Sarah Sands: Feminism is no match for a giddy pair of shoes

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The Independent Online

Moral opponents of the Beijing Olympics reel off China's history of human rights abuses. This is a country where families dispose of their baby girls because of the one-child policy and grandmothers are still crippled by the old practice of foot binding. Their toes were broken and bound in infanthood in order to achieve adorable looking feet.

It is a savage practice, but when was beauty easy?

Victoria Beckham's feet are of constant media fascination because they are as gnarled and twisted as an old rose bush. It is a heroic vanity. When have you ever seen her in a pair of old flatties? She totters to put the rubbish out in skyscraper stilettos.

The pain that women endure for beautiful shoes is, like childbirth, unknown to men. Nicolas Sarkozy may be in stacks since his marriage to a supermodel, but this is hardly the Viktor & Rolf laced sky-high ankle boot that women long for or the artworks that pass for shoes made by Marios Schwab. Personally, I am saving for some perilously high purple suede shoes by Christian Louboutin.

The shoes this spring season are the most beautiful ever made – and the most deadly. You could make it down the catwalk but can you imagine running for a bus? After all, the actresses at the Oscars had pain-relieving injections in the soles of their feet so they could survive the red carpet.

Yet these are not fantasy shoes. Women in offices are climbing escalators in what amount to stilts. It is a form of extreme sport. The self-appointed guardians of young women wail about them being too thin but nobody has addressed the fact that they are too tall.

Kylie Minogue appears in public about six inches above her natural height. I met her sister Dannii and watched her walk across the room with my heart in my mouth. I wanted to applaud her for making it without breaking a leg.

High heels are to us what corsets were to late Victorian women. They are inhumanly uncomfortable – and yet self-imposed. There is an ecstatic relief at stepping out of them at the end of the day. One gazes down at swollen, red, slashed, blistered feet and thinks that Mallory's hobnail boot was an ordinary thing.

The threshold of pain varies from woman to woman. Some carry changes of shoes, slipping into afternoon comfort after mornings of agony.

Hardliners such as Victoria Beckham or Daphne Guinness would do no such thing. It would be like taking off your wig to have a scratch. It would completely destroy the illusion.

I sometimes wondered about the effect of Margaret Beckett's shoe fetish on her job. One reason she travelled less than other foreign secretaries might have been that it was too painful. And what if she had toppled over, in the manner of Naomi Campbell, in front of President Putin?

It is interesting that high heels have survived feminism and the tracksuit. They are, explicitly, a sex aid. Doctors confirm that elevated heels improve muscles in the pelvic floor as well as making you look like a sex doll.

Women burned their bras but now subject their feet to terrifying pieces of engineering in order to lengthen their legs and reduce their waists. The fashion for high heels coincides with the rise in ladette drinking – and hospitals complain of wards full of broken ankles.

Since the Sixties, society has been founded on comfort, convenience and personal freedom. Yet, in 2008, women are squeezing their Ugly Sister feet into shoes that are heartbreakingly beautiful and feel like the crucifixion. Some things are simply worth the suffering.