a feminist statement, because why do we wear them? They're so painful. And pointless, really." Hear, hear. 


'It's about finding a size and a style of heel you're comfortable with' by Assistant Luxury Editor Panna Munyal 

Of the two pairs of flats I own, one is a pair of sneakers for the gym, the other a pair of slip-ons that I keep in the office for when my colleagues manage to convince me to go stair-climbing. Both are in pristine condition. My heels, on the other hand, are generally scruffy, well-worn and so much more comfortable. That's right, I'm part of that clique of women that is perfectly at ease walking all day and dancing all night on stilettos. I've run behind buses, caught trains and taken flights, all with my trusty peep-toes in tow. And I haven't nurtured a bunion in my life. 

Before you start hating on me, consider: I'm five-feet nothing, have naturally high-arched feet (in fact, I can't drive in flats without serious risk to life and limb) and have worn all manner of heels since I was 15. Almost two decades later, I feel underdressed when I'm not in a pair of heels – even if they're just two-inch platforms – whether I'm in the office, or at the movies, the mall or the supermarket.  

Wearing heels is linked to feeling and being perceived as more confident, and in my case that's absolutely true. Although I'm not taller than most other people even in my daytime clogs or wedges, I feel more in charge, more awake even, than when I'm in flats. I always imagine Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" clicking along on high heels as she breezes in and out of rooms with utmost grace and confidence, because that's exactly how I feel. I love the way my walk changes, the way my hips swing, my shoulders roll back and my posture straightens. Footwear designer Charlotte Olympia said in a recent interview with The National: "Having three sons makes me want to wear high heels even more, to feel a bit more feminine. Heels make me smile." We all have women whose advice we can take to heart.

Of course, feeling at ease with being a few inches off the ground did not come without its share of hobbling about. There have been many pointy-toe debacles and unstable platform slips, but in the end it's about finding a size and a style of heel you're comfortable with. For instance, my toes can be pretty unforgiving when I wear closed shoes, so I tend to avoid them. I also prefer a pair with a slight base in the front to balance the heel. I don't invest in taxi-to-dinner shoes because I don't feel the need to buy or wear heels that I would be uncomfortable in; the options otherwise are plentiful.     

I'm not condoning forcing women to wear heels to work or not allowing women in flats into nightclubs. In fact, I had a similar experience as my flat-favouring colleague, when I was barred from entering, of all places, a sports bar in Dubai's Media City. The difference was that I was, in fact, wearing four-inch heels, which just happened to be a pair of bright pink Cole Haan wedges (as opposed to stilettos, I suppose). Whether this was ­because it was a Friday night and the bar seemed packed is quite beside the point: the reason given was my footwear, and it was a rather off-putting experience.


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Equally off-putting, though, are the eye rolls and comments I've had to deal with over the years. "I can't believe you can walk in those"; "Are you sure you want to wear those shoes there?"; "I would be stuck at my desk all day if I wore heels that high". I've lost count of the number of times people have felt obliged to inform me how unreasonable my footwear is to them, and the number of times I've been asked why I've bothered to wear a certain pair of shoes to a certain place (six-inch ankle-strap heels in blazing orange to a friend's son's first birthday at home). Because I'm comfortable is but one part of my answer. The other is because it's a choice that ought to lie with me alone. Surely that's the whole point of feminism?