Science confirms what professional women already know: high heels make us both stronger and weaker

Time wounds old heels.
Time wounds old heels.
Image: © Steven Klein 2014
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I have yet to see Jurassic World, but I have already been made aware of one of the film’s great special effects. It’s not a CGI mega-raptor or submarine-sized shark, but a modern-day woman, running in high heels.

People have been lamenting and laughing at the choice to send Bryce Dallas Howard’s character running through the jungle in a pair of mid-height Sam Edelman pumps (They couldn’t even get her Manolos?) that look like something a flight attendant may have worn, back in the days when flight attendants were still called stewardesses.

Incidentally, a group of college women studying to become flight attendants were the guinea pigs for a new study (paywall) about the physical effects of high heels, by researchers at Hanseo University in South Korea.

According to the New York Times (paywall), the women were required to wear high heels to class, since a Korean airline would have a similar dress code. The researchers found that initially, the heels made the muscles around the women’s ankles grow stronger. But after four years of wearing the heels, the women’s muscles were weaker, and their balance was impaired. What’s worse, the strength imbalances brought about by wearing the heels increased the risk for more serious leg injuries.

Not all professional women are forced to adhere to such a strict dress code, but many of us still face the balancing act presented by high heels.

For many women at work, high heels convey a polish of professionalism. A colleague here at Quartz wore a pointy pair the other day for a meeting, and then slipped on her sneakers after arriving at the office—a reverse of the 1980s trend of commuting in sneakers (immortalized in the movie Working Girl) in this era of the standing desk.

But in academia, as in many conservative professional environments, a heel that’s “too high” can convey a message of frivolity: The wearer can’t be serious, or even smart. Professional dress codes have their place, but so long as a woman’s shoes adhere to the requirements of her workplace—meaning they’re functional and allow her to do her job—she should be free of judgment for the height of her heels.

I hope that a heroine in heels doesn’t have to represent a backward step for my gender every time she steps onscreen. Howard, the actress who had to run through Jurassic World in those nude pumpscompared training for the challenge to preparing for the Olympics. I hear she pulled it off with grace.

Heels are complicated, it’s true. Some women eschew them—high heels are sexist, uncomfortable, uncool. Others feel just the opposite: Heels are empowering, sexy, beautiful. Some feel a bit of both at the very same time.

I spent Saturday night dancing in a pair of five-inch Prada platforms, and loved every elevated second. I also wear Birkenstocks to work sometimes. I contain multitudes. And so does my closet.