Friday Weird Science: Hot Hot High Heels.

Jan 11 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

I feel like I am contractually* obligated to pull out the high heels for this post.


(My fav heels. Lipstick added for good measure)

Everyone knows why we wear high heels, right? For the sexy times, of course! In fact, it's not just sexy times, it's biological sexy times. As the headlines cried out to me this week "OFFICIAL SCIENCE: HIGH HEELS MAKE YOU SEXY (LADIES)".

But is it the heels? And what does this mean? Strap on your stilettos, and let's take a look.

Morris et al. "High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of
female attractiveness" Evolution and Human Behavior, 2013.

The authors wanted to look at the effects of heels on measures of attractiveness. They took 12 women, and had them walk on a treadmill, at the same pace, in both flats and heels (6cm heels, it was a standardized pair). All the women were well used to walking in heels and did so at least once a week. While they did this, they constructed point light displays centered on the shoulders, hips, and legs of the women. This allowed then to look at the way the women moved biomechanically without also including how they looked, but just by looking at the movement of points of light. The net result looks like this:
(Sexy, right?)

After the women walked, the authors had 120 people (most of which were female, interestingly) judge the walkers. they were asked to rate them on attractiveness, guess how old they were, and then guess if they were male or female (trick question). The authors also analyzed the effect of the heels on gait.

What they found was that heels dramatically altered a woman's gait (as one might expect when you balance someone on their toes and tell them to walk). The heels shortened the stride length and resulted in them taking more steps. They also showed a big increase in pelvic tilt and hip rotation.

...but they also showed a big increase in attractiveness.
(Ok, except poor subject number 2, who apparently doesn't have a very good walk regardless. I hope they didn't tell the subjects, that seems kind of insulting)

The walkers in flat shoes were also more likely to be mistaken for men. The authors conclude that the heels produce walking that is "characteristic of female gait", and that women wear heels to increase their attractiveness (interestingly, the women who viewed the walkers judged the heel wearing walkers to be more attractive than the male walkers did). But the authors got no correlation between the biomechanical changes produced by the heels and the increase in attractiveness rating.

They concluded that women walk sexier in heels, and that this means that the heels function as a "super-stimulus", over-emphasizing secondary sex characteristics (like hip sway) which are sexually attractive. They then compare our Louboutins to the big red swellings of a baboon's butt in heat (really, it's just an example of a super stimulus, but I found it awfully funny). They also suggest that, because high heels have endured over time (by 'over time' they mean 'over the last 5 centuries', because the heel as we know it did not exist before then), that the heel transcends fashion trends because it emphasizes the sexy characteristics of our bodies.

Me, I don't know. Especially about that last one. There are many fashion trends emphasizing the sexy parts of our bodies that never lasted more than a season. Consider the bustle, consider the codpiece. They definitely emphasize sex characteristics, but they haven't walked the runways in 100 years at least.

But as the authors of this paper point out, heels have a history. But I'm not sure it's as sexually focused as they like to think. In the middle ages, men and women wore platforms shoes, called chopines, which were strapped on over your normal shoes, and used to lift you out of mess of human waste that passed for a street. These chopines could be up to 30 inches tall. The popularity of just a heel on the shoe is credited to Catherine de Medici. She wasn't after sexy, she was out to look taller, but they soon became a status symbol. In the 17th and 18th centuries, heels were worn by both women and men, by women to look taller and give them a delicate walk (though "delicate" is relative, original heels were impossible to walk in without a cane), and by men to increase their height and show off their fetchingly sexy calves.

And high heels do set off the female body (and possibly the male) to advantage, sending you off balance so you have to thrust out your butt and thrust your breasts forward (and, incidentally, causing potential for lower back pain due to that pelvic tilt I mentioned above). So the idea that wearing heels is a sexual mating strategy is not a bad one, and the idea that heels might serve as a supra-normal stimulus to signal sex appeal is certainly a good question.

