Victoria Namkung | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,283 words)
From Cinderella’s glass slippers to Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks, Summer Brennan deftly analyzes one of the world’s most provocative and sexualized fashion accessories in High Heel, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury. Told in 150 vignettes that alternately entertain and educate, disturb and depress, the book ruminates on the ways in which society fetishizes, celebrates, and demonizes the high heel as well as the people, primarily women, who wear them.
She writes: “We’re still sorting out the relationship between glass ceilings and glass heels. For now, the idea of doing something ‘in high heels’ is a near-universally understood shorthand meaning both that the person doing it is female, and that in doing it, she faces additional, gendered challenges.” Whether you see high heels as empowering or a submission to patriarchal gender roles (or land somewhere in between), you’ll likely never look at a pair the same way again after reading High Heel.
Brennan, an award-winning investigative journalist and author of The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, has written for New York Magazine, The Paris Review, Scientific American, Pacific Standard, Buzzfeed, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. A longtime communications consultant at the United Nations, she’s worked on issues and projects ranging from the environment and nuclear weapons to gender equality and human rights.
We recently spoke by phone between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, where Brennan lives part-time. We discussed the iconic shoe and its role in politics, feminism, myths and fairy tales, work, and the subversion of gender; studying poetry under Mary Oliver; crowdfunding research costs for her next book; and tweeting as a man. Our conversation has been slightly condensed and edited.
Victoria Namkung: Of all the objects you could have selected, what was it about the high heel that captured your interest enough to write a book?
Summer Brennan: I’d read Waste by Brian Thill and I just thought it was fascinating. I liked the idea of the Object Lessons and I think I’ve always liked taking a topic and looking at it from a bunch of different angles. I had been thinking a lot at the time about fairy tales and women’s roles in public life. Also, I did fall down some stairs while wearing high heels at work, which I wrote about in the book.
I don’t want it to be oversimplified, as if I never thought about heels as problematic [before writing this book], but I was thinking about what women are expected to do in order to be considered presentable or acceptable to public life. How is she supposed to comport herself and speak and be? I just thought this would be an entry port [to thinking about] the experience of performing femaleness and femininity and where those places intersect.
Early in the book, you write about how when Hillary Clinton participated in the 2016 presidential debates, her choice of footwear was likely a fraught decision. She chose to wear not-too-sexy-not-too-frumpy kitten heels. You write, “Yet only a female candidate would find that the most acceptable sartorial choice for a presidential debate would have the word kitten in it.” How much did the current political landscape inspire you for this book?
I think it definitely did inform the writing of the book — not just Hillary Clinton per se, but because it was the first time a woman was nominated for a major party. There was a lot of sexism in the air throughout 2016; and then my thinking changed again right after the election, seeing so much blatant sexism was right out there and extreme. Of course, it always has been, but sometimes events happen to us personally or in the news that serve as a bit of a slap in the face to wake us up a little bit. For me in 2016 it’s not necessarily about whether one supports Clinton or not; it’s the language used. It’s not about the individual woman; it’s how we talk about women who seek power.
That year especially I experienced some surprises, I might call them unpleasant surprises, having conversations with men I knew, even friends and family members. I was struck by how some of that language was weirdly gendered in terms of, when is it okay for a woman to be ambitious? What kind of behavior is perfectly fine for a male candidate but seems untrustworthy or contrived when coming from a woman? Someone said one of the reasons they liked a different candidate was he could be a disheveled mess. Do you think a woman candidate could get away with even half of that?
It’s not just political candidates; it’s in a lot of different professional settings. There’s a higher set of standards or a different standard of grooming and dress. I wore high heels to work [at the U.N.] and when I didn’t, people would be like, why didn’t you dress up today?
The myth of high heels is you’re supposed to be able to live your normal life in them.
Despite the enduring popularity of high heels, some feminists criticize women for wearing them. I remember feeling judged in grad school anytime I wore a pair of two-inch Gucci heels I got for seventy-five bucks at an outlet mall. The thinking at the time seemed to be that you couldn’t be taken seriously about fighting the patriarchy if you were going to uphold its beauty standards. Why is the high heel and the decision to wear them so complicated?
There’s not one clear message wherever you’re landing, whether you’re in liberal circles, feminist, conservative, religious, not religious — there isn’t a consensus about what high heels mean. They have a place in the story of fashion as art and in gender as performance for sure. There’s lots of things we do in both of those arenas that aren’t practical, especially for women. So, I think they have their place.
I have to say, I haven’t been wearing stilettos for a while, but I also think that fashions change, my life is different, I’m not working in Manhattan most of the time. I’m in the high desert — it’s a much different environment. Ten or fifteen years ago I might’ve been more likely to wear them in a social setting than I am now. I don’t know if that’s my age — I’m in my late thirties now instead of my twenties — or if it’s just that styles are changing.
