Banning high heels
The Department of Labor and Employment has a Department Order 178-2017 banning high heels that was well-publicized in the media—more overseas than locally, it seems. The order, titled “Safety and Health Measures for Workers Who by the Nature of Their Work Have to Stand at Work,” is a response to a complaint filed by the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines in behalf of four part-time sales assistants who complained of pain from having to wear high heels several hours each day.
The order prescribes all kinds of measures, such as rest periods and chairs, appropriate flooring or mats,
work tables with adjustable heights, and, finally, “use of footwear which is practical and comfortable.”
“Practical and comfortable” footwear is defined as “those that do not pinch the feet or toes; are well-fitted and non-slipping; provide adequate cushion and support to the arch of the feet; either flat or with low heels that must be wide-based or wedge type and no higher than one inch.”
For years now, many offices have formally or informally required women employees to use high heels, and they range from sales clerks to security guards. Health-wise, wearing heels has resulted in both short-term (pain, bunions) and long-term (affecting the Achilles’ tendon, the knees, the hips, even the back) problems.
Yet high heels are seen as part of “femininity.” Watch old western films and you will find women wearing heels even at home, while cooking and serving food. So ingrained is this concept that we even have Catholic girls’ schools that require their high school students to wear medium-high heels a day in a week, “to learn to be properly feminine,” as one student explained to me.
This definition of femininity is not without its contradictions. To be “properly feminine” means being able to walk in high heels, and yet these actually make a woman’s hips sway sideways, something that moralists dislike because this is seen as seductive.
Beyond the sexism, women on their own moved away from wearing high heels for practical reasons. The University of the Philippines’ women students would be teased to death if they came to school in high heels (or skirts), so when it comes to UP’s graduation and recognition rites, I always worry whenever the women graduates struggle up the stage in their heels, each step they take involving a risk of twisting an ankle or, worse, falling flat on their face.
UP being UP, we allow transgenders to go up the stage in women’s clothing… and high heels. They do this exquisitely, clearly from constant use. As they glide across the stage in their heels I can almost hear music: “I could have danced all night.”
This study in contrast does show how cultures can be obsessed with rules concerning clothing: who can wear what, how it is to be worn, and when. Just as intense are the rules on who can’t wear what, how it can’t be worn, and when it can’t be worn. Our transgenders feel more authorized now to cross-dress, coming to class in spaghetti straps, short shorts and high heels, but quickly changing back to men’s clothing before going home.
Back to our office workers: It’s common to see the women reporting for work in high heels, then changing to flat shoes or slippers as soon as they sit at their office desks. When called by the boss, or when they have to meet with clients and visitors, they switch back to the heels.
In the West, high heels in the workplace were challenged by the women who found these not just impractical but also dangerous. Flight attendants were among the first to complain they had difficulty serving food while in heels and were in greater danger of tripping while navigating the aisles, especially on turbulent flights.
I’m thinking of Singapore Airlines which, in spite of the city-state’s image of efficiency, once required its flight attendants to wear the body-constricting kebayah and high heels throughout a flight. Today, the attendants use that getup only at the beginning of a flight, then change to more comfortable and practical attire… and footwear.
Humans started wearing clothes as protection from the elements but, across time, the clothes became second skin, now loaded with social meanings around beauty, health, sexuality, identity, status.
In the late 20th century, French philosophers, notably Michel Foucault, wrote about how societies shape and control behavior and mindsets not just through formally legislated laws but also through micropolitics, which would be all kinds of rules and regulations involving everyday practices. Clothing was a powerful venue for micropolitics.
The political part comes with power relations: who makes the rules about what can or cannot be worn. In the name of chastity, religious institutions impose more rules on women than on men, on what can’t be worn. I haven’t seen churches, mosques, or temples banning high heels, but they will require heads, shoulders and legs to be covered. Note, too, that there are fewer restrictions on men’s wear. Apparently, women are stronger at resisting men in shorts rather than the other
way around. My priest-friends have loads of jokes about their trials and temptations.
In workplaces, I doubt that employers are going to protest the DOLE department order, knowing that, yes, maybe their employees might be more efficient in flat shoes.
Postscript on our inner clocks. I recently wrote about sleep deprivation and how our circadian rhythms or inner body clocks are synchronized to Earth’s revolving around the sun. A fellow faculty member at UP wrote to remind me that the synchronization is with Earth’s daily spin of 24 hours, rather than the planet revolving around the sun, which takes an entire year. I plead guilty, but cite mitigating circumstances of sleep deprivation!
I came home from a trip two weeks ago to find that my son had acquired a new pet from one of those puppy mills that mass-produce dogs for sale. She’s had all kinds of health problems but I don’t have the heart to return her to the kennel where she’ll have slim chances of survival. We’ll get our inner clocks fixed yet.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.