‘Master of pain’ – A Podiatrist’s Response

It was with interest and somewhat horrified fascination that I read Claudia Croft’s interview with Christian Louboutin in the Sunday Times Style Magazine (16th October 2011).  As a podiatrist with an interest in footwear from clinical and research perspectives, the article presented to me a world that I recognized. However it also presented viewpoints containing elements that to me are alien, questionable and at the same time, if true, somewhat depressing.

In the article, Louboutin considers footwear of a certain type within the context of sex and sexuality, suggesting that such shoes are sexually symbolic and that a certain degree of sado-masochism is associated with the wearing of such shoes.  This may be true to some individuals and much has been written about footwear from the perspective of sexuality. However as a researcher, I would question how generalisable such statements are and on what basis the comments have been derived.  In order to interpret, one needs a context within which to place that interpretation.  Given the overtly sexual viewpoint of Louboutin, it is possible (even highly probable) that his interpretations lack the background to represent the viewpoint of the wider female population.  As such, his comments may apply to a very specific population only, yet give the impression that they apply to all.

I would similarly question the implication that women are helped to become empowered and achieve high positions through the wearing of painful footwear (as in the example given in the article).  I have had the pleasure of working with many highly intelligent, powerful, successful women, all of whom have achieved their success through merit, not self-harm.  Again, I would not doubt that Louboutin’s suggestions pertain in some areas.  What I would question is whether this is the norm, and I suggest instead that this position represents a more limited and not generalisable viewpoint.  In questioning both of these areas, I consider that the article could present a distorted and misleading position to many, which, if influential, could have harmful consequences.

The most depressing aspect of all is the suggestion that women may feel the need to self harm through footwear in order to achieve “freedom, power, success and sex”.  If this perspective is correct (and again, in general terms I would question this), then we have not moved far from the practice of foot binding, which used to take place in China and far from being empowering, suggests that women can still become prisoners to their own shoes and to the dictates of male shoe designers.

In my work, I have clinical responsibilities to patients and to the general public, to help them find footwear that is conducive to their continuing health and general well-being and which will prevent problems – some of those serious and life changing, depending on personal circumstances.  At the same time, however, I would be the last person to attempt to deprive someone of the freedom to make a personal choice, whether that choice be good or bad.  I do, however believe that where possible, that choice should be informed – that someone is fully aware of the consequences of making that choice.

In this sense, where someone wishes to purchase footwear that a podiatrist would consider to be harmful to them personally, my duty is to point that out and having that knowledge, if they wish to go ahead and harm themselves, they do so in full light of the possible consequences.  Despite not being on my “recommended list”, I recognized that such shoes are viewed by many as glamorous and that a number of women wish to wear these.  The ideal is to wear a more sensible shoe for everyday activity and if you wish to wear them, to keep such shoes for occasional use, thereby limiting the harm that could result.

In relation to footwear, I would therefore urge the female population to do what you want to do, but to do this with open eyes.  Be aware of the consequences of wearing over-styled shoes on a day to day basis and do not let anyone pressurize you into believing that such shoes will bring you greater freedom, power, success or desirability.  Given the wrong circumstances, they could instead do quite the opposite.

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Professor Wesley Vernon OBE is currently the Head of Podiatry Service at the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and visiting Professor at Staffordshire & Huddersfield Universities. Professor Vernon also provides forensic podiatry teaching sessions to the National Policing Improvement Agency and the Diploma in Forensic Human Identification now held at Barts.  

For information and advice on how to choose shoes and maintain healthy feet visit the Healthy Footwear Guide, or the Society of Shoefitters and Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists websites.

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