Sarah Churchwell: It's only right that we suffer for our shoes

A woman named Sophie King has been awarded £7,200 compensation for injuries she sustained when her stiletto heel broke, pitching her on to the ground and breaking her ankle. I've sprained my ankle more than once while wearing silly shoes (yes, I know I'm putting silly before the wrong noun), but my shoes didn't have the decency to break on me.

Ms King's genius, it turns out, was in buying inexpensive heels – they originally cost £35. Now she can afford a pair that certainly should hold up better: Manolo Blahnik retailed a pair of alligator-skin boots a few years ago for $14,000, or £7,000, which is the exact amount of Ms King's compensation.

Every woman knows that high-heeled shoes are going to hurt, whether it be your feet, your bank account, or both. And before anyone sneers at supposedly intelligent women voluntarily inflicting pain upon themselves, pause and consider whether you've ever been hung over. The initial pleasure always seems worth the inevitable suffering.

Most of the women I know have Cinderella syndrome to some extent, the faith that the right pair of shoes are worth the agony. After all, it is hard to imagine a more painful material for shoes than glass.

The impracticality of glass as footwear is so striking that it tempted some scholars to argue that Charles Perrault's 1697 Cendrillon ou La Petite Pantoufle de Verre was a mistranslation of "vair", or fur (they have been widely discredited, should the producers of QI be reading).

But folk tales featuring the so-called "slipper test", in which a hero identifies his bride by means of her shoe, stretch back to antiquity: there is a version from ninth-century China, which probably explains the story's emphasis upon small feet as a gold-standard of beauty.

An even earlier Sanskrit version, dating from the fifth century AD, has recently been identified, and there are heroines recognised by virtue of their beautiful shoes in ancient Greek and Roman tales, as well as in stories from Iran, Afghanistan, and Africa.

It is not until we get to the Germans, however, that the motif of suffering enters the tale, and it's clearly a punishment. In the aptly-named Grimm brothers' 1856 version of Cinderella, when the big-footed stepsisters can't wedge on the slipper, their mother hands them each a knife, telling the first sister to slice off her big toe, and the second to slice off her heel. The dim-witted prince doesn't notice the blood gushing out of the slipper until some helpful magic birds point it out. Since the Grimms' slipper is made of "pure gold", it's hard not to feel the knife was a trifle supererogatory. Those shoes would make you bleed without benefit of cutlery.

What is consistent in all the tales is the sense that shoes can reveal our true identity, or at least a side of us that has, hitherto, stayed at home – or, in the case of ruby slippers, bring us home. You don't have to hang out in ash-covered rags in a fireplace, or get lost in Oz, to understand the symbolic force of the story: it's why we have the expression, "If the shoe fits, wear it".

The story of Cinderella is not, pace Hollywood, a rags to riches tale (in most of them it's a riches to rags to riches tale, for starters). It's a story about the recognition of our true selves, which we know, deep down inside, to be beautiful and worthy of love.

Even – or especially – when I'm not beautiful, my shoes still are, because they are not subject to fluctuations in weight, or self-esteem. They are invariable, which is why glass and gold have a symbolic force that fur entirely lacks; it's not just symbolic luxury, or because no one except hobbits admires furry feet. It's because the shoe must not adapt to the foot.

The ugly stepsisters would have no trouble shoving their feet into fur. And this is also, surely, why the glass slippers are the only magic accessories in the tale that don't return to their original state at midnight. Shoes are a constant.

Even women who resist the vertiginous heels and even more vertiginous prices of designer heels recognise the power of the transformative fantasy shoes offer. I have a pair of beloved cream-coloured hand-made Italian snakeskin boots that I got in the sample sales (ie., they're recycled, thus clearing my conscience over reptile ethics).

Not being a go-go dancer, I certainly didn't need them. But they were marked down from £395 to an unbelievable £20, and the gap between their worth and their cost made their value skyrocket. So I will keep them, just in case. Some day the go-go dancer in me may need to come out.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia