If you missed my first post about choosing high-quality high heels, feel free to catch up!
When I was a feisty little proto-diva on the brink of adolescence, roller rinks were a huge part of northern New Jersey teenage social life. (Are they again? I feel like I’m seeing more of them lately, now that my childhood is being mined for retro coolness and ironic nostalgia. THANKS HIPSTERS.) I was never going to be a roller derby badass or disco queen dazzling everyone with my flashy moves, but it was imperative that I have at least some grace and style. Pretty, popular girls could get away with helplessly shrieking and giggling as they clung to the walls like Bambi trying to walk on the ice and waited for their mulleted, rat-tailed, Z Cavaricci-clad princes to chivalrously escort them around the rink while showing off their ability to skate backwards and do spins. Weirdo nerd girls with braces and glasses, like me, had to rely on having enough independent skill to glide around the rink with our friends, unaided, if we were going to a) have any fun and b) avoid being mocked and/or terrorized by those same gangly Oompa-Loompas as they cut just close enough to us to make us panic and wipe out.
(This was some time ago and “adorkable” hadn’t been invented yet.)
As it turned out, I had a secret weapon: a best friend whose stoner parents owned the local punk biker bar, which they tended all night, leaving it wide open for the two of us on weekend mornings as they slept. She and I would put on our favorite music in the DJ booth, lace up our skates, and do laps around the bar and dance floor, practicing a couple of simple tricks that as I recall impressed exactly no one. We could go for hours in our own little private practice sessions. So by the time we actually hit the roller rink, we were able to hold our own and look just cool enough doing it to be blessedly invisible.
The point is, we never expected to just strap in and soar around the rink like old pros without having to, y’know, learn how to skate first.
And yet, nearly every time a non-high-heel wearer compliments me on my fabulous pumps, it’s accompanied by a gusty sigh and a, “How do you walk in those? I would just fall flat on my face!” As if the femme-of-center in question expects that she should be able to just hop into a pair of Jimmy Choos and strut her inner Samantha to life. Or something. I have to admit that I never actually watched Sex and the City but I’m pretty sure it was a show about wearing designer shoes despite consuming alarming amounts of alcohol and that being a Samantha is a thing one does as a result of watching it.
Anyway– I do have to cut those good people some slack. Most of them were assigned female at birth, which in this culture means that you actually ARE expected to emerge from the womb with your tiny Barbie feet already molded and just waiting for the moment that your first steps in sexy peeptoes carry you through the rite of passage to Real Womanhood. Those who never quite figured out how to manage that without looking like victims of Restless Leg Syndrome are often left feeling mystified, bewildered, even inadequate.
Let’s get one thing straight: It’s bullshit. Mastering the art of the high heel should be an empowered choice for any gender who loves how it looks and feels, but should in no way be a requirement for the vagina-having among us (or, for that matter, as a requirement for anyone to “pass” as sufficiently female). I’m often going to talk about high-femme stuff that’s traditionally been imposed on women, and to tell you how to pull it off, but it’s meant only to help those who enjoy it. The rest of you, feel free to skip to one of my pottymouth rants or something instead and tell the world that Mama Diva said they should shove their artificial gender expectations right up their stinky little buttholes. THAT’S RIGHT I SAID BUTTHOLES. GOOD DAY SIR I SAID GOOD DAY.
So now that we’re clear on that, let’s get down to business and get you up and walking like you were to the Manolo born!
First things first: Get yourself some training (w)heels
Probably the biggest reason that people who want to wear heels think they can’t do it is because they’re starting with shoes that are too high and/or delicate for someone without any experience in heels. Let’s fix that.
A great starter shoe is a simple character shoe— probably familiar to you if you take dance classes at all. They look like grown-up Mary Janes and you can get them for $25-40 on most dancewear sites. If you have a dancewear store near you, go try them on in person, because dance shoes can be sized a little differently from street shoes. Character shoes are made to have a little traction on the sole and to stand up to a lot of use, they go with most outfits, and once you know your size and brand, they’re easy to replace if you need new ones.
If you can’t or don’t want to do that, then I would recommend getting a simple pump with a low heel– 1.5 to 2 inches– and with a thicker heel, similar to the type on the character shoe. At this point, you want a lot of stability and just a little lift. Practical brands like Naturalizer, LifeStride, or Aerosoles will be overall pretty comfortable for not too much money.
