Friday, April 25, 2008

Hobbling the Masses: Oprah's Role in Assisting Patriarchy

For millions of American women, Oprah Winfrey is the go-to source for advice on everything from literature to fashion to spirituality. In fact, “live your best life” is her mantra and her mission. Oprah transmits her message from nearly every possible form of public media--television, books, magazines, radio, and the internet. According to her mission statement, the goal of O Magazine, for example, is “to speak and connect to women in a way no other publication ever has. To help women see every experience and challenge as an opportunity to grow and discover their best self. To convince women that the real goal is becoming more of who they really are. To embrace their life” ( There is no doubt that Oprah has been a positive influence in the lives of many women, but I will argue that her stated goals are sometimes inconsistent with the image she portrays to the public. Specifically, her treatment of fashionable footwear, which in contemporary times applies almost exclusively to high heels, is paradoxical at best. Oprah is celebrated for her very real struggles with living up to an unrealistic standard of beauty, but by wearing high heels in nearly every public setting--shoes she freely admits to being unable to walk in--she is indirectly supporting the same patriarchal notions of beauty and femininity that have been used against women in the past. As someone regarded as the preeminent role model for young girls today, Oprah’s endorsement of high heels is harmful to both individual females and to the feminist movement at large.

Although Oprah is now omnipresent in the media, she initially found her success as a talk show host in the 1980s. According to Elayne Rapping, positions of power have been more accessible to women in the television industry than in film. She says, “the lower on the ladder of artistic respectability a cultural form is deemed, the more open it is likely to be to women, racial minorities, and gays” (20). In her article she argues that television programming, including talk shows and soap operas, has always been first to present gender issues in an enlightened way, but since the 1970s we have seen a disturbing reversal of the trend. Shows with a feminist spin like Roseanne and Murphy Brown have been replaced with sentimental nostalgia in Judging Amy and Providence (Rapping 21). “We can’t overlook,” Rapping writes, “the bizarre transformation of Oprah Winfrey, who once led the pack in treating serious issues of race, class and gender in a relatively progressive way, but has suddenly transformed herself into an almost equally sappy purveyor of fashion make-overs” (21). Postfeminism and backlash are at least partially to blame for this transition; the consensus that the feminist struggle has already been won and the demonization of the f-word have given many young females the impression that the prevalence of beauty fluff in the media is simply the nature of the culture in which we live. Obsession with hair, clothes, makeup, shoes? “That’s what you have to do to be successful,” one of Rapping’s students said (21).

Few would allege that Oprah is not a feminist. Although I find no record of her explicitly identifying herself as such, her mission statement, the political candidates she endorses, the causes she supports, and the image she exudes all seem to imply that she is a confident self-sufficient female activist who champions women’s rights. However, Oprah also prompts many questions about beauty and appearance. The widely-publicized issues with her weight have motivated many women to reconsider their fitness and their self esteem; in all media outlets, Oprah stresses the importance of loving one’s body. Rarely, however, does she discuss the role of artificiality in this exercise. She says she wants to promote the ability of women become more of who they really are, but for herself that includes Spanx, hours of hair and makeup before each television appearance, and high heels. If we are to follow Oprah’s example, self esteem can only be achieved by meeting the conventional standards of attractiveness in our society, standards that I contend exist for the pleasure of the males who occupy most positions of power.

So when did fashion triumph over function? Bipedality is arguably the most important adaptation in the history of human evolution; walking on two feet preceded the enormous brain growth we enjoy today, and our feet now contain one-third of the bones in our bodies (Smith 251). From all the evidence, it seems clear that mobility was vital for our ancestors. The first shoe, crude sandals, did not appear until about nine thousand years ago, but the need for specialized footwear increased as humans migrated into more hostile climates (Smith 253). Without going too in-depth in the history of high heels, it is estimated that they were invented by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus for his hero actors and were later popularized by male members of the French aristocracy (253-255). Soon, however, men would leave the fashion to the ladies and return to more sensible footwear. 

In his article, “High Heels and Evolution,” E. O. Smith describes in detail the harmful effects of high heels on a woman’s body. I will note here that the information he provides is reinforced by podiatrists and can be easily obtained on the internet, including Oprah’s website. Besides the pain and discomfort caused by forcing the foot into an unnatural position, high heels can cause fractures, bunions, back and neck pain, postural changes, reduced mobility, increased energetic demands, a shortened Achilles tendon, and a reduced arch that, over time, will prevent one from ever wearing flats again (Smith 257-266). Smith says that high heels, in the classic Darwinian sense, can be considered detrimental to survival because of the problems they cause. Indeed, there is a case in which two young women, both wearing high heels, were killed in a freak train accident, possibly because their shoes prevented them from moving away from the car on a gravel surface (“Train Accident”). On the other hand, Smith admits there are long-term evolutionary benefits to wearing high heels; in the great tradition of sexual selection, high heels are an example of a cultural adaptation designed to make the wearer more attractive to the opposite sex, not dissimilar from the plumes of peacocks or the use of non-essential decorative nesting materials in other birds (247-248). What Smith does not emphasize is that these flamboyant displays typically appear only in males (outside the human species) as adaptations to meet the demands of choosy females rather than the other way around.