But it's a question that this paper cannot truly answer. There's just too much culture there. Yes, the watchers were not told who was wearing heels and who wasn't. They were just looking at a walking shape. But we all know what a "sexy" walking shape "looks like". We have ALL been exposed to stuff like this:

And we all know that that TYPE of walk is what is supposed to be sexy. We know that sexy is associated with the kind of walking done in heels. When there's so much history tied up in it, I don't think we can definitively say that the walking they observed was more attractive because heels increase attractiveness. It could be more attractive because that's what we've been taught to think. Secondly, are the women changing their walk in the heels due to cultural factors? Most of us have been told that heels make us feel more feminine, and all these women may have believed it. They may have walked more attractively as a result. Finally, the women could have been walking more attractively because the heels make them feel sexy. We've all been told heels are sexy. We've all seen the movies and the videos. And most every little kid who has wanted to put on heels has wanted to add that little swing to their step. By the time you're an adult, that little swing has become a lot bigger, and a lot more subconscious. I also find it very interesting that the authors couldn't get a correlation between the biomechanical changes and the ratings of attractiveness. I would think that, say, if it all came down to pelvic tilt biologically, you would at least see a correlation there, which makes me wonder if this really is all the result of a high heeled culture rather than a deep high heeled drive.

The authors noted all of these limitations, actually. They are very careful in their discussion to include the many cultural factors, and to stress that their study may show something about the confluence of culture and evolution. They do NOT straight up say that "SCIENCE SAYS HEELS MAKE YOU WALK SEXY". Leave that headline to the media.

In other words, as the authors point out, this study cannot separate out what is really biologically "attractive", and what is behavior that we have learned is attractive and are acting out because of it. And until you can separate out what we've been taught to think and what we, deep down, find "attractive", you can't really get the stiletto into the evo psych of heels. Don't get me wrong, the hypothesis may be right, heels may very well hit to secondary sex characteristics right on the nose and serve as a super-signal. But until you can get people who have never seen a pump before to tell you that walk is hot, evolution has not fully explained high heels.

Morris, P., White, J., Morrison, E., & Fisher, K. (2012). High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of female attractiveness Evolution and Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.11.006

*Confession: I have no contract.

21 responses so far

  • I predict the next paper by Stuart Brody will be on high heels and vaginal orgasm:

    "Women who wear high heels have more vaginal orgasms"

    or even

    "History of wearing high heels causes more frequent of vaginal orgasms"

    (given this actual paper: "A woman's history of vaginal orgasm is discernible from her walk". I believe you even wrote about that one...)

    • Scicurious says:

      I predict the first. Published by 2014 at the very least. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I did write about that last one. I wasn't nearly as critical and potentially nasty as I could have been. Maybe I'll redo it.

  • becca says:

    "Consider the bustle, consider the codpiece. "
    Though there are any number of articles on fashion trends (including dark wash skinny jeans) that make your butt look bigger.
    And I'm pretty sure the codpiece didn't go out until after the 80s. I'm sure David Bowie had one in Labyrinth.

  • "this study cannot separate out what is really biologically "attractive", and what is behavior that we have learned is attractive and are acting out because of it".

    Well said. It's so tempting to think one has found the "deep biological roots" of some cultural behavior, but the entanglement of evolution and culture makes that project problematic, if not suspect.

  • ...and damn, those are some nice shoes!

  • Katie says:

    I want to see the follow-up study with hetero, cis, men wearing high heels. Assuming that you have a training period for the guys so they can walk "comfortably" in heels, researchers could possibly better parse whether the guys "feel" sexy is a factor and whether the biomechanical changes are consistent between M/F and heels/not.

    Plus I really want to help run the study where I get to teach guys how to walk in heels and make them practice.

    • Scicurious says:

      I think all participants, male and female, should be taught to walk in heels by drag queens, because drag queens can WALK in heels. Not stompy down the runway model walk, but WALK.

  • Zuska says:

    I'm too sexy for my shoes.

    Also, evo psych is a never-ending barrel of laffs.

  • chall says:

    I would have liked to know which # subject I was considering that #3,6 and 10 had big differences between their "flat" walk and "heel" walk since obviously there must be some differences in the walks there ^^

    I'm a little bit confused on the "attractiveness and the BMI" that the authors point to in section 3.2 which leads me to believe they sort of showed the actual points of the person walking rather than "transferring the dots moving to a 'general computer model" and then show that.... since I wonder if the people watching the dots saw the bigger/smaller distances between the dots laterally and therefore 'knew' it was a bigger/smaller person (which in reality may be the same overall probelm as you point out with 'what the viewer percieve as attractiveness"?)

    I really like those shoew in the first pic though! Seem comfortable and good looking at the same time ๐Ÿ™‚

  • OmegaMom says:

    Another WEIRD effect. I'd like to see the study reproduced with folks from a variety of the world's societies judging "attractiveness".