You write about women being compelled to wear high-heeled shoes by their employers, whether it’s a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas or flight attendant serving passengers 30,000 feet in the sky. It made me think of my own waitressing career in college where I had to wear three-inch heels and above-the-knee skirts in order to work. Even high-level corporate women often feel pressure to wear designer heels. Some men have to wear ties for their jobs but they don’t cause the kind of pain heels do. Can you discuss heels in the workplace?
There really isn’t an equivalent in the sense of the experience. You can argue for the sartorial equivalence of what they communicate, but there isn’t an equivalent in the sense that high heels can be really, really painful. It depends on what you’re doing, the shoe itself; it’s not just the height of the heel. I worked as a cocktail waitress and bartender in grad school in the East Village on Avenue B. They didn’t mandate heels but you had to be sexy. Comments were made. I couldn’t just go to work in a sweatshirt and no makeup; they would be like what you are doing? It’s environment; there’s a mood you’re setting.
Women can be required to wear something that’s painful. [In that sense] there’s something to high heels that’s different [from other gendered items of clothing]. As I say in the book, we don’t have to wear corsets anymore. But a lot of time corsets were basically bras and so they weren’t necessarily all painful. And women wore flimsy shoes or really crazy tall platforms before high heels.
The myth of high heels is you’re supposed to be able to live your normal life in them. It’s like Sex and the City — this idea you’re supposed to buy these four or five inch heels and run all over the city. Those women took cabs a lot, but there was also a lot of walking. It is odd that it’s a thing that can be painful. It’s different than being told to wear lipstick to work or wear your hair up, or wear all black, or khakis at Best Buy.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Physical pain often goes hand in hand with fashion and beauty. From foot binding in China to women who purchase 100-millimeter Louboutins they can barely walk in, can you talk about the historical relationship between beauty and pain?
[When it comes to] beauty and pain, historically, there’s a concept of it separate from specific objects or clothing; if you look at myths and fairy tales, women are constantly suffering physically. There’s a link between beauty and pain that is very, very old and perhaps subconscious, partially or wholly. Susan Sontag wrote about the relationship between frailty and beauty. And if you want to get a bit dark, then, talking in terms of the biology, what’s appealing to a man is the ease with which she can be dominated; speaking from a species point of view, [beauty could be] anything that is going to weaken her in a way that may make her more accessible. If we’re just another animal, that’s an argument that could be made. This may go back to before we were even people.
Anything that makes a woman smaller, weaker, younger, easier to catch — all these things play into a gendered dimorphism in the species making it easier to control females. Historically, it makes its way into fairy tales, and that gets doubled down on within the last 500 years — there’s actually more about women experiencing pain in later fairy tales, like in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. With foot binding, speaking of fairy tales, the oldest literary version of Cinderella comes from China around the same era as foot binding began. Of course, the story of Cinderella is a woman with super tiny, competitively small feet. So, it’s not a shock that it would come from the place and time of foot binding.
I want to be careful talking about that topic because I think it’s easy for Western feminists to look at cultural practices that happened somewhere else at a different time and be judgmental. I don’t think it’s as different from things we have going on now, whether it’s high heels or the prevalence of anorexia in the beauty landscape.
It’s obvious you’re a thoughtful and dedicated researcher. What surprised or delighted you while researching High Heel? Did any findings make you particularly angry or resentful?
It ended up being a longer research process than I expected. The book went to darker places than I initially thought. It’s odd that that would surprise me, because the place I thought about the book from was a place of considering women’s inequality in the workplace and assumptions made about women generally, and also myself, for wearing high heels. It got into ideas about rape and control really fast. I think I was surprised by that.
I had lunch with Rebecca Solnit, who I quote in the book and leaned on heavily, especially her book Wanderlust. She said she started writing the Men Explain Things to Me essay with a funny anecdote about an annoying man at a party who keeps telling her about a book she wrote, but then she ends up in the same essay writing about the epidemic of women being murdered and it almost makes your head spin. I had a similar experience. I thought this book would be an interesting way to talk about myth and fairy tale and our cultural ideas about women but I ended up looking at all this stuff about violence and rape. I had a similar whiplash.
The book went to darker places than I initially thought … It got into ideas about rape and control really fast. I think I was surprised by that.
