“You are so brave,” she said, a girl in my year at school who I barely knew. “I mean – look at you.” She gestured up and down my body and then pointed at my 4in wedge heels. “If I were you, I would feel like a freak. But here you are – owning it! Wandering around, saying, ‘I don’t give a shit what you all think of me! I’m massive and I’m wearing heels, so screw you!’”
But I wasn’t “owning it” at all. Quite the opposite – I didn’t want to own anything of my physical appearance; I would have preferred to say I borrowed my body from someone else and abdicate all ownership. I was 16, 6ft and three clothes sizes bigger than most of my tiny adolescent friends. I was giving a pair of heels a rare outing, as I normally felt so self-conscious in them, but after being told I was “brave” for wearing what every other girl was wearing, I went home.
Here’s the maddening thing about tall women wearing heels: none of us have a problem with it. A lot of us like wearing them. Why? For exactly the same reasons average-height women like wearing them: they can feel fun and feminine and coquettish; they can make you stand up straight and walk tall, feel confident and powerful; and – a lucky upside – they make your legs look elegant and endless.
I started wearing heels again in my twenties, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of commentary it would receive – always from men, incidentally. “You’re tall,” is the classic. See also: “You’re big/massive/gigantic/huge.” “Are you a man?” is punchy but impactful, as is a passive aggressive “Excuse me, sir”. “Why are you wearing heels?” is the one I find most offensive and most indicative that women’s bodies are still routinely monitored, like those signed-off rotas you see on service-station loo walls to show a cleaner has recently inspected it. “You’d look so much more normal without them. I would think you were much more attractive,” a man once said, as if I should have specifically got dressed that morning to appease the whims and desires of a middle-aged man in a Crew Clothing shirt in a grim Soho pub.
Here’s the maddening thing about tall women wearing heels: none of us have a problem with it
“You can’t complain about this, Dolly,” my friend’s husband said, sighing. “You bring it on yourself – you wearing heels is like an already obese person putting on a fat suit.”
But it wasn’t at all like that. Because there was literally nothing I could do to make myself shorter (I regularly looked into height-shortening surgery when I was a teenager). I was, if you’ll allow me to quote Lady Gaga, born this way. And, every time I wore heels, it felt like I was being punished and berated for daring to take up yet more space than I already did by just existing.
So, I continued to enjoy this accoutrement of womanhood from afar. I encouraged friends to buy heels. I stroked the display heels in Dune. I schlepped about at posh parties in the same pair of inoffensive black, shabby ballet pumps from Topshop that I would buy in bulk and convinced myself that it was all very Audrey Hepburn and gamine.
I found my way back to heels through a pair of classic, pointed-toe pumps – always my weakness – in red suede. And I decided that women are constantly told to be smaller – quieter, sweeter, less disruptive. I don’t tolerate it in any other part of my life, so why should I tolerate it when it comes to what I choose to wear? I armed myself with comebacks to the comments (I find men run out of things to say about my height once I alert them to the fact that it allows me to see exactly where they’re balding) and I revved myself up with the knowledge that towering at 6ft 4in in heels is no embarrassment to me, so it shouldn’t be an embarrassment for anyone else. Plus, it’s handy to have a likeminded army. My friends know what they’re up against if we go on a night out and that, the later it gets, the more likely it is I’ll be hit by a tidal wave of oafish vocalised observations. Sometimes I’ll just leave the managing of it to them, they’re so good at it.
Wearing heels when you’re 6ft tall doesn’t take bravery, but it takes chutzpah. And that, aged 29 instead of 16, is something I do finally have. Whatever the height of your body, whatever the height of your heel – I implore you to find a little, too.