My Deal with Heels

Reconstructed conversation I had with a coworker — let’s call her Nicole — the other day. The words are paraphrases, but I have attempted to accurately convey the overall sentiment.

White High Heels

I decided it would be awesome to try to wear a black casual work dress with my bumblebee running shoes. While one could make the argument that it’s not the most professional look I’ve ever constructed, in the grand scheme of all clothes ever, sneakers and skirts probably do not make too many people gasp in horror.

Nicole noticed as I approached our lunch table. “Nice shoes.”

“Thanks,” I replied, sitting next to her. Nicole’s own shoes included three inch wedge heels. “Either I’m getting old, or my feet are still readjusting to teaching. But they definitely do not like it when I try to wear my dress shoes.”

“Have you tried smaller heels?” Nicole asked, poking at the mystery cheese (?) concoction on her tray. “Ew. Anyway, sometimes that’s what I do when my feet need a break.” She took a bite, made a face. “Not flats, though. I’m too short for flats.”

I don’t know about this “too short for flats” thing, but as someone who’s nearing five-eight, it’s not a frame of reference I know that much about, so I decide to keep my mouth shut. Except for the tomato wedge: it is still lunch, after all.

And except for my own shoe woes. “Most of my work shoes are already low heels. I was never too much in love with them to begin with — for actual wearing, even though they look good — but for some reason this year, my feet are just completely rebelling. I think it’s all the yoga and the running.”

“Eek!” Nicole exclaimed in mock horror. “That gives me a reason to stop running. I love my shoes too much!”

I shook my head and took a drink of my water. “I honestly don’t know how you do it.”

Because somehow, Nicole manages to wear high-heeled dress shoes to work every day. Sometimes thicker heels or wedges instead of stilettos, but from my perspective, that doesn’t matter so much. Seeing a coworker doing my same job in anything other than a walking shoe (or running shoe, trail hiking shoe, or similar) leaves me awed and befuddled. Because the status quo on my campus is largely that women will wear traditionally feminine women’s dress shoes, bearing heels or not. Sure there are a few of us in the Dansko Flats Support Group, but we’re considered an anomaly.

Though I understand the mechanics of why my feet (knees, hips, low back) don’t like these shoes, part of me feels like my body is failing me and/or societal expectations by objecting to wearing them. It feels like I’m failing at performing femininity (which, in this particular work context, is sometimes considered interchangeable with “professional dress”) by wanting and requiring shoes that don’t impair my ability to move.

That movement thing. Turns out, there might be more to it than I originally thought.

Nicole giggled. “Maybe I don’t walk as much as you do. Sometimes, I let my students come to me.”

Which, indeed, might be a key difference. While I do establish classroom norms and procedures that facilitate student movement and contact, one of my strengths as a teacher is my ability to work the room. During class, I am everywhere; it’s like a superpower. Students know they can’t engage in off-task behaviors because I will be right there to call them on it. Similarly, students know they can receive one-on-one attention because I will be right there to answer the question they were too nervous to ask in front of the whole class.

I’m not willing to give that up. Not that there aren’t other quality teaching styles, but this one is mine. It fits naturally, and it works for my students and me. Good learning happens when I can be Teacher Ninja.

At the same time, I’m no longer willing to live in discomfort in order to perform femininity (pardon me, professional dress) correctly. Because I think that’s what I’ve been doing for a number of years. Even when my work shoes haven’t caused outright pain, they have caused discomfort — multiplied by many hours, many miles, and many days. I’m tired of sneaking in days of sneakers, hoping no one will notice, and resigning myself to days of kitten heels and unsupportive flats as penance. I’m tired of looking for excuses to be comfortable in my body.

If that means I fail at performing femininity, so be it. But it is not a failure of either professionalism or professional dress. And if it means I need stealth Ninja Teacher Shoes to do it, then stealth Ninja Teacher Shoes I shall have.


I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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Posted in ahimsa
14 comments on “My Deal with Heels
  1. Sara Yori says:

    I like your attitude! Just wear what your most comfortable with. “I will be right there to answer the question they were too nervous to ask in front of the whole class.” Every time my instructor’s would do that for me I would be so thankful.

  2. Quercki says:

    Last weekend I was wearing a costume with high-heel boots. I realized that I couldn’t run for the shuttle bus in them. Then I realized that I couldn’t dance in them either! Fortunately, I had suspected this might be a problem since I never wear high heels. I changed into cute tennies with winged socks (It’s a super-hero costume.)

    Rather like these “Sketchers for work.”
    (Not recommending you buy them from Amazon–just using the link to show what’s available now. Check the variations!)

    It’s a lot more important to be able to do a good job than to perform femininity–I hope your bosses recognize that!

    • Tori says:

      While Sketchers have historically not loved my high arches, it looks like the Borns I ordered (that arrived today) are going to work out quite nicely.

  3. Rebekah says:

    *applause* Great post— way to go, Teacher Ninja!

    I used to loooooove big ol’ platform heels, but I eventually realized that I loved mobility more and felt like a damn fool any time I twisted my ankle in heels, couldn’t gracefully climb into a two-door car, teetered across uneven ground… and anytime I wore them for more than a couple of hours, it felt like the balls of my feet were on fire. Why do that to myself?

    • Tori says:

      Pretty much. Shit’s hit the fan for me this year in that I’m also trying a new carpool-to-work-take-the-bus-home strategy. (It’s cheaper, it’s environmentally more sound, and for the most part, it’s logistically workable.) But even when I switched from classroom heels to sneakers for walking to the bus stop — already my feet (and hips and knees) were in enough pain to make the walk “an adventure,” solely because of my workday shoe choice.

