Tuesday, 27 September 2016

"Porter Asks - Are Heels a Feminist Issue?"

(An Essay Response)

No, is the resounding answer to that question given by Vassi Chamberlain in Issue 16 of Porter Magazine. Chamberlain argues that categorising the question of heel-wearing as a feminist concern exaggerates its importance and conflates the driving forces behind the shoe-wearing habits of women.

I agree - I don't think it's a feminist issue. But, in the context that this particular spat arose, I do think it's an issue. I think it's a diversity issue: a blinkered statement that there is only one way to embody a particular status or aspiration.

I'm not in favour of the total abolition of enforced dress codes. Rules and codes; norms and social definitions - they all have their place in creating coherence and a sense of belonging; it was one of things that fascinated me the most during my jurisprudence studies at Oxford. And by profession, I'm a lawyer (albeit not in practice anymore) - so disdain for the regulation of behaviour is not in my DNA. But sometimes these things overstep the mark. Or more accurately, they define the mark so narrowly that they leave people on the outside looking in and questioning their place, when it should be obvious to the world that something so trivial or irrelevant should not be grounds for exclusion.

Mostly, these exclusions are not deliberate. Mostly, it's just a default assumption in subtle operation. Sometimes, it's framed within a policy. Sometimes, it's just "the way things are".

Like when I write an article and can barely find any stock photos that don't have white people's arms, hands or feet doing whatever activity it is that I want to illustrate. Or when I said to a particular school teacher that I want to go to a particular college and was told not to bother because "it's full of Etonians" i.e. I wouldn't fit in. Or if I am implicitly told by a dress code that professionalism requires heels, even though my height makes them redundant and wearing them would actually undermine my ability to present myself confidently to others.

Let's face it: we all know that whether heels constitute an instrument of oppression is not the most important issue in the world. I am currently in the drawn out yet still relatively painful stages of early labour as I write this, which lends a heightened sense of perspective (read: indifference) to my attitude to all this. I thought the furore around the PwC dress code debacle was over; I didn't think we were still talking about it. Maybe the fact that I am is just evidence of how badly I want any kind of distraction right now.

But maybe distraction is part of the problem with this whole discussion - the fact that it's so easy to preoccupy ourselves with dissecting the narrowest interpretations of complicated issues, rather than face up to the wider whole: the broader inequalities that have real and lasting impact, but no easy answers. Things likes ingrained and unhelpful stereotypes, unconscious bias and institutionalised race/sex/age-isms; escalating on through to denials of a voice and social representation, of legal rights and even acts of intimidation and violence.

I love the concluding lines at the end of Chamberlain's article: "... let's stop pretending this is a feminist issue, let's stop being so judgmental and get on with the business of enjoying ourselves, and feeling comfortable..." But to that I would add "and let's make it possible for others to do the same".

I'm addressing those of us who hold some sway over the definition of what's acceptable in our spheres of influence - whether that's drafting the dress code of a corporation, influencing the aspirations of school children; or curating the range of photos available for adverts and editorials. Whether that's just choosing the words we use to talk about what is or isn't a normal and valued way of being in the world. So I guess I'm addressing all of us - including and especially myself.

Let's all leave a little more room for the people who don't fit within our assumptions, but still deserve a place in the conversation.

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