Heel appeal! They really do make women look good

As those New Year parties beckon, Roger Dobson reports on new academic research that reveals how high heels affect every part of a woman's body

They are not called killer heels for nothing. Pinchy, uncomfortable and, occasionally, downright dangerous, the high-heeled shoe is a source of ambivalence. But the millions of women who will squeeze their feet into them on New Year's Eve can at least take comfort from scientific confirmation that high heels really do make them look good.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth say heels change the way the entire body moves, including the pelvis, hips, legs, knees, feet and even the shoulders, to emphasise femininity. Women wearing heels are rated as more attractive than when wearing flat shoes, even when those making the judgement are unable to see faces or bodies.

The researchers, whose study appears in the scientific journal Evolution and Human Behavior, suggest that "evolution may partly explain the continuing popularity of high heels as an article of the female wardrobe. If wearing high heels emphasises some sex-specific aspects of the female form they may make women more attractive, and one motivation, which may be conscious or unconscious, for wearing heels is that it is part of mate selection."

The women who took part in the research had an average of around 10 pairs of heels, and wore them at least once a week. They were filmed walking for four minutes wearing identical flat shoes and 6cm heels.

To avoid the rating of attractiveness being influenced by anything other than high heels, the researchers used a process known as point-light display: lit markers are placed on key parts of the body and the raters or judges see only the patterns of these lights as the woman walks.

Men and women viewed 30-second video clips of the point-light displays of the walkers in high heels and flat shoes moving towards them. They then made judgements for femininity and attractiveness. All the women were rated as more attractive when wearing heels, and women judges rated them as more attractive than did the men.

In a second experiment, people were asked to judge whether the point-light display of women walking towards them was a man or woman. When the women were wearing flat shoes they were nearly twice as likely to be viewed as a man.

The researchers also analysed how women walked when wearing heels. They found that an average woman walked more quickly, changing from 106 to 110 steps a minutes, but with shorter strides: from 1.24 to 1.20 metres. "Judges rated the displays of the walkers in high heels as significantly more attractive than the same walkers in flat shoes," say the researchers. "Women in high heels walked in a fashion more characteristic of female gait. The results are consistent with the idea that wearing high heels makes women look more attractive."

They suggest this is part of the reason why high heels have endured: "Fashions by their very nature are ephemeral, but fashions that endure, such as high heels, may emphasise sex-specific aspects of the body."

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