(iStock)
August McLaughlin is a health and sexuality writer, podcast host and author of "Girl Boner: The Good Girl’s Guide to Sexual Empowerment."

Of the many complex relationships I’ve had in my life, I never anticipated that my relationship with high heels would be one of the hardest to end. We “broke up” several years ago, after a news headline inspired me to commit to 12 heel-free months. Like stepping away from any hurtful relationship, the experience was both rockier and more empowering than I could have imagined.

I started wearing high heels in my late teens, after a modeling agent gave me some critical insider info. I wasn’t “exactly fat,” she said, her French accent somehow making her seem knowledgeable and important. But as a “shorter girl,” at 5-foot-8, I would need to create an optical illusion. If I lost a few pounds, I would appear taller on the runways. The clothes would hang better.

She must not have perceived the body insecurity that was already simmering inside me. Weeks before, a photographer had been the first to suggest I lose a few pounds, validating every negative thought I’d secretly had about my physique. By the time the agent offered the taller-equals-thinner explanation, weight control was becoming my obsession.

I took her words to heart and began wearing high heels or platform sneakers most of my waking hours, save my running shoes for workouts. No one had told me to wear high heels constantly, but if tallness meant I’d look thinner, higher seemed better. Even between castings and photo shoots, when other girls slipped into flats, I wanted to appear runway-ready. What if I were to run into someone important? If there was one thing I took as seriously as weight control, it was my career.

Scuttling around New York City in high heels for several months, my weight kept dropping. Two years later, after collapsing during a morning run in Paris, I was diagnosed with anorexia.

Back in the States, I spent the next few years working hard to escape the illness’s grasp. What helped me most came as a complete surprise. Inspired by a college professor who encouraged classroom discussions around sex, I began to embrace my sexuality, chipping away at shame I hadn’t realized I had. I finally felt angry about the negative messaging I’d absorbed about a woman’s worth — that how she looked and behaved meant more than almost anything. I began to see loveliness, value and capability in my body, and over time, the eating disorder diminished.

Through the years that followed, I continued wearing high heels. Not every day, but often, and certainly for anything important. And for years, I thought little of it. They were just shoes, after all. Or so I’d thought.

By 2015, I’d built a new career consisting of writing, hosting a podcast and speaking, becoming best known for my work in women’s sexual empowerment. One day while scrolling through social media over my morning coffee, a headline caught my eye: “Cannes Film Festival Turns Away Women in Flat Shoes.”

Turned away? For wearing flats?

I was astonished that anyone would discriminate against women for wearing supportive shoes. But I was also in awe of the women, for being “brave” enough to wear flats to such an event. I could never do that, I thought. Which gave me pause.

I’d done so much work to embrace my authentic self, resisting society’s narrow definitions of beauty and encouraging other women to do the same, yet the idea of wearing flats to an upscale event seemed unfathomable to me. Perhaps it was a dangling thread of insecurity I’d missed. Whatever the reason, I knew I had to find out why I continued to cling to heels.

I committed to a year without high heels, writing blog posts about my experience along the way. I knew it would be challenging. What I didn’t anticipate was how eye-opening it would be.

Burrowing down the rabbit hole of high heel history, I learned that privileged men were the first to wear high heels, followed by privileged women, in the 17th century. At that time, the shoes were functional, providing a helpful lift while horseback-riding. Eventually, men traded heels for shoes that made more sense in the workplace. For women, heels gradually became more decorative and fashionable, as female value stayed closely linked with appearance and perceived sex appeal.

By the mid-20th century, as women entered the corporate world in force, marketers pushed stilettos as a way for a woman to maintain her femininity while taking on conventionally masculine roles. (She could climb the ladder, as long as she wore “ladylike” shoes.) As women rose, so too did the risks associated with high heels. And the risks continued increasing. From 2002 to 2012, injuries related to high heels nearly doubled, according to a Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery study published in 2015.

