Howard Jacobson: The eroticism of high heels disappears once they reach seven inches

I spent my first term’s student grant on stilettos for the girl I loved
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The Independent Online

It would appear that men are getting shorter. Either that or women are getting taller. Wherever one looks, anyway, in politics or show business, there's a short man dwarfed by his wife, his mistresses, or the responsibilities of his job. "I am only a little chap," the new Speaker has just told us, in case we hadn't noticed. Presumably they'll be putting a plank across his chair to sit him on, as they used to do for little chaps in barbers' shops. Sarkozy isn't a lot taller. And Berlusconi is never in one place long enough for us to measure him. This is the best advice one can give a short man: either keep moving or lie down a lot.

This column is not going where you might think it's going. Napoleon, Hitler, Ahmadinejad – short men make the best tyrants blah blah. No: our subject, in fact, is women's shoes. One of the reasons we appear to be living in the era of the small man, I submit, is that women are getting about on heels up to half the height of the men they're sleeping with. It is hard for any man now – even the moderately, not to say deceptively tall, like myself – to feel adequate in the company of these giantesses. How long it will be before a new form of repetitive strain syndrome is discovered in men, as a consequence of their having to look up to women at cocktail parties for hours at a stretch, I cannot say, but I take short men's highly publicised womanising to be proof that there's some desperate compensating going on down there.

I would have expected myself to revel in the new Brobdingnagian female. I like tall women. And, without going so far as to call myself a fetishist of footwear, have always loved high heels. The minute I was rich enough to buy a girlfriend anything other than a box of Black Magic or a bunch of garage flowers I bought her high heels. I spent my first term's student grant on stilettos for the girl I loved. Black patent. No messing. Stilettos as worn by street-walkers in post-war Vienna. The sort that go with belted raincoats. And in which Mrs Thatcher was later to run a country of besotted fogeys. Thereafter I graduated to bolder colours and designs, open-toe, backless, buckled, fur pom-poms on the instep – but I never wavered on the height of the heel. Four inches.

If we're taking elegance, three inches is probably the maximum. But I wasn't talking elegance. Feminists have long complained that the high heel is a species of bondage, entrapping a woman in discomfort and even pain, crippling her feet, dehumanising her, causing her to walk in the manner of a slave, never secure of her own footing, always about to fall into the arms of a man.

That wasn't how I saw it. To the contrary, high heels struck me as predatory, empowering of a woman, adding strength and purpose to her walk, accentuating the muscles in her legs, eroticising her every step, but in line with her intentions and desires, not the man's. Stilettos for God's sake! Weapons of precise destruction. You could love a woman who didn't wear stilettos, but you couldn't abandon yourself to her whim, which is something you need to do when you're 19.

But a fine mathematics determines who's in charge of what when it comes to the height of heels. Two inches: who cares? Three inches: your own woman for whom sex is not of paramount importance. Four inches: meeting a man halfway but on your terms. Thereafter – and we're up to seven inches today – feminists are right and a woman enters the terrain of the bondaged and the absurd.

I haven't measured the height of the heel with any precision – this is generally hard to do in the street unless you own some shoe version of a theodolite, and you will still look pretty suspicious using it – but I have yet to see a woman stay upright on Miu Miu platform sandals or Jimmy Choo studded shoe-boots, beautiful as both are. It isn't that they fall off them, but they totter, sometimes dangerously if the pavements are narrow and the roads busy with taxis carrying women who cannot go another yard on their Bottega Veneta woven sandals. Ditto Alexander McQueen neon flash boots which look excitingly ambiguous when the woman's sitting with her feet crossed, but can make her knock-kneed and unstable once she stands, assuming she is able to stand.

Givenchy lace ankle sandals are ideationally cute, but give the impression that the wearer's Myla underthings have fallen around her ankles, which also inhibits comfortable walking. And only the other day I had to go to the rescue of a woman the wrong side of 45 who couldn't prevent her Christian Louboutin Very Penny peep-toe pumps from running away with her, propelling her down the slight incline which is New Bond Street heading in the direction of the Ritz.

We are not moralistic in this column. We do not campaign to ban smokers, alcoholics and the obese from National Health hospitals. Nor do we argue that women suffering Achilles heel problems, fractured toes, spine damage, etc, as a consequence of throwing a thousand smackers at a pair of slingbacks the height of the new Speaker of the House of Commons should be exempted from our sympathy. But I do say that the sex has now gone out of high heels, in the same way that it went out of skirts when they became so short you can't tell if women are wearing them. Quite simply, your heart does not race when the woman you are waiting for approaches you with her knees together, her back bent, and her concentration entirely taken up with balance.

Wonderfully, though, there are suddenly shoes that excite again. They are called flatties. To be precise, ballerinas or banana flats. How it can be that shoes that have minus heels are arousing, I can't explain. They do nothing for the calf muscle. They do not thrust the pelvis forward. They are not feral. Instead of raising a woman to impossible heights, they make it appear that there is more of her below ground. Which might be the explanation.

Sex, after all, does not inhere in what you show but in what you hide. Perhaps banana flats are the beginning of a revolution. Stimulating precisely because they're not. Irony, imagination and reticence might be creeping back into the erotic life. Or it could just be that women want to be shorter than men again.