By: Glen Paul Hammond

We tell children it is impolite to stare at another person—and it is—though it is not always easy to explain why.  In one way, we can say, unusual things draw attention and people are uncomfortable being seen as unusual, so we admonish against it.  Yet, in another way, extraordinary things also draw attention and this kind of attention is not always undesirable.  There are further complications: We are visually drawn to things that horrify and, oftentimes, we look at such things for much longer than we even desire; at the same time, we also tend to look at things that attract us and, if they attract us absolutely, we fall out of time and become unaware of how long we have been looking.  It’s complicated; it’s natural; it’s impolite—but is it harassment?

Netflix’s alleged ban on employees looking at each other for more than five seconds as part of its new anti-harassment policy suggests it is on the verge of being codified as the latter (Timpf).  If this is true, then who is the culpable party and how might this effect the way employees visually present themselves in the workplace? To give these inquiries a more specific focus, I will repeat a question that came across as outrageous when the much discussed public intellectual Jordan Peterson first posed it to a VICE interviewer during a discussion on possible rules for sexual harassment in the workplace:  “What about high heels?”

The VICE tête-à-tête took place before Netflix’s new harassment policy (which includes the guideline on staring) was instituted; yet, since the concept of the “male gaze” is, for some feminists, part of the sexual objectification of women in a patriarchal order, it must be considered that a harassment policy that includes looking at someone for more than five seconds may also define this behavior as sexual harassment.  In fact, staring already appears on the list of Human Rights Commission websites for behaviors that may be defined as such. In Australia, for example, the list declares “staring or leering” as possible offences (Aus) and in Canada, the Ontario Human Rights Commission describes it as “leering or inappropriate staring” (ON).  As a result, it would seem prudent that codified rules on staring in the workplace should be regulated by similar rules on appearance.  In this light, what was considered an outrageous question only a few months ago – “What about high heels?” – now seems not only appropriate but, perhaps, even necessary.

According to an article in Psychology Today numerous experiments have confirmed what I am sure most readers are already aware of: “High heels attract male attention” (Castleman).  The article outlines some of the reasons for this phenomenon.  It says, “As height increases, women’s breasts look larger” (Castleman).  This is because heels “cause the back to over-arch” thrusting “the breasts forward” and, as many studies have shown, “Prominent breasts attract more male attention” (Castleman).  Heels also make “buttocks appear larger because they are lifted” and this too can serve to increase a man’s attraction to a woman (Castleman).  The gait is also affected and so serves a similar purpose, according to Castleman, “while walking in heels, women’s hips and buttocks sway more.”  Finally, another less obvious aspect, is that men evolved to prefer women who are more petite than they are, and heels make a woman’s feet appear smaller (Castleman).

Since humans, like most animals, communicate physically as well as verbally, it can be argued that heels are, in this way, part of sexual display.  The fact that many heels are generally uncomfortable to wear and serve to increase the risk of “foot soreness, blisters, bunions, falls, ankle sprains, planar fasciitis, ingrown toenails, nerve damage in the feet and legs, and knee and back pain” highlights this probable function (Castleman).  In fact, in 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported “that women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S.,” and more than half of these sales went “toward stilettos over three inches high” (Hiebert).

According to evolutionists, the biological purpose to reproduce motivates a woman to both attract and maintain a man over time and, since studies show that these kinds of shoes attract, high heels can then be seen to serve a biological function (Castleman).  Women give up comfort to appear desirable.

For Netflix, however, this might present a problem.  If anti-harassment rules are to involve the banning of workers looking at each other for more than five seconds then, surely, there must be guidelines that specifically apply to sexual display in workplace attire.  And if high heels do, indeed, attract male gazes, then shouldn’t the visual effects of different kinds of shoe wear be thoroughly researched and rules pertaining to that research rigorously applied?  Or should it?

In Paul Hiebert’s A Brief History of High Heels, the author points out that neckties carry “a universal currency of power.”  Evolutionists might argue then that a man wears an uncomfortable necktie to exude power, which, ultimately, makes him more attractive to women.  If this is so, then the necktie may also be about sexual display and, carrying this logic to the extreme, if the goal of the modern-day work environment is to produce a non-sexual or a-sexual culture then perhaps the necktie is also inappropriate.