These risks, I learned, go far beyond annoying foot strain. Damage from high heels can affect us for decades, contributing to everything from misaligned bones and deformity to a heightened risk for arthritis problems, tendinitis, shortened calf muscles, and chronic pain and inflammation, two factors that underlie an incredible host of diseases. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that significantly more women develop osteoarthritis, a disease caused by wear and tear, particularly in the knees and hips, than men.)

Since sharing my heel-free journey, I’ve become somewhat of an injury confessional, hearing from women who have fallen and broken limbs, sprained ankles or resorted to surgery to reshape their feet after years of wearing high heels. I’ve heard from women who can’t wear high heels due to disability or health issues and struggle to feel sexy and beautiful in a culture that can’t seem to separate these attributes from the shoes.

One look at the available stock images representing female sexuality provides added proof. But are pain, injuries and instability sexy? Will we even desire sex if we’re ridden with aches and inflammation? It seems like an example of women’s desires, pleasure and well-being taking second place to our looks and our ability to turn on straight men. In these ways, pressures to wear high heels aren’t much better than foot-binding trends in China or the corsets of the 16th century. They perpetuate the idea that becoming thinner, less stable and curvy in the “right” places increases female sex appeal, also detracting from our ability to experience pleasure and autonomy. Looking sexy takes priority over our ability to express and delight in our bodies and sexuality.

As I was planning my year-long experiment, I wasn’t sure if I’d go back to wearing high heels afterward. Weeks in, however, I couldn’t imagine it — not because I didn’t miss them. I did, off and on, for months.

The first time I arrived at the studio to record my podcast in flats vs. my usual heeled boots, I felt shrimpy. I knew the feeling had little to do with height and everything to do with where I’d sourced my confidence, but that didn’t make it easier. I felt less able to get away with my preferred casual looks of jeans and nice tops or T-shirts, which looked strikingly different to me with sneakers or sandals. I felt less cool, less chic.

My biggest challenges involved dressing for upscale events. Even though I believed increasingly that I only deemed high heels the dressiest option because I’d been taught so, I spent hours seeking supportive non-heels I actually liked with particular dresses. Even stores tend to separate women’s shoes by casual, meaning flats, and dressy, meaning heels. Realizing that many flats, while safer than heels, were nearly as lacking in support, only made things tougher. Would I end up wearing orthopedic clogs for the rest of my life?

A turning point came when I was asked to host the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival red-carpet awards ceremony in Los Angeles. I’d emceed the previous year as well, wearing tall silver heels. When I asked co-founder Melanie Wise if she would mind if I wore flats, she said, “Are you kidding? I think that’s awesome!”

I chose gladiator sandals, which seemed appropriate, given the festival’s celebration of “women in action,” such as stunt women and athletes. As I stood onstage with award recipients, some of them towering over me at 6 feet without heels, I shared with the audience how grateful I was to be able wear comfortable, supportive shoes. And I really was. I had more energy throughout the evening than I would have in high heels and enjoyed feeling strong and stable. Better yet, I felt accepted for who I was and for my skill set vs. for my “model appearance.” I wasn’t some trophy or decoration; I was me.

It’s been three years since I’ve worn high heels, and I now find more beauty, sexiness and strength in feeling comfortable and standing strong on my own two feet, in shoes that I could sprint away from disaster in if I had to. Giving up heels made me more aware of lacking comfort in other areas of my life as well, bolstering my self-care efforts and making everything from elegant events to traveling breezier. It removed the subtle knee aches I’d attributed to jogging on pavement and made my high-heel induced bunion flare-ups obsolete. It’s also affirmed something I’ve long believed: We have a choice as to how we define beauty and even what turns us on. By aiming to see beauty and value in comfort and authenticity, we can perceive continually more of it.


The author, going heel-free for Halloween.

Last week, when I saw video of Kristen Stewart removing her high heels on the Cannes red carpet for all the world to see, I had goose bumps. Opting out of high heels might not bring world peace or save the planet, but it’s an important message to send to anyone who uses them as a crutch, as I once did. I hope little girls saw her and will think twice before believing that high heels — or any apparel — makes a woman. We all deserve to make informed choices that lift us up, whether our shoes do or not.