When I was in my twenties, I thought that some day, in the not-too-distant future, there would be no more high heels, except perhaps for costumes in shows about the past. I figured that emancipated women who had finally gained rights and freedoms (at great effort over many centuries) would be unwilling to wear shoes that compromised their safety, health and mobility. So the revival of high heels – including the extreme high heels of the past decade – has come as a bit of a shock; though it probably shouldn’t.
Having just watched the documentary Miss Representation about women’s depictions in the media, I know how manipulative and destructive the messages can be for both girls and women, as well as for men and boys. While women’s depictions in media have always included sexist images and messages, the sexualization of women and their bodies seems to have hit a high (or rather low) point. And we see the effects in our sexualized children, the provocative clothes worn by little girls, and, yes, the persistence of high heels, which cause harm to our bodies.
It is so challenging to resist the manipulations from advertising which insidiously compel us to fulfill our deepest desires – for love, happiness, security, power, etc. — with products. If high heels promise to ensure that we are desired and powerful agents in the world, and if everyone around us wears them, many of us find ourselves compelled to wear them, too.
I’m a short woman at 5’1”, and when I was in college, my mother encouraged me to wear high heels so that I would be taller. I remember finding the implicit message that I was not okay as I was deeply dispiriting. I did periodically wear high heels back then, uncomfortable though they were and limiting my mobility as they did. I wore them to not only be taller, but also to be sexier and more attractive to men.
Eventually, I decided to forego heels for shoes that were comfortable (though I admit that I love when I find a pair of clogs or other comfortable shoes that give me some extra height; I’ve never been able to shake the familial and cultural message that height matters.)
What can be done? As a humane educator, someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, animal protection and environmental preservation in order to educate people to be solutionaries for a more just, humane and healthy world, I consider media literacy a key component to graduating a generation of conscientious choicemakers and changemakers. Learning how to analyze advertisements critically is profoundly important for diminishing advertising’s grip on us. When we are aware that we’re being manipulated, we are then able to reject that manipulation and take back some agency in our lives.
One way to reclaim our freedom from advertising’s brainwashing is to actively analyze ads. Doing so is fun, and kids in particular appreciate the opportunity to challenge the messages they receive. Here’s a simple activity to do with students from middle school through adult ed (or even in your own home with a group of friends or with your own kids):
- Choose a variety of advertisements for food, clothes, personal care products, cars, alcohol, tobacco, etc. Cover up the writing in the ad and ask what the ad is actually selling (only rarely will anyone be able to guess correctly).
- After revealing the copy on the ad, ask: What deep need or desire is the ad promising to fulfill with this product?
- Who is the intended audience and what do you think their response to this ad might be?
- What suffering, cruelty, and/or destruction is integral to this product (both through its production and its use) but is hidden from view?
- What would be an alternative that does more good and less harm?
By asking and answering these questions, we discover the power of resistance and reclaim our ability to choose based on our convictions and values, not just because of unconscious brainwashing. It’s a heady feeling knowing that we can take back our power from manipulators whose sole motive is profit-making, and it’s a much better feeling than the insecurity which led us previously to choose products because of false promises.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of heatheronhertravels via Creative Commons.