I bought this as a birthday gift for someone I know who has quite the collection of shoes/heels, although it was on my to-read list before I considered it as a gift. High Heel is an unconventional treatise on this type of footwear. In short, easily-digestible chunks, Summer Brennan ponders the evolution of high heels in our history and culture. She wrestles with the conflicting attitudes towards high heels evinced by feminists, as well as the role of high heels in shaping ideas of femininity and women’s sexuality. It’s an interesting book that makes some good points, although I’m not sure it left me feeling like I’ve learned a lot in the way of new stuff.
Summarizing this book is difficult. I didn’t know what to expect going into it. First, it arrived and revealed itself to be an A5-sized book. Huh. Then I discovered that within each of the 5 parts, rather than more conventional chapters like you’d see in a book, Brennan has written a series of numbered passages, most only a paragraph long, some a couple of pages. Each, then, represents a unified thought, which together form a kind of stream-of-consciousness lecture from the author to the reader, as if the two of us were together in a lecture hall—or perhaps lying along a river in the sun, musing about high heels. This is a very philosophical book, and makes no secret of that fact. Brennan name-checks thinkers both classical and modern, playwrights and authors and celebrities and politicians. She demonstrates, indeed, that high heels have touched pretty much every aspect of our society.
Some positionality, I guess?
As you might surmise, I don’t wear high heels. My gender performance is fairly typically masculine, although I do experiment here or there—I’ve been painting my nails a bit this year. But at 6'4, I’m not really looking to get any taller, nor do I have much junk in my trunk to emphasize. So there’s two of the voluntary reasons one might wear heels ruled out. As far as the “involuntary” reasons might go … well, I’m privileged enough that I’ve yet to run into any situation in which I am required or strongly expected/encouraged to wear heels. I don’t understand my friends’ fascination with heels, or shoes in general, although I try my best not to disparage it either—I’m sure there’s many hang-ups I have that they don’t get, and they are graceful enough not to bother me about it. So I don’t have a horse in this race, as it were. Like many feminist discussions of grooming and fashion habits, this is not something I can speak about from firsthand experience. Nevertheless, I still find these discussion fascinating. I enjoy reading people’s thoughts, and the high heel is such an immediately recognizable and polarizing object; its inclusion in this Object Lessons series is clever and apt.
Editor’s note, Oct 2020: So of course since coming out as a trans woman, I have tried heels (at least in the form of block heels) and actually really enjoyed them. And I now have this fascination with shoes—including heels—that I never had before. It is bizarre. Anyway, I don’t think this change affects the rest of my review, but I thought I should update you. I like heels on myself, despite being a tall witch!
Probably the part of this book I most liked (not the best word) is where Brennan discusses high heels as objects that sexualize women and as synecdoche for women-as-sex-objects. Trigger warning here for discussions on her part of rape, sexual assault, murder, etc. Brennan makes one very interesting point: stiletto heels have a peculiar dualistic role in our society. If you wear stilettos, you’re either very high-class or very low-class: either a powerful executive, or a sex worker (to be clear, neither Brennan nor I are positioning sex workers as lower class—rather, we’re talking about how sex workers are perceived in wider society). The so-called middle-class, average woman typically doesn’t wear stilettos often, if at all, and probably not expensive ones. This was a point I hadn’t previously considered, this double-standard of heel-wearing whereby your choice of footwear can signal that you’re either extremely available or extremely unavailable….
I also like that Brennan clearly articulates how choice is not always a choice. As previously mentioned, heels might not be a requirement of some jobs, yet they are still expected, just as women might not be required to wear makeup or perform other expensive rituals of femininity, yet they might be subtly penalized if they don’t conform to such expectations. Similarly, Brennan points out that even when heels are entirely optional, it still might not be considered a choice if women have internalized this desire for heels. If they grow up, are raised to want heels, or raised to want the things they think wearing heels will give them, then are they really choosing heels? Or are heels actually just a symptom of a different, larger social issue?
I admire how Brennan carefully balances her clear aesthetic and personal appreciation for the art and fashion of the heel with the obvious critiques and problematic aspects of this shoe. She makes no secret of her own conflicting attitude, nor does she waste our time attempting to apologize for or justify heels in any kind of torturous way. Mostly she just … talks. She talks about the fun things, the interesting history, the fascinating types of heels and their effects on those who wear them and those who look at those who wear them. She talks about the problematic stuff, the negative stuff.
In the end, she has justified the existence of this book: the high heel is an important enough object in our society to be worth such careful consideration. I enjoyed this book. It made me think. Yet I stop short of actually being able to tell you how it has altered my perception of heels all that much. Honestly, I wish Brennan had gone deeper, or at least had maybe taken more of a stance on some of these issues instead of tried to represent so many various perspectives. By avoiding too much of her own opinion and thought, she has certainly made this book an objective lesson—but it’s also a drier one for all that.