by Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham
High heels are fashionable, but uncomfortable, and can even lead to chronic foot damage. At first glance, it doesn’t make sense to favor footwear which harm and hurt feet, plus render it difficult to run from ancient and modern predators.
But if wearing high heels makes women more attractive, allowing them to be more choosy over a larger number of higher quality males competing for their attention, this could explain the evolutionary advantages of this fashion statement.
What’s chic, what’s in and what’s out, should be predicted by evolutionary theory. Otherwise it will be judged by history as just a passing phase. Eventually as outmoded as shoulder pads from the 1980s.
Psychologists Paul Morris, Jenny White, Edward Morrison and Kayleigh Fisher from the University of Portsmouth, in the UK, have recently proposed a novel evolutionary theory about why women favor high heels.
As women normally walk differently from men, high heels may help exaggerate the particularly feminine aspects of gait. What these shoes do is make women walk even more like women.
Male gait involves greater velocity, longer stride length and slower rate. There are also differences in side swing. Men present more movement of the head and greater upper body side sway, whereas women display increased hip movement.
Gait is studied using point-light displays representing the body as a series of markers placed on key landmarks on limbs. In these experiments, the perceiver is presented with a pattern of dots on a screen. Because all they are seeing are dots moving, any impact on preferences or attractiveness has to be something to do with movement patterns, and not static physical appearance.
Perceivers are remarkably good at making sense of the patterns of movement of point-light display dots, and are able to distinguish between male and female gait. Just looking at moving dots representing movement of the whole body, it’s possible reliably to allocate the walker as male or female.
In their recent study, entitled “High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of female attractiveness”, the psychologists compared ratings of women walking in ﬂat shoes, with the same women walking in high heels, in order to establish whether or not walking in high heels enhances the attractiveness of gait.
The study, published in the academic journal ‘Evolution and Human Behavior’, found that for all walkers, attractiveness was rated much higher in heels compared with the ﬂat shoes condition. Both males and females judged high heels to be more attractive than ﬂat shoes. Males and females also agreed which were the attractive and unattractive walkers.
The authors of the study conclude that high heels are an important part of the contemporary female wardrobe — the minimum number of high heeled shoes owned by those taking part in the experiment was four, and the maximum 25.
The results indicate that the female walk is perceived as much more attractive when wearing high heels than not. One, conscious or unconscious, motivation for women to wear high heels might therefore be to increase their attractiveness.
The effect seems highly consistent for each individual walker (i.e. all walkers were judged to be more attractive in the heels condition). The biomechanical results are also consistent with the theory that wearing high heels makes women look more attractive by making them more feminine, as the effect of heels was to exaggerate some sex-speciﬁc elements of female gait including: greater pelvic rotation, increased vertical motion at the hip, shorter strides and higher number of steps per minute.
The authors of this new study contend that high heels appear to act in a similar way to what is referred to in evolutionary theory as a “super releaser.” For example, some birds prefer large artificial eggs that they cannot even sit on, to their own normal size eggs. Female baboons with a larger than normal swelling of the bottom associated with the sexually receptive period of their cycle, arouse greater sexual interest in males.
High heels similarly exaggerate the sex-speciﬁc aspects of the female walk which could cause sexual arousal in males. The normal stimulus of a woman walking is exaggerated by the wearing of high heels, producing a supernormal stimulus.
But there have been numerous fashions that have not been congruent with an evolutionary model. For example, female shoulder pads in the 1980s emphasized a particularly male aspect of the body. Flapper dresses in the 1920s didn’t emphasize the female ﬁgure, the authors of this study point out.
Fashions by their very nature are ephemeral, but trends that endure (such as high heels for females) emphasize sex-speciﬁc aspects of the body. Other styles, such as shoulder pads, will reoccur infrequently over time, as they are poorly matched with our biology. So predicts evolutionary psychology.
Maybe as the 1980s saw Britain’s first female Prime Minister and the rise of women to positions of power, female fashion ‘aped’ men by shouting status and power to blend into the boardroom. As women took charge, they had to become ‘masculine’ in dress and appearance. Broad shoulders = alpha male = power and status.
‘Workwear’ for women still mimics male apparel like somber trouser suits. But this should also be a transient fashion if more women achieve high status roles.
Then they won’t need to ‘ape’ men any more.
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
A version of this article first appeared in The Huffington Post.