"More hips, ladies, more hips!" scolds the cheerful instructor for the fourth time in as many minutes. Obligingly, my classmates and I traverse the dance floor like tragic auditioners for a hip-hop video. We, the participants in the High Heel Fitness Class & High Heel Walking Workshop, need more hips. We need to move our knees more. We need to tighten our core. We need to hold up our chests. We need, in short, to learn to walk again. This time in heels.
Of all the things for which women have an inexplicable affection--Matthew McConaughey springs to mind--high-heeled shoes are among the most puzzling. Scientists have linked wearing them to serious health conditions, such as osteoarthritis and sciatica, as well as milder ones with hideous names like hammertoe and--my favorite--Haglund's deformity (a lump on the Achilles tendon, also known as pump bump). A Swedish study even associates heels with schizophrenia. Yet this season, women are heading off to work in footgear more vertiginous than ever, topping out at about 6 in. (15 cm). Just last month tree-high shoes felled several models on the Milan runways, and no wonder. Walking in heels that height is the rough equivalent of trying to stroll down Space Mountain.
You gotta ask, Why do women keep taking on such a downhill battle?
There are lots of easy answers: fashion, peer pressure, vanity. There are less obvious ones too. To narrow the height difference between men and women, perhaps? Or because, as evolutionary psychologist Martin Tovee of Britain's Newcastle University surmises, girls' legs grow only during childhood, so long legs communicate a healthy youth and good breeding potential.
A study released in Italy in February suggests that women who wear high heels enjoy sex more--no, really, hear me out--because walking in heels conditions the pelvic muscles. As I said, released in Italy.
Another study, presented in May at the American College of Sports Medicine, warned that wearing high heels on stairs was especially perilous. The body compensates for the instability by putting an emphasis on the knee-extensor muscle. "It's an eccentric muscle action," says Wendy Miletello, one of the authors and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Louisiana Tech, who (speaking of eccentric) wears heels. Future biomechanics studies may look even more closely at pump-related injuries and fatigue.
Behind the shoes' superficial appeal seems to lie a deeper truth, however. And that is that Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahniks and Christian Louboutins are not primarily apparel. The protection of feet is not their first priority. No, the stiletto (Italian for dagger, after all) is actually a tool. Not so much for crushing cockroaches and hammering nails, although that works, but for the projection of an image that is both feminine and powerful.
That's why Gwyneth Paltrow wore custom-made, 6-in. (15 cm) Alexander McQueens at an Iron Man premiere and Sarah Palin donned Naughty Monkey Double Dare pumps at the Republican Convention and former Lehman CFO Erin Callan navigated Wall Street in skyscraper spikes. Because heels are the perfect shoes for negotiating the complicated landscape where authority meets beauty. Think of them as a peacock's tail--if each feather were also a poison dart.
But any tool--or, yes, weapon--works better when the user has training. Hence the lessons. Crunch introduced its Stiletto Strength classes to New York City in 2006 and now offers them in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. "It's one of our most popular classes," says Donna Cyrus, Crunch's senior VP of programming. Legworks, which offers the workshop I went to in Manhattan, has a growing fan base. The Los Angeles high-end shoe store Il Primo Passo holds high-heel-walking classes, taught by a drag queen, of course, on a monthly basis.
And what do these classes teach? Nothing, alas, that revolutionary. Make sure your heels hit the ground first. Make sure you are spreading the weight as evenly as possible across your foot by tightening your abdominal muscles and keeping your chest high. And lead with your hips. In other words, walk like a hooker with great posture.
Does it work? More or less. At the workshop, I wore what I call my 20-minute "shoeters"--shoes that I can stand for 20 minutes before I want to shoot myself. I lasted a good 40 minutes. With practice, I bet I could get to a really quick party.
Obviously there are some heels that no amount of exercise will make tolerable. Even Blahnik doesn't recommend a heel height above 4 1/2 in. (11 cm).
As for feeling like a hooker, well, Crunch no longer offers Stiletto Strength in New York City. Apparently it got old. Cyrus says nearly everyone who took it moved to a new class the gym offers: pole dancing.
6 months ago