Want a helping hand? Try wearing high heels.

December 1, 2014

A participant runs during a high heels race in Tbilisi

A new study out of France’s Université de Bretagne-Sud in finds that men are more likely to lend a helping hand to a woman wearing high heels.

In the study, social psychologist Nicolas Guéguen found that men were more likely to answer survey questions if the woman asking them was wearing heels than if she was wearing flats. Similarly, Guéguen (who has also tackled the research question of whether carrying a guitar case makes a man more likely to succeed in getting a woman’s phone number) found that men were more likely to help a woman pick up a dropped glove if she was wearing heels.

That high heels change how straight men respond to women is hardly surprising. After all, high heels change the way you walk, the way you stand, and the way your clothes fit your body. As a culture, we have decided that the alterations heels produce in how women carry themselves are desirable, a decision we’ve stuck to for over 50 years. In recent years, the trend pendulum in high heels has swung toward atmospherically high, with platforms and hyper-narrow stiletto heels giving way, recently, to 1990s-nostalgia in the form of chunkier heels. These are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor variations; our cultural penchant for high heels is entrenched, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

A model smiles backstage during the "Eros & Amore" erotic fair in MunichSome have questioned this study’s methodology, and not without reason, but its findings raise some interesting questions. Are men more likely to respond to women in heels because they find them more attractive, and are they more likely to answer survey questions from or help an attractive woman? Or are the men who help a woman in heels pick up her glove correctly perceiving that a woman in heels is in fact, physically, less stable than a woman in flats, and might therefore be more likely to need their help? Or, more interestingly still — and more troublingly — does a woman’s perceived instability and vulnerability make her more physically attractive to some men?

I’ve often felt, when wearing heels, that my ability to quickly flee from potential danger is impeded, and this isn’t the first time that, as a culture, we have decided that women are most attractive when their mobility is restricted. We’ve largely done away with corsets and petticoats. But we still believe that women are sexiest — and many women still feel most confident and powerful — in footwear that often hurts them, causes long term orthopedic damage, and literally makes them less stable and less mobile than men. I’m not calling for a feminist ban on pumps, but their persistence does make you wonder.

This study invites other questions about the effects of high heels on people’s perception of a woman. How do high heels affect one’s perceived credibility, or intelligence? Do men and women respond differently when asked to assess the credibility of a woman in heels?

Pro-Russian rebels stand near a monument during a ceremony to honour the World War Two defenders of Donetsk from Nazi forces in DonetskThese aren’t just questions about how to build a wardrobe or how to plan an outfit. Our clothes and our footwear play an enormous role in shaping people’s assumptions about us — of our wealth, our competence, our intelligence, our sexual availability and morality, and our power. These are all perceptions that are intertwined. Often, these assumptions are made in a split second, and once made, they’re difficult to shake. For women who are applying for or doing jobs that grant them power and authority, the question of how to present themselves is particularly vexing — ask any woman who’s ever run for office. 

It would be easy to dismiss social science around high heels as frivolous, as questions of style, and not substance. In fact, the subject area goes to core questions of power: how we gain it, how we wield it, how we lose it. It also raises fascinating questions about power, attraction, and gender, and like this study, it raises more questions than it answers — a good sign of a subject area that merits further exploration. And then, of course, there’s question I always ask myself when I walk in the door after a long night out in high heels, the balls of my feet burning and my calf muscles loudly complaining: why on earth did I think these shoes were a good idea?

PHOTO (Top) A participant runs during a high heels race in Tbilisi, June 24, 2014. The 50-meter-long race requires participants to wear shoes with heels at least 3 inches long. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

PHOTO (Inset 1) A model smiles backstage while preparing for a striptease during the “Eros & Amore” erotic fair in Munich September 27, 2014. The erotic fair runs until October 5. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

PHOTO (Inset 2) Pro-Russian rebels stand near a monument during a ceremony to honour the World War Two defenders of Donetsk from Nazi forces in Donetsk September 8, 2014.  REUTERS/Marko Djurica


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“We have decided?” Right. I almost forgot about the Mandatory Women’s Clothing Act of 2002, which required all women to dress a certain way or face prison or penalties.

Women choose to dress that way! No one makes them!

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

It appears Reuters will not post comments that are contrarian to gender feminist policy. A news organization? Or not?

Posted by ac789962 | Report as abusive

Why not try to live what God commanded in the scriptures?
The Bible / New Testament is clear…women are to wear *modest* apparel.
(1 Timothy 2:9).
Christians are also commanded “Let there not be a *hint* of sexual immorality among you” (Ephesians 5:3). Christian women today shrug off the scriptures and wear the tightest of jeans and short skirts, bikini’s etc. Pastors are silent on the issue. The wearing of this kind of apparel encourages and invites thoughts of sexual immorality, fornication and adultery. We will all give an account.

Posted by Daniel77 | Report as abusive

Again deleting posts, poor judgement, abit cowardliness. Show some spine boys.

Posted by ac789962 | Report as abusive

Gender feminists do not wear heals, the shoes are tapped, the calfs show lack of definition as regular wearing of heels would develop. So this is a gender politics piece, noting more. The author – Dr. Chloe Angyal is Senior Editor at Feministing.com and a facilitator at The OpEd Project. Reuters appears to be an extension to Feministing, again a news organization is or should be a news organization, just that.

Stop publishing gender politics without publishing contrarian comments, very weak and poor judgement. Needing the demographic or not.

Posted by ac789962 | Report as abusive

As a dude I can confirm all three of your theories are accurate: I would prefer to help a prettier girl, a weaker girl and weaker girls are more attractive. It is unsurprising that guys want to feel strong next to women. The author may have been trying to uncover some deceit here, but honest guys who are self-aware should have no problem admitting to this.

Posted by spherical | Report as abusive

Shallow Thoughts, by Jaqulyn Handy

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

ac789962: Not, they are a propaganda machine.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“We” didn’t decide that high heels are desirable. It is women themselves who choose to wear high heels. And personally as a man, I do find high heels sexy on a woman, but I’m not attracted to weak looking females. Women are adults too who can take responsibility for their own decisions.

Posted by FreeMan22 | Report as abusive