      Right now, I do still have some shoes that I consider “work friendly dress flat,” and I wear them when I can. However, I now tend to think of it as wearing the most work-approved shoes (priority 2) that meet my physical needs (priority 1) rather than the other way around.

      • Rebekah says:

        Physical needs first, absolutely. Those legs have to last your whole life long!

        I know a lot of ladies change from sneakers to dress shoes for work, but I resent having to carry shoes around. Is that petty or irrational? Petty AND irrational? Whichever, I don’t want to do it.

        • Tori says:

          My opinion isn’t authority of course (and neither am I a lady), but I don’t think it’s petty or irrational to resent carrying extra shoes.

          Comparatively, I don’t personally know a single man who expects to carry two pairs of shoes: one for commute, one for work. I mean, I expect there are men who fit this category, but I’ve never known any.

          Additionally, even as someone who can carry an extra pair of shoes without too much trouble:
          — I realize not everyone can do this.
          — I don’t always have time to change to make my bus.
          — FFS, I do more walking during the course of my day than I do from work to the bus stop.
          — FFS-squared: An integral part of my job involves being a responsible adult to minors. Why are we fixating on the sex appeal of my calves?
          — FFS-cubed: I have enough to worry about in my day (see run-in with creepy coworker and trying to out-awesome a backhoe). I have to add extra shoes to my list? Really?

          • Rebekah says:

            “I don’t personally know a single man who expects to carry two pairs of shoes…”

            What men do is often my guideline for practicality: would the average man spend 40 minutes on his hair? Would the average man be expected to wear painful clothes? Then I mentally switch the word “man” for “person” and ask myself questions: “Would a practical person spend 40 minutes on their hair?” And so on. Sometimes I prefer the impractical choice, but not generally.

            A person COULD keep “fancy shoes” in a drawer or closet at work, then change into/out of comfy shoes at the beginning and end of the workday. Can’t say I’ve tried it, but it might be good for someone.

            “An integral part of my job involves being a responsible adult to minors. Why are we fixating on the sex appeal of my calves?”

            I think this goes for MOST professions; I’ve heard women worry that flats look “unprofessional,” but also that high heels are universally sexy. Aren’t we trying NOT to look too sexy at work??

            You DO have plenty to worry about. Shoes (high or low) aren’t a top priority.

          • kb says:

            actually, my husband does this-rides the bus/train to work in tennis shoes, and has a more professional pair in the desk at work. so it isn’t just a female thing, though I agree that it’s generally gendered.

          • Tori says:

            Good to know. 🙂

            Though for me, even limiting the “professional” pair to while I’m actually at school has not been cutting it.

  4. iris says:

    I’m considered short (just under 5’4″) by most people, and I try to resist the notion that I “have” to wear heels to appear taller. I’m generally fine with my height and often wear flat shoes but I definitely feel diminutive sometimes, especially when around groups of people who are all taller than me. I am also constantly mistaken for a teenager in my mid-20s because of a chronic case of “babyface” and being “too skinny” and uh, “too cheerful”. If I were teaching, especially middle school or high school, I would definitely feel the need to dress much more professionally and wear heels all the time so as not to be mistaken ALLTHETIME for a student. I would still look young, and I would still be short, but dressing this way would help me project a little more of the externally visible authority and maturity that I just wasn’t genetically blessed with. And trust me, when it comes to being taken seriously (aka to be received and treated as a proper adult and not condescended as a “cute little girl” or “that intern” or “someone’s visiting daughter”) among people who appear older (and therefore “wiser”, “more competent”, “more experienced”, “more reliable”, “more authoritative”), I need all the help I can get. A pair of high heels can make me feel a little more powerful when dealing with these issues in the workplace.

    • Tori says:

      Height-wise, like I mentioned, I don’t know enough about what it’s like for folks who are “short” (where “short” is also sometimes a moving target) — and I can’t think that my own experience necessarily extrapolates to them. When wearing heels is an empowering experience, I can definitely see the intrinsic draw (as opposed to outside pressure) to wear them.

      That said, I’m growing increasingly critical of the idea of high heels as a hallmark of “dressing professionally” — and this is the status quo in my current work environment. If they impede my ability to practice my profession (and if I’m not an extreme outlier, which I don’t think I am), then I’m uncomfortable with the expectation that I wear heels to work.

  5. Sunset says:

    I’d like to offer a different perspective here. I honestly enjoy dressing up. I have an intense fondness for wearing and surrounding myself with things I consider aesthetically pleasing. That said, I am not particularly fond of high heels – I have a lot of walking in my day and heels are just not practical. The trouble is, flats are just so ugly! I know this doesn’t need to be the case, but every store I go to is divided into “practical shoes” and “pretty shoes.” I find very few flat shoes that are what I’d consider pretty, and even fewer that provide any form of support for the foot! I have no idea why this is – thoughts?

    • Tori says:

      I’m not sure about the “pretty” part since I do see a fair number of flats I consider attractive. However, I’ve wondered about the supportive/functional question a lot myself. Some possibilities I’ve come up with:

      — Maybe foot support/comfort/function is genuinely a low priority for shoe designers? At least the ones who see themselves as designing professional/pretty/dress shoes? When reading product descriptions and seeing advertisements for dress shoes, even flats, a lot of the time there’s focus on the overall fashionability of the image. In other words, there’s a primary focus on creating a “look,” even if that look isn’t sustainable for all day wear.

      — Maybe there’s a disconnect between what I (and some other shoe wearers) mean when I say support/comfort/function and how designers envision the terms. I’ve never spoken with an actual shoe designer, but I’ve experienced a similar disconnect when talking shoes with someone who has a more “sit down” job than I do. For how she imagined a “typical day” to go, the shoes she recommended were probably quite adequate — but that doesn’t mean they would have met my usage needs.

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