Lisa Small,  curator for the Brooklyn Museum, who launched an exhibit called Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe, stated that “Fashion is a form of material culture that can reveal quite a bit about the personal, social, and cultural concerns of the era it comes from” (Hiebert).  In the sixteenth century, for example, powerful male leg muscles were attractive to women and the hose that men wore displayed this attribute.  When describing the attractiveness of Henry VIII, a Venetian Ambassador to the Tudor court, made a point of describing the “extremely fine calf of his leg” (Gregory).  The codpiece is another such fashion item.  Having attained full prominence in the time of Henry VIII, this curious accoutrement was positioned over a man’s crotch and, as Victoria Bartels describes it, “both covered, and drew attention to, a part of the anatomy that couldn’t even be mentioned in polite society.”  It was at once “a statement of the virility of the individual,” according to C.S. Reed, and an object of sexual display that would certainly turn more than a few heads in any modern-day Netflix office.

Yet, readers might say the high heel is different.  It is not so overtly sexual.  It is a staple of modern day fashion; however, historians might counter, so was the codpiece which “came into existence during the Middle Ages” and lasted through the Yorkist reigns of the 15th century and the Tudor reign of the century that followed (Kosir).  To this end, then, it may be cogent to look at the origins of why and when heels became associated with women exclusively.  For although heels were first introduced into European wear through male equestrians and then, by the 17th century, embraced by aristocrats of both sexes to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, men stopped wearing them after such representations of inequality became unfashionable in the 18th century; as a consequence, flatter shoes became the norm and, so, our modern perception of the high heel being both sexual and exclusive to women is most closely rooted elsewhere.   It began, according to Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, “in mid-19th century pornography” when the naked images of women in heels began to be widely disseminated (Hiebert).

Fashion is a projection of both a person and the culture in which that person operates.  Victoria Bartels, PhD candidate in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, posits “the items we choose to adorn ourselves with are loaded with complex cultural messages” (Bartels). As such, one can gauge a culture’s shifting attitude toward sex through its fashion and, as a result, immediately identify that the revealing décolletage of the 1500’s demonstrated an attitude quite different to the Victorian era, which was preoccupied with high necklines and very long skirts that covered ankles.  If this is true, then perhaps our culture is really suffering from a kind of cognitive dissonance when it comes to its attitudes and its attire. Even though heels may make women feel taller and more powerful, if they are sexual in nature and if we are attempting to eliminate sex in workplace culture, then perhaps they must be sacrificed; the necktie for men may also have to go and, since we cannot show up to work naked, we may also have to consider another of Peterson’s more outrageous contentions put forward in that same VICE interview:  Namely, the Maoist uniform, which he observed had been designed to put an end to such problems (VICE).   Think about it: If we are going to begin to talk like socialists and act like socialists, we might as well consider dressing like socialists.


Works Cited

Australia.  Australian Human Rights Commission.  Sexual harassment. Australian Human Rights

Commission. Web. 19 Jun 2018. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/guides/sexual-harassment.

Bartels, Victoria.  “What goes up must come down: a brief history of the codpiece.” University Of Cambridge: Research, www.cam.ac.uk. Accessed 19 June 2018.

Castleman, Michael.  “The Uncanny Psychology of High Heels.”  Psychology Today, 13 Dec 2016, www.psychologytoday.com.  Accessed 19 June 2018.

Gregory, Philippa. “King Size! Henry VIII’s armour reveals he had a 52 inch girth – for which he paid a terrible price.” Daily Mail, 2 Feb 2009, www.dailymail.co.uk. Accessed 19 June 2018.

Hiebert, Paul.  “A Brief History of High Heels.”  Pacific Standard, 15 Oct 2015, www.psmag.com. Accessed 19 June 2018.

Kosir, Beth Marie.  “Modesty to Majesty: The Development of the Codpiece.” Richard III Society: American Branch.  Web. 22 December 2014.

Ontario.  Ontario Human Rights Commission. Identifying sexual harassment. Ontario Human Rights Commission.  Web. 19 Jun 2018. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-preventing-sexual-and-gender-based-harassment/2-identifying-sexual-harassment

Reed, C. S.  “The Codpiece: Social Fashion or Medical Need?”  Internal Medicine Journal.  2004: 684-686. Print.

Timpf, Katherine.  “Report: Netflix Bans Employees from Looking at Each Other for More Than Five

Seconds.” The National Review, 14 June 2018, www.nationalreview.com.  Accessed 19 June 2018.

VICE.  “Jordan Peterson VICE interview (FULL) the missing parts.” YouTube, www.youtube.com. Accessed 19 June 2018.