Fashion Forward and the Heels that Bit Me

Fashion Forward and the Heels that Bit Me

by Deb Yamanaka

In our post-pandemic world, companies continue to wrestle with whether or not to bring employees back into the office. There are great arguments for and against, and many of us have settled on a hybrid approach as sort of the best of both worlds – or at least a way to manage a lot of real employee issues we don’t really want to talk about.

Whether or not a company is pro or anti work-from-home, many of us have some great stories about transitioning from a commute that involved walking down the hall and making sure that you at least had a shirt on; to actually having to put on shoes, find your badge and wallet, and walk into a space that had actual live people.

I describe the early days of Excel’s return to the office as a group of people who had gone feral. Most of us got about 80 percent put together. My practical tendency to save time by buying pairs of shoes in more than one color is how I ended up in the office one morning wearing one navy blue shoe and one black shoe. I would have been mortified if I’d been the only one. But I wasn’t. And we had a good laugh about it.

Regardless of whether we’d gained weight or lost weight, most of us were struggling with fit. You could tell which shirts had been relied upon for the video calls during the prior year by the coffee stains down the front and the worn spots on the sleeves where arms had mostly been resting on a desk with hands hovered over a keyboard.

Worst yet was the few who had taken up sewing in lieu of bread baking, etc. Without going into detail, we have some very creative minds working here…

Mention the phrase “Dress Code” and you will hear opinions. Lots and lots of opinions. But Excel has one and we found ourselves needing to drag it out of the employee handbook and re-share it with our team. It pre-dated the pandemic and yes, included remote employees who spend most of their day on video calls. Excel is a “camera on” company. Our reputation is in our people. Our people ARE our reputation.

Ironically, the biggest area we get pushback on is heel height.

When you are working at Excel Headquarters, the maximum permissible heel height is 2.5 inches.

And sure enough, the reason for that limit was borne out when a young female intern ignored it one day, slipped when her heel broke, and sprained her ankle – which required her to call out for the remainder of the week.

It is very possible the end result would have been the same had she been below the heel limit but the reason for those limits stem from my own youthful love of stilettos, the sexy line of my feet in them, and the attention they brought.

I promise you; I didn’t wear them because they were comfortable. I wore them because I was young, fashionable, and because they garnered a lot of attention – which I conflated with respect.

I’d wear those heels while traversing the slick halls of the government agency I was at and more than once I slipped or tripped in them, finding myself frantically looking for something to hold onto while swiveling my head to see just who had noticed.

Over time my collection of heels under my desk grew as I favored more practical tennis shoes for driving, biking, or taking public transportation into the office part of my day. I’d bring my fashion forward shoes and then invariably leave them under my desk for future wearing.

Here was the message it took me years to receive. One of my male colleagues had a shoe fetish. He’d find a shoe from under my desk and put it on his desk as a decoration. His favorites were a pair of 3.5 inch burgundy snake skins with a gold zipper up the side.

If you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you that I have the right to wear what I want to wear and that included impractical, sexy shoes. Combined with the pencil skirts and hair in a bun look I really liked (yes, even in the 80’s), I felt strong and confident and heard. I was dead-on a force to be reckoned with. And what my colleague was telling me was that he found me, and my shoes, sexy.

In the 80’s that was a tool women knew how to use. A tool we’d been raised with. Our mothers had been raised with it. I was absolutely confident in the wisdom of wearing those high heels – even if the otherwise naturally athletic part of me knew I was actually stronger, more maneuverable, and more focused when not teetering on my tiptoes, worrying about wet floors, and feeling the fire inch up my arches, ankles, and calves.

By the time I’d exited my 20’s, my footwear had moved to still fashionable but also better suited to a woman who’d grown tired of having to worry (as much) about the stability of her shoes and the men whose eyes would wander from the arch of her foot up the calves of her legs or whose eyes would follow me down the hallway thanks to the derriere lift those heels brought.

I absolutely believe that women should have the right to wear those heels if that’s what they are most comfortable in. But what I often hear them say instead is that they feel confident and powerful in them.

I get it. And the genuine question I have is “why?” What is it about our society that women feel more powerful in a shoe that, by medical standards, isn’t good for them? Are we sending the right message?

The loudest argument I heard against the heel limit was from a senior man in the company at the time who argued that his petite wife needed to look taller and other women might feel the same need. My youngest, who is non-binary assigned female at birth stands 4’10” and has never felt the need to look taller as a part of their power. I’m cheering them on and hoping that they continue to stand strong in the face of an industry that is taking our hard-earned money and trying to convince us that our power comes from our heel height. I promise you, they matured out of impossibly high heeled shoes faster than snow melts in the Bahamas.

And I find refreshing the fact that some of the younger women in the company have a very “no way Jose” attitude toward the love affair Carrie Bradshaw had with her closet full of Jimmy Choos.

Meanwhile, our official casual dress code stands for many reasons and our employees in outward facing positions – to include those that regularly visit client sites and/or attend conferences and industry events – receive a clothing stipend from the company to cover the above and beyond costs.

But professional and powerful shouldn’t cripple us. And I can most certainly model success in my very practical footwear. Which Barbie also now knows…