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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Friday, January 11, 2013

Hell on heels

There is nothing quite as comforting – and comfortable – as embracing the world of flats

I don’t know any little girl who doesn’t do it. Keep a look-out until Mummy is safely out of sight, and then quickly step into her high heels and totter around the house, balancing precariously on them. Needless to say, this doesn’t ever end well. Either she gets too ambitious, picks up speed, and lands right on her butt (or worse, face) or Mummy catches her in the act (yet again!) and gives her a right royal bollocking. Either way, it ends in tears.

But that early frisson of excitement, the thrill of trying something forbidden, of getting a taste of the adult world, never really leaves us, does it? It hides deep within our psyche and makes a pair of high heels seem like the most desirable thing ever. They become a totem of adulthood, a symbol of sophistication, an emblem of elegance, a sign of being all grown up.

So, it’s not surprising that as we grow up, there’s nothing we want more than our own pair of high heels. There’s something so ineffably adult about them that we just know that slipping them on will make us feel in command. But every time we go shopping with our moms and head inexorably for the high-heel shoes, we are herded off in the direction of sensible flats. And with each such episode, the longing within us just grows and grows.

But no matter how much we beg, plead, cry or cajole, those high-heel shoes remain tantalisingly out of grasp. We will get them when we grow up, we are told sternly, and not a moment sooner. Little girls simply do not get to wear high heels with shoes – and that is that. (Unless, of course you are Tom Cruise’s pampered princess, Suri, and even then it sets off an avalanche of angry comments in the media.)

Which is why slipping on your very first pair of high heel shoes is both a matter of joy and a rite of passage. I am pretty sure every woman remembers her first pair of high heels: where she bought them; how they looked; what she paired them with; how they made her feel.

I certainly do. My first pair was bought after an exhaustive trawl through all the shoes shops of Calcutta’s New Market. In black patent leather, accessorised with a little bow, they came with a very modest two-inch heel. They were bought for a family wedding but over the next couple of years I wore them to death, abandoning them only when they quite literally fell apart.

Since then, I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for high-heel shoes, stocking up on stilettos, wedges, kitten heels, platforms and whichever other heel-style was in fashion. Such was the intensity of my love affair with heels that I don’t think I possessed a pair of flats in my entire twenties, if you exclude the sneakers that were bought as a token nod to the need to exercise (one of these days, I kept promising myself).

So, I get the appeal of high heels all right. I agree with all those shoe designers who claim that heels don’t just make you stand taller, they also improve your posture, and give you a sexy wiggle for good measure. And yes, I see the point when women claim that they feel more confident, sexy, elegant and put together in heels.

But, I ask you ladies, at what cost? I can’t be the only one who suffers excruciating backaches after I’ve spent the day teetering on high heels. And I certainly can’t be alone in having my knees give up on me after decades of balancing four – or even five – inches above the ground.

Which is why – unlike those of my sex who choose style over comfort and are willing to painfully mince through life rather than give up their high-heel addiction – I have decided to vote with my feet and embrace the world of flats.

But though my love affair with heels is now over, I still have an entire closet of shoes to remind me of my past passion. Some of the more hellish ones have been given away to those with a higher pain threshold than mine but some still live on the back of my wardrobe, skulking darkly like ghosts of painful evenings past.

And every now and then, when I look at them, I wonder: what on earth was I thinking?

There’s the Christian Louboutin pair in blue velvet with silver sequins that I have worn maybe three times in my life (and only when I was sure I would be sitting down for the most part). There are the black stilettos from Jimmy Choo that I bought in a moment of madness and wore only once (slipping them off at the end of the evening to hobble across the 500 yards to my hotel room). The sky-high boots from Ferragamo which have me sobbing in pain every time I walk in them. (I could howl with rage when I think what I could have done with all that money spent on those lovely but utterly useless shoes!)

But I am happy to report that my days as a fashion victim are behind me. Now, I am no longer willing to buy any shoes that don’t work for the purpose for which they were designed: walking. I refuse to put on a pair that turns me into a helpless creature who can’t even negotiate a staircase, let alone a cobbled road. I am damned if I will wear a pair that doesn’t allow me to kick ass, or even haul ass at the first sight of trouble. I refuse to allow high heels to infantalise me, to turn me into a helpless, near-immobilised creature who can at best take baby steps.

It helps, of course, that the world of fashion has embraced the flat shoe as well. These days, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing comfortable, no-heel shoes. Ballet shoes are all the rage, and you can choose from every label of note, from the trendy Repetto to the more workmanlike Marks and Spencer. Loafers are perfect for a day on the run, and every label is churning them out. And if you want to go all ethnic, there is always the humble Kohlapuri or the leather jooti. (Though, I’m afraid fit-flops simply don’t do it for me.)

Now that flat shoes have finally found their moment in the fashion sun, what does it mean? Does it prove that women are finally growing up? That we are no longer naive enough or suggestible enough to fall victim to the fashion conspiracy that tries to sell us shoes that we can’t walk – let alone run – in? And more importantly, does it mean that we are finally refusing to seek validation from men on how we look? (Show me a man who says he prefers a woman in flats rather than high heels, and I will show you a liar.)

Going by the sheer number of women tottering about in high heels, that day is probably still some distance in the future. But I can’t help feeling that we are finally moving in the right direction – and some of us are even doing it in sensible flats.


My favourite flats

* Knee-high black boots from Furla: Bought in a punishing New York blizzard, they have done me proud every winter, with their easy mix of elegance and comfort.

Salmon pink loafers from Tods: Okay, they were a bit pricey but given that they are neutral enough to go with everything they have more than paid for themselves.  

* Leopard-print suede ballet pumps from L.K. Bennet: Anybody who thinks flats can never be sexy, should get a load of these. They rock!

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