When I was trying to think about it from a biological perspective, I started out looking into the arguments that beauty is a biological rule or that there’s geometric or evolutionary reasons for current beauty standards. [I found out] a lot of that is complete pseudoscience. I remembered seeing this cartoon about the golden ratio and how it decides what we find beautiful; it sounds good, but it’s really more of a eugenics idea than anything based in reality. It’s pretty easy to unravel, but I think we [are exposed to these ideas] when we grow up; we think about beauty and have this idea that beauty can be an objective truth. Not only is there this idea that there’s some kind of law of mathematics by which we think Lupita Nyong’o is gorgeous because her face meets xx expectation, but also there’s an idea that something like symmetry or the mysterious math of beauty signifies biological fitness — I’m talking in a heteronormative mode because that’s what created this.
I wanted to pull apart these ideas of mathematical and biological beauty and the idea that if some ideal heteronormative man is attracted to some ideal heteronormative woman, it’s not just because she’s hot, but because she’s more fertile or healthier. Health or purity are two things that come up a lot [in these arguments].
It was surprising to see the degree to which beauty can actually be counterproductive. Among certain bird species, [studies have shown that] what females have evolved to find attractive is less fit. Beauty’s not always productive or positive, and I think that surprised me. A lot of times beauty is arbitrary. It isn’t about anything logical; it’s very much about social utility more than evolutionary utility.
Beauty seems often to be about dominance within or between genders. For instance, why do female birds like their male equivalents to be able to do this weird thing with their wings? It serves no purpose, and encouraging the development of this trait means it’s harder for males to fly and easier for them to get caught; it’s detrimental to the species. As another example, in our culture, beauty ideals evolve around thinness. A lot of fashion models or women whose BMI drops beneath a certain weight are too thin to menstruate, which means they can’t get pregnant.
We often hear how constrictive clothing and heels restrict women’s mobility, or make them easier to target, however you rightfully point out that clothes and shoes aren’t actually what harms women most.
I think clothing is a metaphor for your place in the world and where you’re supposed to be. The costume of what we wear. Someone’s function can be told through their clothes, and especially through their shoes; there’s especially a propensity to focus on women’s clothing in relation to their social status.
Another example would be women who wear different forms of the hijab or veil. I did my masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote about U.S. media response to the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 and the obsession with the burqa. There was an incredible obsession with women wearing the burqa or being forced to wear the burqa. Not to compare high heels to the burqa, but there’s often this fixation on women and their bodies much more so than their experiences.
It’s complicated because it falls into the realm of art and expression and adornment. Humans in all cultures have been into adornment whether it’s tattoos or piercings or feathers. Even Neanderthals. Adornment seems to be a human impulse, but the question is what that says about your position and all that. I think focusing on it is a distraction. Think about the obsession in the seventies and eighties and the idea of female power dressing and this intense focus on what can a woman do with her body so that when I look at her I want to give her rights and respect. It’s ridiculous.
It’s placing the focus on the woman in a superficial, distracting way. We get to find out what women want to do with themselves, with their bodies and their clothes, once women are given structural equality. Once your home life and work life and public life becomes safer, then you can start to find out more about what you really might want to look like. I don’t think there’s been enough time in any culture for us to have an idea of what that might end up like.
You write, “It is hard to parse female objectification from female sensuality, that undiscovered country of femininity outside of male influence and control. But just as surely as high heels can and have been used to enforce rigid ideas of gender, so too can they be used to subvert them.” Can you talk about the longstanding history of men dressing as women and how heels can empower all genders?
That’s a point that I gave a lot of thought to. It happens across the spectrum; you have performative femininity. Thinking about feminine drag as art can be really useful in looking at gender expression in general as a human art that we express. The thought that someone is able to perform another gender with clothing, shoes, and makeup shows it is, to a degree, imaginary. I’m a cis woman, I haven’t questioned my gender or my expression, and I don’t feel I’m in drag when I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt but that would’ve been considered cross-dressing 100 years ago.
I think female gender as a performance sheds light on the concept of femininity in general. I think it’s such a potent cultural symbol and we form our desires from this place that isn’t fully conscious. Whether your birth assigned gender was male or female, non-binary people from both camps will wear high heels. From the outside, it looks like it’s a color on the palette of gender. It’s as if high heels were the color red on the palette and people might feel this expression, I feel red, so I’m going to take this from the palette. At a different time in history or in the future that feeling might be expressed through a different garment but heels are what we have right now.
High heels and a beard at the same time — we’re seeing that more than we did 10 years ago. We’re acknowledging in mainstream Western culture the swirl of gender that people seem to feel is natural to express. That’s kind of exciting. That happened in other parts of the world in different times. There are two-spirit people, and many other cultures have had a third gender. This book made me think about femininity as separate from femaleness. I had that awareness before, but it drove it home to me that being female or male or both or neither is a different thing entirely from being feminine or masculine.
