The short documentary High on Heels, from director Adelin Gasana and co-producer Lola Kayode, takes on high heels, their history, and continued cultural and social impact. With interviews from a multitude of fashion designers, entrepreneurs, models, actresses, influencers, doctors and chiropractors, and cultural and design historians, the film considers the cultural obsession with high heels and how they can both empower and disempower women.
High heels themselves are a somewhat fraught topic—often treated as both a violation of feminism and a form of feminist empowerment, sometimes in the same sentence. And many, though not all, of the women interviewed in High on Heels acknowledge the complicated nature of heels as a cultural and social marker: the sense that they are both an entrapment of fashion and cultural constructs of femininity, and a source of confidence for women in the workplace and on the street. High heels elevate women, but also constrain and confine them. Most of the women discuss how they feel empowered when wearing heels—that the way heels make them walk, and the form that they give the body, imparts a sort of confidence, of being sexy and feminine. Of course, many also admit that this is itself constructed by culture—we’ve come to see heels as one of the major indicators of femininity, to the point that women are often required (tacitly or explicitly) to wear heels in order to present themselves as professional.
The other side is the very real impact that heels have on women’s bodies, as detailed by several chiropractors and doctors. Heels might provide a sense of empowerment, but their structure misshapes women’s bodies, raising dangers of lower back, knee, hip, and ankle problems. Wearing heels for any length of time becomes painful in the short term, and potentially damaging in the long. High on Heels does not spend much time on the other physical consideration, that heels are themselves constraining and that while they might be considered sexy, they also inhibit women’s movement (this is briefly addressed in a “how to walk in high heels” video that explains how carefully one must ascend and descend the stairs, but is not elaborated on).
It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t attempt to define whether women should or should not wear high heels, whether the pain and possibility of permanently damaging your body is worth the sense of power and confidence. High on Heels does remind us that much of the pressure to wear heels (or not) is not about men, but about women: how we understand femininity, how we relate to our own bodies, how we judge other women. At one point, a commentator says that all beauty is painful—and that, whether she knows it or not, says a lot.
High on Heels is available to stream on Amazon Prime.