A note on kitten heels– I hate them.
OK, that’s more of a personal bias than a note. But don’t get them for this purpose just because they’re on the lower-heel side. It’s better to have that thicker, solid heel underneath you so that you can focus on getting used to the change in your center of balance without also dealing with the wobble factor that you still get with kitten heels.
Next step: What happens in your body when you wear heels
(Disclaimer that I’m not a physical therapist, podiatrist, or any kind of person who is trained to give you professional advice about your anatomy. I’m drawing on years of experience as a dancer and movement artist as well as my own experience wearing heels, often daily, and dancing in them. If you have a specialist in your life who’s telling you that heels are a no-no for your health and well-being, for goddess’ sake listen to them.)
(Disclaimer #2: This section is intended for people who are able to stand and walk on two feet and do simple exercises unassisted. It’s not at all my intention to be ableist, and I hope that at least some of this is still useful to people who have some physical challenges but can still try out heels. Just want to acknowledge that bodies are different and that I am not assuming that everyone who reads this article has the same ability. I’m simply speaking from what I know.)
The second biggest reason, in my observation, that people struggle to wear high heels is that they try to stabilize themselves entirely with the muscles and tendons from their feet through their lower legs, clenching everything with rock-solid tension, especially in their ankles. That’s exhausting and it’s not supported by anything else in your body– no wonder you feel like you can’t wear heels!
Wearing high heels is a full-body commitment.
What I want you to do at this point is find something you can rest your hands on to help with balance– a kitchen counter or the back of a chair is good– and stand barefoot with your feet about hip width apart. Just a nice, relaxed, centered stance. Now try lifting up onto the balls of your feet, just until you feel your balance really starting to shift. Hold it for a few moments and be aware of what your body is doing, where it feels tense or shaky. You might notice any of these things happening:
- Your ankles wobble and you want to tense them up to keep them still
- Your toes try to grip the floor
- There’s strain or tension in your calves or shins
- You stick your butt out
- You stick your chest out, which might force your shoulders back and create tension in your back
- You find yourself leaning forward or holding tight to the counter or chair.
Lower yourself down and shake it out. And don’t worry– lots of people do those things. Now, let’s work on it.
This time, before you raise yourself up again, make sure you’re starting with good posture. Head up, shoulders square in a relaxed way so there’s no tension in your arms. Lift your chest without pushing it forward, like you’re giving yourself space to take a nice big breath.
Align your hips under your torso. This is the part that’s going to feel weird to a lot of you, because unless you do a lot of core strength work, there’s a good chance that you walk around with your back slightly hollowed or swayed and your butt sticking out or slouching. So make sure your feet are carrying about equal weight to center your hips, and then you want to tilt your pelvis so that your tailbone is pointing to the floor. Relax your thighs and knees to help with it. You should feel your lower back muscles lengthening and your lower abdomen muscles contracting. Don’t squeeze your butt muscles– you want your lower abs to do the work here. There’s a good chance that this will not feel very natural at first, because so many of us have crappy “duck” posture with tight lower back muscles and weak lower abs– especially us curvy girls who are carrying extra weight around our middle. If you struggle with this, you might want to spend some time working on posture until this feels more natural.
(Tip: If you’re having trouble with this, you can stand with your head, shoulder blades, and butt against a wall, knees slightly bent, then use your abs to slowly press your lower back against the wall, hold it, and relax. Or you can do the same thing lying on the floor with a rolled towel under your neck for support and your knees bent enough to put your feet flat on the floor. You want to feel your lower spine and tailbone connect with the floor/wall, so you know if your tailbone starts to lift that you’re tilting too far forward. When you relax, you should be able to fit one hand under your lower back just above your hips.)
Once you’ve got your hips aligned and your torso is high and open and your neck and shoulders are relaxed without sagging, make sure your weight is even between your feet and that your knees are soft and flexible, not locked or rigid. You can feel that your weight is resting evenly through your foot from ball through heel.
