I feel like I am contractually* obligated to pull out the high heels for this post.
(My fav heels. Lipstick added for good measure)
Everyone knows why we wear high heels, right? For the sexy times, of course! In fact, it’s not just sexy times, it’s biological sexy times. As the headlines cried out to me this week “OFFICIAL SCIENCE: HIGH HEELS MAKE YOU SEXY (LADIES)“.
But is it the heels? And what does this mean? Strap on your stilettos, and let’s take a look.
Morris et al. “High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of
female attractiveness” Evolution and Human Behavior, 2013.
The authors wanted to look at the effects of heels on measures of attractiveness. They took 12 women, and had them walk on a treadmill, at the same pace, in both flats and heels (6cm heels, it was a standardized pair). All the women were well used to walking in heels and did so at least once a week. While they did this, they constructed point light displays centered on the shoulders, hips, and legs of the women. This allowed then to look at the way the women moved biomechanically without also including how they looked, but just by looking at the movement of points of light. The net result looks like this:
After the women walked, the authors had 120 people (most of which were female, interestingly) judge the walkers. they were asked to rate them on attractiveness, guess how old they were, and then guess if they were male or female (trick question). The authors also analyzed the effect of the heels on gait.
What they found was that heels dramatically altered a woman’s gait (as one might expect when you balance someone on their toes and tell them to walk). The heels shortened the stride length and resulted in them taking more steps. They also showed a big increase in pelvic tilt and hip rotation.
…but they also showed a big increase in attractiveness.
(Ok, except poor subject number 2, who apparently doesn’t have a very good walk regardless. I hope they didn’t tell the subjects, that seems kind of insulting)
The walkers in flat shoes were also more likely to be mistaken for men. The authors conclude that the heels produce walking that is “characteristic of female gait”, and that women wear heels to increase their attractiveness (interestingly, the women who viewed the walkers judged the heel wearing walkers to be more attractive than the male walkers did). But the authors got no correlation between the biomechanical changes produced by the heels and the increase in attractiveness rating.
They concluded that women walk sexier in heels, and that this means that the heels function as a “super-stimulus”, over-emphasizing secondary sex characteristics (like hip sway) which are sexually attractive. They then compare our Louboutins to the big red swellings of a baboon’s butt in heat (really, it’s just an example of a super stimulus, but I found it awfully funny). They also suggest that, because high heels have endured over time (by ‘over time’ they mean ‘over the last 5 centuries’, because the heel as we know it did not exist before then), that the heel transcends fashion trends because it emphasizes the sexy characteristics of our bodies.
Me, I don’t know. Especially about that last one. There are many fashion trends emphasizing the sexy parts of our bodies that never lasted more than a season. Consider the bustle, consider the codpiece. They definitely emphasize sex characteristics, but they haven’t walked the runways in 100 years at least.
But as the authors of this paper point out, heels have a history. But I’m not sure it’s as sexually focused as they like to think. In the middle ages, men and women wore platforms shoes, called chopines, which were strapped on over your normal shoes, and used to lift you out of the…total mess of human waste that passed for a street. These chopines could be up to 30 inches tall. The popularity of just a heel on the shoe is credited to Catherine de Medici. She wasn’t after sexy, she was out to look taller, but they soon became a status symbol. In the 17th and 18th centuries, heels were worn by both women and men, by women to look taller and give them a delicate walk (though “delicate” is relative, original heels were impossible to walk in without a cane), and by men to increase their height and show off their fetchingly sexy calves.
And high heels do set off the female body (and possibly the male) to advantage, sending you off balance so you have to thrust out your butt and thrust your breasts forward (and, incidentally, causing potential for lower back pain due to that pelvic tilt I mentioned above). So the idea that wearing heels is a sexual mating strategy is not a bad one, and the idea that heels might serve as a supra-normal stimulus to signal sex appeal is certainly a good question.
But it’s a question that this paper cannot truly answer. There’s just too much culture there. Yes, the watchers were not told who was wearing heels and who wasn’t. They were just looking at a walking shape. But we all know what a “sexy” walking shape “looks like”. We have ALL been exposed to stuff like this:
And we all know that that TYPE of walk is what is supposed to be sexy. We know that sexy is associated with the kind of walking done in heels. When there’s so much history tied up in it, I don’t think we can definitively say that the walking they observed was more attractive because heels increase attractiveness. It could be more attractive because that’s what we’ve been taught to think. Secondly, are the women changing their walk in the heels due to cultural factors? Most of us have been told that heels make us feel more feminine, and all these women may have believed it. They may have walked more attractively as a result. Finally, the women could have been walking more attractively because the heels make them feel sexy. We’ve all been told heels are sexy. We’ve all seen the movies and the videos. And most every little kid who has wanted to put on heels has wanted to add that little swing to their step. By the time you’re an adult, that little swing has become a lot bigger, and a lot more subconscious. I also find it very interesting that the authors couldn’t get a correlation between the biomechanical changes and the ratings of attractiveness. I would think that, say, if it all came down to pelvic tilt biologically, you would at least see a correlation there, which makes me wonder if this really is all the result of a high heeled culture rather than a deep high heeled drive.
The authors noted all of these limitations, actually. They are very careful in their discussion to include the many cultural factors, and to stress that their study may show something about the confluence of culture and evolution. They do NOT straight up say that “SCIENCE SAYS HEELS MAKE YOU WALK SEXY”. Leave that headline to the media.
In other words, as the authors point out, this study cannot separate out what is really biologically “attractive”, and what is behavior that we have learned is attractive and are acting out because of it. And until you can separate out what we’ve been taught to think and what we, deep down, find “attractive”, you can’t really get the stiletto into the evo psych of heels. Don’t get me wrong, the hypothesis may be right, heels may very well hit to secondary sex characteristics right on the nose and serve as a super-signal. But until you can get people who have never seen a pump before to tell you that walk is hot, evolution has not fully explained high heels.
Morris, P., White, J., Morrison, E., & Fisher, K. (2012). High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of female attractiveness Evolution and Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.11.006
*Confession: I have no contract.