Around the turn of the year, probably a slack news period, a scientific publication got an unusual amount of news coverage. No, it wasn’t the discovery of a new boson, or a habitable planet circling a nearby star. This one was titled “High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of female attractiveness” [http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090513812001225]
I’m always envious of researchers who can make a living carrying out such work. I remember one study which measured the amount of bare flesh in a nightclub and compared it to the owner’s fertility cycle. That one showed that women do show more skin during the most fertile time of the month, but only if they are in permanent relationships, but out without their partners. You can draw you own conclusions.
Still, you have to be sceptical, particularly if there is a claim of some evolutionary origin of a particular behaviour. That’s almost always stretching the evidence much too far, and anyway, human behaviour is too complicated for a neat just-so story.
That thing about high heels though. It’s an issue which has perplexed and slightly embarrassed me for years. I’d already guessed the same conclusion as the authors of the much-reported paper: that the high heel effects some kind of “supernormal” sexual signal. That is, biological systems seem to work on the basis of “if X is good, then XX is better”. Research (mostly on animals) has shown that exaggerating a stimulus, even well past the point of naturalness, can generate a heightened response.
But it’s not clear exactly what factor is in operation. The research paper was investigating walking, and reported a “shorter stride” and “increased rotation and tilt of the hips” for high-heeled as opposed to flat shoes. From my own observations, I’d add that the static posture is different as well, all the way up to the shoulders; and the silhouette is changed subtly. Which of these things –some? or all? –change our perception?
I say “our” deliberately. In the research, both men and women rated walkers in heels more attractive, even though they were only seeing a pattern of light spots on the joints of the subject. A different set of viewers were found to be twice as likely to guess that the walker in flat shoes was male, even though all subjects were actually female.
So I guess it’s settled. Heels do something to make a woman more feminine and more attractive. It’s not surprising that they are the only item of apparel to be consistently “in fashion” for hundreds of years.
I think it was Sigmund Freud who came up with the concept of “fetishism”, where sexual attraction derives from an object, rather than a person. The liking for high heels was well-known in his time, and his suggested explanation was that we experience our first sexual feelings before we can even walk, when we are crawling around among the ladies’ feet, and henceforth always associate sex with Victorian buttoned boots. But Sigmund was like that: he just made stuff up without a shred of evidence behind it.
I’m not old enough (honest) to have seen high-heeled buttoned boots as a baby, but now I think they can be quite sexy. And other high heels too. That’s the source of the mild embarrassment which I mentioned at the beginning, because if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that some kind of transference has occurred in my brain. The shoe itself, completely separate from the wearer, triggers a response.
I’ll quickly point out that it’s only a little response, only a mild dose of fetishism. I’m sure a brief internet search would reveal sites showing a complete obsession, although I suppose that’s true of practically everything. Anyway, I don’t judge. Sexual attraction is never based on logic or good sense in any of us.