We get to find out what women want to do with themselves, with their bodies and their clothes, once women are given structural equality … I don’t think there’s been enough time in any culture for us to have an idea of what that might end up like.
Beloved poet Mary Oliver was your teacher and academic adviser at Bennington College and you wrote warmly about her in The Paris Review earlier this year. How did she affect you as a writer and person?
She was my advisor and I don’t think I was a favorite student so I don’t want to give that impression, but I think the biggest thing was just the work ethic and demystifying the writing process in the literal sense. It’s like learning how to make cabinets. You might feel very inspired to make a great cabinet but if you don’t know how to make any cabinets, then your great inspiration is going to be different.
She taught me to always return to [writing] regardless. Not that I always followed this. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I, like lots of people, had various dramas that felt so important at the time and I wish I’d spent more time writing. She was just a gentle, humble person. She was not egotistical at all and she was not a fan of people who had big egos. I was really lucky to see that because I know that’s not everyone’s experience being around a writer they idolized.
Your next book, The Parisian Sphinx, about the 19th century French artist and model Victorine Meurent, was already under contract, but you were able to crowd fund more than $55,000 to complete the international reporting and writing process. Can you talk about the costs of writing a book like this and why most advances today aren’t enough to cover the work they demand?
There’s a disconnect in the broader culture when it comes to how writing is actual work. It’s stupidly hard to write a book and it takes a long time. I know there are people who can sit down and write a book in six weeks but I don’t think these are non-fiction researchers. Not to be crass to talk about money, but most book advances these days aren’t very high. The vast majority of books, especially first books, get less than 20, 10 or even five thousand. You make less money writing books than magazine articles in many cases. One doesn’t want to seem like one’s complaining. I try to be such an advocate for buying other people’s books at small bookstores because it shouldn’t be only people with trust funds who are able to write books.
Most people aren’t given enough to write the book in order to sustain themselves during the writing of the book, let alone to make any extra money. A book that takes a lot of research requires time and traveling somewhere and the expense of being there, but a lot of it is just the time. If you’re going to be working full-time, you have to still eat and have a roof over your head. The Indiegogo I raised, a little over half of that is going to the book itself, but it’s over a couple years. It’s twenty-two thousand, which is great and sounds like a lot if you got it in a check on your day job, but at the end of the day it’s not that much. I changed my whole life to write this book. I couldn’t live in New York all the time and do this so I ended up living in rural New Mexico part of the time where I have family and then going to do research in Paris. I ended up meeting my husband. It worked out.
When you break it down like that, it’s poverty wages.
I make less than minimum wage. I love this story and I am going to be happy and sad when it’s over. My first book, The Oyster War, was also really research intensive and I had hundreds and hundreds of pages of scientific reports. It was a really different story but just really time consuming. Hypothetically, if a person gets a healthy non-fiction book advance of thirty thousand, and then they have two years to write the book, they don’t get it all, they get fifteen [Advances are usually distributed in installments, such as at signing, when a draft is turned in, and at publication -Ed.] and then their agent gets 10 to 15 percent of that, so they get more like twelve thousand. Suddenly twelve thousand dollars is not that much to live on for two years. It’s not enough to live on for the amount of time it takes to write a book.
This is just a passion project so I’m the person who decided they were willing to sacrifice a lot to go to Paris and root through archives. And it paid off — not financially though. Some writers are lucky; they have a spouse who makes enough to support both of them or they saved up money from a previous career or come from money. I don’t recommend crowdfunding; I did it because it was like, do that or have an inferior book.
I came to know of you on Twitter where you have a large following. I know you sometimes tweet under initials and a photo of your brother. What is online life like when posing as a man?
What I found from it, and it’s kind of depressing, is that there’s a certain kind of online troll who doesn’t enjoy saying mean things to a picture of a man. And I don’t mean people who disagree with me, or because I’ve said something stupid, which I’ve definitely done before. I’ve certainly said stupid things and got legitimate criticism. I don’t mean that, I mean people who want to tell you to go get raped in a ditch. Or sometimes guys want to troll, not debate. Even if they’ve been in the process of doing this to you for hours or a day, when it’s a picture of my bearded 33-year-old brother, they lose interest. It just slows it down.
I think I did it as an experiment the first time because I was curious if my political tweets would be taken more seriously. I think they are. People take you as more authoritative. I even had friends of mine write me these funny embarrassed messages saying I can’t believe it but I do take you more seriously as a man. We all have this internalized sexism.
* * *
Victoria Namkung is the author of These Violent Delights and The Things We Tell Ourselves. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, VICE, and Washington Post, among other publications.
Editor: Dana Snitzky