Now, lift one foot off the floor a few inches and try to hold your balance. You can just hold that foot up slightly, or you can put it against your other calf in a yoga tree pose. Try not to tense or grip; just feel the slight shift in your weight towards the foot on the floor. If you were looking in a mirror, you’d barely be able to see your posture change. If you’re feeling wobbly, let the quad muscle in your standing leg (that’s the front of your thigh) tighten and pull upward slightly, and make sure your core muscles, especially your lower abs, are engaged. (That means you feel them doing a little bit of work without tensing or straining.) It should feel a little easier to balance, and your ankles and lower legs should be making less effort. Keep breathing, so you don’t get shaky from lack of air!
Try this on one foot and then the other. Each time, make sure your entire sole is on the floor. If you find your foot starting to “roll” outwards so that the inside of your foot is lifting, check your hips to make sure you’re not pushing your standing leg hip outwards. If you are, realign yourself and engage your inner thigh to help keep your hips stable. VERY IMPORTANT: Through all of this, keep your knee slightly flexible, never rigidly locked.
Can you feel now how your whole body feels different? Taller, straighter, more energized, less tense or constricted? Yes, you’re going to be aware of muscles you forgot you had, and at first it’ll feel like you’re trying to remember to do a dozen things at once. It’s OK– over time, your muscle memory will take over and it’ll all feel a lot more natural. Plus, all of this is going to benefit you in everyday life, because good posture relieves muscle tension and strain, lets you breathe more deeply, helps prevent injury, and can even make you feel less stressed, more focused, more energized, and happier!
If you’re all about the heels, seriously, yoga and ballet are two of the best things you can do to build the balance and muscle stability you need to move effortlessly in your shoes.
Now let’s practice!
Get your shoes on, and make sure you’re trying them out in a spot with enough traction– slick hardwood floors or soft carpets are not your friend right now. Get your posture aligned like we talked about above, and enjoy the feeling of being strong and confident in your stance! Go on, power pose for a moment– you’ve earned it.
When you walk, let your leg extend without trying to force a big stride. You’re going to be taking smaller, slower steps than you’re used to in flats or sneakers, but you’re not mincing across the floor either. You’re going to touch down with your heel, and gradually shift your weight forward through your foot until the ball of your foot is down and you feel your weight pretty evenly through your whole foot. (A well-made shoe, as I said in my last post, can support you without forcing you to put more weight on your ball and toes.) Once you’re stable there, your back foot pushes off with your toes able to spread slightly to power your next step.
What you do NOT need to try to do is walk along an imaginary tightrope like you just got pulled over for a DUI. If that kind of slinky cat-walk feels natural to you, go for it. But those of us without a thigh gap might find it harder to keep balance when you’re squishing your legs together to try to affect that showgirl strut. Instead, envision a very narrow red carpet that’s just a little narrower than your feet in resting position, and let your steps fall just to either side of your midline without having to be perfectly centered. You’ll still get that elegant line and little hip sway but without struggling to stay upright.
To get into the rhythm of your walk, put on some downtempo music that makes you feel sexy– something about the speed you’d use for a cooldown. Just about any version of “Feelin’ Good” will work! (but really, Nina is what we all need.) Practice walking in time with the beat. You should feel unrushed and relaxed, your arms swinging naturally, a little bit of bounce in your step. If you have a hard time not scurrying, look at the spot across the room to which you’re heading and think, “You all can wait for me to get there.” Or just say it. Who cares if your cat gives you side-eye? You’re in charge of her kibble.
Practice privately as much as you need to, and when you’re ready to take it out in the world, wear your training heels as often as you can until they feel like second nature. (Tip: Only wear them when you know you’ll have plenty of chances to sit and take a breather, and when you don’t have to rush around. These are not athletic shoes.) Then, and ONLY then, should you go out and get yourself a pair of shoes with heels about 1/2 – 1″ taller, but still with thicker heels. Once you feel good in 3 or 4″ thick heels, then start trying thinner heels. Don’t rush this. Yes, someone like me can wear 5″ stilettos like it was nothing, but I started working my way up from the moment my mother let me wear anything more glamorous than saddle shoes, so it’s literally been in my body for decades now. It won’t kill you to take a few months or a year or even two to get truly comfortable in glam heels.
Next up…tips & tricks!
Now that you’re getting the basics down, take some time with that. I’ll be back with the last post in this series, which will give you some guidance about attending to your foot health when you love wearing heels, advanced maneuvers, workin’ it, and a few other little divalicious secrets.