    Like your heels (though I'd never wear them myself!).

  • Anon says:

    Since when are ~2 in heels sexy?!

  • [...] Scicurious wrote an excellent piece on research about the sexiness of high heels. [...]

  • sjfone says:

    So much for the control of malaria.

  • Arno Arrak says:

    That paper is pretty trivial and the authors don't get beyond cultural stereotypes. For example, they have no idea that a number of men are not just attracted to women in heels but want to wear heels themselves. They are not homosexuals or drag queens or want to be in drag at all with the exception of wearing heels. Usually married, they hide it from their wives. When the wife finds heels she is likely to suspect him of cheating. How did they get that way? Here is where physiology comes in. It turns out that practically all of the self-confessed ones on the web had tried their mother's or big sister's heels on as children and got to like them. Apparently it is necessary to have that experience before age 15, judging by those who answered that question on the web. For girls that is also probably true. This is physiology at work - a subject you should know something about. We know, for example, that certain things are easy to learn for children but hard for adults. Language learning is actually impossible if you don't hear spoken language before age nine. Once a youthful habit like wearing heels is acquired it becomes totally addictive, may be dormant for years, and then re-emerge because of some trivial cue.This is true of both men and women. The difference is that women do it as part of their daily routine while men hide it. As to why it becomes addictive, it probably has to do with the universal mammalian reflex of extending the forefoot in sexual activity. It serves no functional purpose in homo but the neural connections apparently can be activated if used before puberty.

  • Claudia says:

    Can we get some chimps or monkeys to wear the heels and judge them? And maybe train the chimps or monkeys to rate attractiveness...

  • taha says:

    The Taliban had a very serious penalty for women who wore high heels. They reasoned the click of heels gave off a very feminine sound and would distract soldiers from the horrid aestic life they were living. Travel to any major urban center around the world and you will find heels popular. The average farm woman in the middle east farms in flats but goes to weddings in stilettos. Heels I find are a universal language for young women. When a woman travels, a useful phrase to learn to make instant friends are: nice heels

  • Jesse says:

    OK, question:

    So many Evo psych studies, and so few that seem to be at all careful or think about cultural influence. Heck, the average undergrad used in many of these studies is hardly representative of their own culture, let alone anything else.

    Now, we are animals, we are descended from a common ancestor of primates, as well as other creatures. So it makes perfect sense to me that some social behaviors would manifest as a result of long periods of natural and "artificial" selection (for instance, a preference in some cultures for marrying people with certain attitudes/behavioral traits could, theoretically, eventually result in such things being hard-wired, at least in terms of the bell curve of capacities that humans have -- you'd expect that curve to shift a bit over many generations, so what is "average" in that group differs from others).

    BUT. It seems to me that this kind of stuff is devilishly hard to tease out, and it seems illogical to me that very specific social behaviors that are largely culture-dependent could be ascribed to natural selection when the period for most of these things is so short. And I'm not even talking about stuff that you have to dig deep about-- you don't need to be a feminist scholar or cultural anthropologist to know that what's considered sexually attractive in Madagascar will differ from England -- and that most of our current cultures would be near-unrecognizable to people from even 200 years ago. Imagine a typical small shop owner from 17th century New Amsterdam being deposited in lower Manhattan today.

    So, why the heck is it that evo psych people can't take o things that are a little more defensible?

    I mean, to give a bit of anecdata, I have a cousin who studied primates in Africa. And now she teaches school. She said to me once that there's an awful lot of broad similarity between the way teenagers behave and the primates (I don't remember the species she was working on). Kids engage in display, "grooming", dominance/ submission and she said you could even pick out the alpha males and females. She would joke that she started applying the same mental math that she used in Africa and it was sort of frightening how well it worked.

    Now THAT wold be an interesting study, if there was a way to design it. I mean, it would be fascinating to look at a group of teens and track that kind of stuff and see where the behaviors are closest. Maybe it's been done already.

    That's an evo psych study I could get behind, though again I am not sure how to set it up ethically. But I don't see anything like that in the literature that gets any publicity either here or generally. What's up? don't think it's controversial that you could pick out broad behaviors.

    So I don't get why evo psyh people seem to choose hypotheses that are so easily taken apart. Any ideas?

  • […] illustrate my final point, I turn to a recent post from Scicurious on the supposed significance of wearing high heels. Itโ€™s a classic Sci takedown, and itโ€™s worth […]

Leave a Reply