What would you do if you turned up at work and were told to change out of your flat shoes and wear a pair that had a two-inch (at least) heel? Of course, if you are a man then the question doesn’t apply because you would never be asked to do anything so silly in the first place. But if you are a woman and work, say, in a corporate office, a hotel, a restaurant or even an airline, would you accede to such a request because it was what was expected of female employees?
Would you trot off and find a pair with heels and slip it on meekly? Or would you stand up for your right to wear any kind of shoe you bloody well like?
I only ask because a 27-year-old called Nicola Thorp found herself in exactly this predicament when she reported for her temp job as a receptionist at the London office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Her employment agency said that her flat shoes were unacceptable. She had to go off and buy a pair of shoes with heels at least two inches high and change into them. Thorp refused. So, the agency sent her home and refused to pay her for the day.
But while the rest of us would have vented on Twitter and called it a day, Thorp was made of sterner stuff. She launched a petition asking that it be made illegal to ask women to wear high heels at the workplace. In 48 hours the petition had chalked up 110,000 signatures, enough to get the subject debated in the House of Commons and a law passed so that no employer in the future could get away with such sexist demands of its female workforce.
Such strict grooming requirements are relatively rare in India. But a few years ago, when Delhi’s new international airport opened, with its long walkways from check-in to boarding, I was appalled to see the female ground staff of one particular airline (which shall remain nameless) negotiating that distance on heels.
Why, I asked one young woman, was she wearing heels? Surely, flats made much more sense given that she probably chalked up 10 to 15 kilometers on a regular shift.
Yes, she agreed. But the uniform rules stated that female employees must wear heels, so she had no choice in the matter.
I was so appalled by this that I wrote a column the next week (Running in heels, Brunch, August 2010) about how unfair it was to discriminate against women employees in this manner. Men could go about their jobs in comfortable shoes, while the women had to teeter around in high heels. How was this fair?
A few months later, when I travelled by that airline again, I found that the ladies were in flats. The uniform rules had been changed. And while I wouldn’t dream of claiming credit for that change, I would like to believe that my voice among the chorus of complaints mattered.
See, that’s the problem. Too many of us are only too happy to follow the rule (unwritten or spelt out) that to look properly ‘groomed’, women must wear high heels. So much so that we have even conditioned ourselves to believe that we are not really ready to face the world until we have a pair of heels on to bolster both our height and our self-confidence.
Not that I am one to talk. I spent my entire 20s and my early 30s in heels even though there was no dress code that forced me to do so. I voluntarily embraced this world of pain, telling myself (and my aching feet) that this was what being a successful professional was all about: looking the part. It didn’t help that I was short, so I needed the morale boost (quite literally) that high heels provided.
I, at least, had the excuse that I was short. But even my tall willowy friends embraced heels, simply because that was what you did. You wore heels to work and high heels to party because – or so we were conditioned to believe – that made us look more attractive.
It was only once I was comfortable in my own skin (and very uncomfortable in my heels) in my mid-30s that I finally had the confidence to vote with my feet and simply say no to heels. I stood tall enough in my own estimation. And I didn’t care if I fell short of the beauty standards imposed on women across the world.
Today, I am happy to report that the rebellion against high heels is apace. Earlier this month, Julia Roberts walked barefoot on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. This was noteworthy because last year at Cannes some women had been turned away from the red carpet because they were wearing flats. The dress code, they were told sternly, specified heels.
Well, try telling that to Julia, guys! She couldn’t give a hoot as she threw off her shoes and sashayed across the red carpet in bare feet, giving the proverbial finger to the powers-that-be at Cannes in the process.
At this point, I am sure that there are many women out there who are preparing to mail or tweet me about how they feel more powerful, even more empowered, with their heels on. Okay, ladies, just drop me a line five years down the line when your backs are whacked and your bunions have set your feet aflame and tell me how powerful and empowered you feel then. And then, we’ll talk.
From HT Brunch, May 29, 2016
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