Are high heels on shaky ground?

Although high heels have drawn concern in recent years about gender discrimination and health risks for women, the footwear style actually originated with men.

Originally more for men, high heels are now seen by some as a symbol of gender discrimination

Loredana Moniz, whose shoe closet is shown here, considers her high heels an essential part of her everyday wardrobe and says she hasn't suffered any health complications. (Loredana Moniz)

Loredana Moniz has 120 pairs of heels. The 48-year-old hairdresser is on her feet up to 14 hours a day.

"People say, 'Are you kidding me — you wear those to work?'" she said. "And I say yes, I'm comfortable."

So comfortable, Moniz, of Brampton, Ont., says she even wears them at home, noting she also likes the extra height they give her and considers them a fashion necessity. 

While Moniz won't be kicking her heels off anytime soon, there is a movement afoot to free women of the shoes experts have long warned can inflict harmful health consequences and that, in the current political climate, some have come to see as a symbol of gender discrimination.

The movement is making strides with some provincial governments in Canada.

Ontario recently passed the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, which includes a ban on employers forcing their female workers to wear high heels.

British Columbia enacted a similar law to deal with "discriminatory dress codes."

Similar legislation was introduced in the U.K. but failed to pass.

However, a recent retail study suggests British women are choosing more and more to spike the heel. According to the survey, 2016 marked the first time sales of athletic shoes overtook sales of high heels for women in the U.K. The survey also showed 59 per cent of female shoe buyers preferred flats, compared to 12 per cent who said they preferred high heels.

Lack of flat shoe 'exclusionary'

It's not just in stores that women are rejecting heels.

A California woman is campaigning to have a more sensible ballet flat added to the emoji selection on smartphones, which currently only has the high heel to represent women's shoes. 

"For me, the lack of a flat shoe emoji felt exclusionary," Florie Hutchinson told Today Style. "I simply didn't identify with any of the options available to me."

The blue flat she co-designed is now on a list of emoji finalists for 2018.

Long-term wearing of high heels can have long-term medical effects for the entire body, said foot specialist Kevin Fraser, a pedorthist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. 

"Wearing high heels is going to force us to flex our ankles downward, a downward direction, straightening our knees as well as extending the back," Fraser said. "That can create a whole host of complications within joint levels in the back all the way down to the feet." 

People can experience problems ranging from bunions to osteoarthritis, he said. 

Footwear of soldiers and kings

According to the Canadian Federation of Podiatric Medicine, women experience four times as many foot problems as men, mostly due to "lifelong patterns of wearing high heels."

Yet high heels have been popular for centuries, and were originally worn more by men than by women. 

"I dated the origin of the heel as far back as the 10th century in Persia," said Elizabeth Semmelback, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

"They seemed to have been invented to keep the foot in the stirrup," she said. "It allowed men on horseback to wield heavier weaponry, to be more successful at warfare, and so they really were a military tool."

From soldiers, the high heel eventually became the footwear of kings.

This display at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum illustrates how high heels were originally a footwear staple for many men, including the elite. (Bata Shoe Museum/CBC)

But by the end of the 19th century, the style became fashionable for women only. Over the decades, high heels, and especially stilettos, became synonymous with sexuality and feminism.

In the early days of television, commercials showed women doing housework in high heels. These days, female characters run, seemingly effortlessly, to catch cabs or chase bad guys in their pumps and strappy sandals. 

In the mid-1990s, the high heel reached iconic status with the TV show Sex and the City and the towering Manolo Blahniks Carrie Bradshaw and her friends wore on the streets of New York City.

Like the show's characters, Moniz is an unapologetic high heel fashionista.

The key to keeping her tootsies tender, she says, lies in the structure of the shoe: most of her shoes have wedges, and many have a platform under the toes, and that reduces the arch.

"I've never had an issue — no back issue, no feet issues," she said. At least, so far.

"I'll let you know."

Loredana Moniz shows off a pair of her beloved high heels. (Loredana Moniz)


Marcy Cuttler is an award-winning journalist and producer with 35 years of experience at CBC.

With files from Christine Birak


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