Op-Ed

Here’s why you should care about a red stiletto emoji

An online brouhaha has erupted over women’s shoes. Well, not real shoes. Emoji shoes. The red emoji stiletto, to be specific.

The semi-controversy was sparked by public-relations expert Florie Hutchinson’s campaign to persuade the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee (yes, that’s a real thing) to add a ballet flat emoji.

Why should women be limited to a sexy red stiletto — the only official “women’s” shoe currently available in emoji-land? As Florie argued in her proposal, “a flat show would help pave the way to a more gender non-sexualized pictorial representation of the footwear category.”

Given all the serious things that are sapping women’s energy and stealing our attention these days, maybe it seems silly to talk about red stilettos or any other aspect of women’s wardrobes.

But women’s fashions exert legitimate power over women’s lives, and too often, we pay a steep price for the shoes and clothing we’re expected to wear.

The problem starts early. University of Michigan sociologist Karin Martin observed more than 100 children at five preschools and concluded that the way young girls were dressed inhibited their ability to move around. Turns out it’s hard to crawl around in a dress. Wearing a dress meant you couldn’t follow suit when your playmates propped their feet up on a table. The girls’ clothing was a continual source of distraction. Tights had to be yanked up. Bows had to be straightened.

Researchers at Kenyon College analyzed dozens of Halloween costumes, Valentine’s Day cards and action figures targeted at either girls or boys. Almost 90 percent of the female characters in these pieces of pop culture were adorned with what the researchers called “decorative clothing” — clothing that impedes movement. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of male characters wore functional clothing that encouraged free movement. A Spider-Man suit lets you run and play without worrying about exposing your body or tearing your costume. A crinoline-boosted princess gown requires you to sit like a lady, manage to avoid tripping on your skirts, and keep your head upright, lest you lose your tiara.

Things don’t seem to change much when girls become women. We wear Spanx to hide any jiggling, because controlling our body shape is more important than comfortably drawing oxygen into our lungs. We wear skirts that have to be tugged down when we walk, tops that have to be pulled up when we lean over. We wear dresses that require us to “suck in” for hours.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stilettos lately, ever since I read about an event called “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” It’s a combination fundraiser and awareness campaign to fight sexual assault and gender violence, in which men literally walk a mile in women’s shoes: red stilettos.

We’ll find out in November whether Hutchinson’s proposal was successful, when the emoji committee makes its official announcement. That little blue emoji ballet flat won’t rid the world of sexism. But it might provide a bit of inspiration to women struggling to find balance between being fashionable and being comfortable, to women who want to look good but also want to be able to run if they need to.

Renee Engeln is a psychology professor at Northwestern University. She is the author of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women."

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