Old controversy takes shoes to new heights

High-heel trend in Japan reexamines women's footwear

Shoes with thick-bottomed soles and totteringly high heels are hardly a new fashion statement, but in Japan at least, such footwear is getting unwelcome attention from officials.

Fashion groups in Japan known as the yamanba and amazonesu have developed boots with heels so high you need to climb into them. Atsuzoko footwear, known as "thick-bottomed shoes," are growing in popularity among Japanese teens, and according to some officials, wrecking havoc across the island nation. Also called "skyscraper shoes," atsuzoko shoes were banned by police earlier this year in Osaka for use while driving.

Police determined that the shoes hampered a person's reaction time. Drivers wearing atsuzoko shoes needed at least a second more in applying the brakes than drivers wearing normal shoes. The ban, however, has not discouraged women from wearing the thick-soled shoes. In fact atsuzoko boots are becoming more popular among both sexes throughout Asian countries.

Even more startling, numerous injuries and even two deaths were attributed to the wearing of such shoes.

Of course, high heels are neither new nor Japanese. They go back thousands of years. A tomb uncovered by archaeologists in the ancient city of Thebes contained platform shoes with 12-inch heels - a height that even the Japanese yamanba would envy.

Heel height may have reached its peak in 15th-century Italy, where aristocratic women wore heels that averaged 18 inches. These shoes, sometimes as high as 30 inches, were considered so dangerous that Venetian authorities banned them for use in many day-to-day activities. Of course, that did not stop Venetian women from wearing them. Nor has it stopped women today if the television series "Sex in the City" and the latest box-office smash "Charlie's Angels" are of any indication.

So what are women thinking? "I wear heels because they make me feel sexy and generally attractive," says New Yorker Jennifer Hollenstein. Known by many as the "epitome of sexiness," the high heel modifies a woman's profile to give her that long, leggy look. Six feet tall without heels, Christi Dixon chooses to wear her heels because "they make the lower part of your leg look shapelier and longer," which Dixon adds, "is a plus for any woman!" An awkward-looking foot is suddenly transformed, in heels, into an extension of the leg - making one's foot appear smaller, more petite.

And it changes the way women walk: Hip movement is accentuated and gait shortened. Florenz Ziegfeld, director of the 1920s Ziegfeld Follies, auditioned women for his shows by first watching them walk in high heels. "Before I see their faces, I want to see how they walk. There's more sex in a walk than in a face or even in a figure."

But don't high heels make it difficult to be taken seriously? Apparently not. "It looks more professional," says Boston lawyer Donna Aharonson. "Aside from making you taller," observes Torontonian Edith Cheung, they "require...wearers to have a very upright posture and to stand and walk in a certain, confident manner, thus giving women a look of power. Knowing that you are wearing footwear that can seriously injure someone also contributes to this sense of power. Shoes that can double as weapons can make a woman feel in control of any situation."

Men are guilty too. While far fewer men than women wear heels, men also use heels to better their image. Shorter men have been attracted to "elevator shoes" with hidden heels for some time. Sylvester Stallone wore them in his most famous movie role, "Rocky." At five-feet, seven inches, he would not have looked like much of heavyweight boxing champion without them.

"Once you get used to them, they're not really uncomfortable," says Aharonson. "And with today's style of a 'chunkier' heel - they're much more comfortable then they used to be." That goes for the atsuzoko shoes, too. The police of Osaka may consider the shoes a menace to society, but the thick soles make wearing heels a lot more comfortable than traditional spiked high heels.

Women in Japan are choosing to wear atsuzoko shoes not only as a fashion statement, but also as a symbol of their individuality and freedom if not for the "power" other women say they provide.

Tokyo native Junko Hirakawa says she wears atsuzoko shoes not only because they make her taller and more fashionable, but also because it makes her "stand out among people." In a homogeneous society like Japan, the tall shoes have an effect on the Japanese similar to that the fashion trend of dying hair.

Some women believe the shoes give them a chance to challenge and compete with men. In Japan, where women have long faced gender discrimination, wearing high-heeled shoes is a way for them to "stand up" to men and demonstrate their independence and equal status.

"When I put on high heels I become taller," says Momoe Makino, "and that makes me feel like I am becoming more equal with men." Why? "Because we can talk at eye level."

But are heels really "leveling" the playing field? Many women today are turning away from the low-heeled styles created as a result of a hard-fought women's movement, and are returning to high heels. Dr. Lois Banner, professor of women's history at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, explains that you can view this return to heels as "an example of backlash - a reaction to the women's movement, to put women back in their place, or as a necessary adjustment on the part of society to a movement that has changed so much, in terms of conserving a traditional element of women's sexuality."

The love affair with heels is likely to continue. Call them sexy, call them powerful, call them boosters of self-esteem and posture or anything else you like. The fact is that women are choosing to wear heels for their own individual reasons and not because they have to, but because they want to.

"They are just more elegant than flat shoes," says Swiss native Christina Ghosh.

Tell that to the police in Osaka.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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