According to Sheila Jeffreys, the unnatural position caused by wearing high heels, with buttocks thrust outward, the back arched, and the full weight of the woman’s body resting on the ball of the foot, creates the illusion of a longer leg (and to many men, a sexier image). In her book, Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West, Jeffreys devotes an entire chapter to men’s shoe fetishism and persuasively argues for an end to cultural traditions that are based on controlling female sexuality. Isn’t that allegation a little extreme for shoes? Judging from the message boards on Oprah’s website, that is exactly what many women seem to think. Although there are a few ardent fans of stability, most regard heels as a necessary evil, refusing to sacrifice style or allure in favor of comfort. Several attest to wearing heels until they are out of sight and can slip them off with great relief. Overall, however, I was struck by how flippant most of the remarks were; one individual wrote, “indeed its[sic] a disciplin[sic]...some women are more willing to put up with the torture than others. I on occasion have suffered my poor feet in the name of looking good lol” ( 

For such people, Oprah has conveniently archived information on how to avoid high heel-related pain, including preventative tips and calf exercises. Oprah herself certainly has no plans to fight the trend, even though when discussing her footwear she says, “I have to tell you, no exaggeration. I complain about it every day” ( She has gone to great lengths to advertise the Cole Haan Nike Air line of “comfortable” three and four-inch pumps on television and online as well as in her magazine. Designed by a former architect, Gordon Thompson, the shoes contain an “air bag” that cushions the foot in the shoe, but they fail to address the problems with bending the foot into the extreme position that high heels demand in the first place. “Today is a new day,” raved Oprah as she interviewed Thompson on her show, “this is life changing!” 

Jeffreys would probably have a different interpretation. Accommodating such a harmful cultural practice is hardly a revolution. According to Jeffreys, there are several ways in which high heels fulfill the dictates of patriarchy: heels clarify gendered difference, evidence female fragility by providing a contrast to sturdy male shoes, and create a visual symbol of what is attractive or feminine as determined by males in power (128). Although American women may believe they are making a choice when they strap on the stilettos, the positive feedback they receive is merely the male approval awarded for complying with systemic standards of gendered beauty already in place. The system of rewards and punishments is not confined to the American subconscious alone, though. For example, a 2001 court ruling upheld the legality of a newly-implemented Harrah’s Casino policy that requires female employees to wear makeup and heels while on the job. Darlene Jesperson, a loyal employee of over twenty years, was fired because she refused to comply with the new “Personal Best” policy (Grams). Those in power are officially mandating misogyny.

The prevalence of high heels in fashion indicates that many women do feel as though the shoes are an enhancement, that they do bring out something of one’s personal best. Women claim that they feel more attractive and confident when wearing heels, but few stop to consider how this display is received. In addition to addressing the unnatural posture caused by wearing high heels, Jeffreys discusses the accompanying gait that men seem to find so attractive. When walking in heels, it is nearly impossible to run, jump, or do anything other than taking short steps--this, like the effect of wearing a tight skirt, creates a “mincing gait” that is appealing to many men (140). Foot fetishist William Rossi says that this sort of step evokes the historic concept of female bondage, which suggests, as Jeffreys remarks with grim profundity, that “men get excited, then, at seeing women walking like slaves in shackles” (140). As if this were not distressing enough, patriarchal society employs “womanblaming” as a tactic to obscure the male sense of accountability; that is, high heels could be said to be a tradition passed down from mother to daughter rather than a demand directly imposed by a male authority figure (145-144). Within this context, Oprah is not responsible for the physical and metaphorical crippling of millions of American women, but her approval of high heels reduces her to a tool in the hands of our male-dominated society.

At least some of Jeffreys’ motivation for writing the book must stem from our lack of cultural objectivity, and she draws some alarming parallels to Chinese footbinding in her chapter about foot fetishism. The original purpose of the practice was to prevent young women from running away from home before they could be married off, and thus existed as a method of controlling female sexuality (146). Like heels, footbinding “creates stereotyped roles for men and women, it emerges from the subordination of women and is for the benefit of men, it is justified by tradition, and it clearly harms the health of women and girl children” (147-148). Jeffreys goes on to cite some who argue that the practice can only only be understood within its cultural context; despite its misogynistic origins, footbinding lies at the center of a rich array of rituals that celebrate female skill and identity. One could, of course, make the same argument for daughters playing dress-up with Mom’s makeup and shoes. Many western men also believe that wearing high heels somehow stimulates a woman’s genital area and increases her libido, which resembles the Chinese foot fetishist assumption that footbinding creates layers in the vagina that make intercourse more exciting (Jeffreys 140). Such beliefs have had no merit in the past, though recent research done by Italian urologist Dr. Maria Cerruto suggests that wearing high heels of greater than two inches strengthens the pelvic floor muscles, which can assist in sexual performance and satisfaction (“Improve Sex Life”). Few podiatrists would agree, however, that the potential benefits of wearing high heels outweigh the physical damage that they cause.

The comparison to footbinding may seem dramatic, but the similarities between the two cultural practices make it clear that patriarchy is relatively uniform no matter how surprising its manifestations might be. It is important to remember how thoroughly we are conditioned by our culture and its traditions. High heels do not seem strange to Americans because they have been integral to female fashion for as long as anyone can remember; the trend is reinforced by celebrities like Oprah who desire or feel a responsibility to project a specific image that has been developed over the years. It is also very possible that Oprah has considered all of these issues and has other reasons for perpetuating the high heel standard. We are, however, still living in a time where physical appearance is valued over quality and substance, and that is the education we provide to each successive generation. Even with a relatively trivial thing like footwear, Oprah has a tremendous opportunity to counter the beauty standard currently in place. Just as she forced the public to accept her body no matter how much her weight fluctuated, she has the power to demand that women be accepted in their natural state without being hobbled for the sake of fashion. Oprah is already an excellent role model, but consider what she could get done if she could only walk around.

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