The Pitfalls of High Heels
by Robert Rickover
My first Alexander Technique teacher taught group classes in his studio. Once in awhile, he would venture out into the anteroom where students left their coats and shoes and would return holding aloft a pair of high-heeled shoes, demanding in a booming voice, "Who belongs to THESE?" There would follow a moment of embraced silence until some poor woman would meekly confess.
In retrospect, I don't think this was a particularly good strategy. Public humiliation is unlikely to enhance any learning process, certainly not one so subtle as learning the Alexander Technique.
But like most other Alexander Technique teachers, I do try my best to coax wearers of high-heeled shoes to lessen their dependence on them and, if at all possible, to gradually give them up entirely. Fortunately our notions of acceptable work wear have changed and it's a lot easier to do this today than twenty-five years ago when I was having my first lessons.
Why are Alexander teachers so concerned about this issue?
There are two main reasons: First, high-heeled shoes throw the entire weight of the wearer forward, making it far more difficult to sustain upright balance. They force the women wearing them to use a lot of extra muscular effort to keep themselves from falling forward. Much of this extra effort is concentrated in the lower back, producing an exaggerated arch which can easily lead to back pain.
But the distorting effects go far beyond the lower back. Human bodies function as a whole and so it's not possible to create undue tension in one region without also producing a series of related restrictions extending from the head down to the feet.
Shallow breathing, tight necks and shoulders, knee and ankle pain - these are just a few of the possible consequences of giving up the easy and natural upright balance designed into our structure and replacing it with a system of tugs and pulls designed to hold us up.
A second important reason for our concern about wearing high heels is that they make it very difficult for the feet to carry out their important sensing and balancing roles. The underlying structure of the human foot is very similar to that of the hand - lots of bones and joints designed to allow us to quickly and easily adapt to whatever it contacts.
When we squeeze our feet into tight-fitting shoes and then remove almost all contact with the surface on which we're standing or walking on, we allow these sensing and adapting functions to atrophy. It's no wonder that many women look like they're about to tumble down when they walk about in these shoes. They are!
It's interesting - and telling - that at times when stiletto heels have been in vogue, the main concern was the harm these heels did to floor surfaces - not to the women wearing them!
I remember reading about an elementary school teacher on Long Island who was ordered by the school board to refrain from wearing these shoes in her classroom because of the pockmarks they were leaving in the wooden floors - not because she was increasing her risk of injury. And not because of the terrible visual example her stiff posture was setting for her students.
Does all this mean that one should never, ever wear high-heeled shoes? No, it certainly won't harm you to wear them once in a while, particularly if you take advantage of these occasions to sense their effect on your posture and movement patterns.
In fact, it can be quite illuminating during an Alexander Technique lesson for a student to switch back and forth between high heels and flat shoes (or going barefoot) for this very purpose, and to learn how to make the best of high heels when it is absolutely necessary to wear them.
If you are a frequent wearer of these shoes, and want to lessen your use of them, it's probably best not to do so at once. I would recommend gradually reducing the heel height and the amount of time you wear them in order to give your body time to adjust.
Shoe styles come and go. Platform shoes, high-heeled boots for men, "negative heel" shoes - there's really no end to the silly designs that have appeared over the years. The best general shoe advice I've seen comes from Elizabeth Langford, an experienced British teacher of the Alexander Technique who sums up the whole question very well in her wonderful book, Mind and Muscle - An Owner's Handbook:
"I think you should start from a recognition that "nature knows best". Granted that we like to have some protection, in a good shoe we can still approximate to the bare-feet state. That is, we can feel, we can move, we can balance, we are not compelled to make unnecessary movement. The good shoe is flexible, stays on the foot and is not thicker or heavier than circumstances demand."
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Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the Alexander Technique Content Editor for America OnLine, Suite101.com, and OmPlace.com. He is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Web Site.
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