Jerry Saltz on His First Time in High Heels

Admittedly, red’s not really his color. Photo: Jerry Saltz

Before I write another word, I have to admit that — more than usual — I’ve no idea what I’m talking about. All I know is, after yesterday, I will never be able to look at a woman in high heels the same way. Without some kind of awe.

On Wednesday, I stopped by Sylvie Fleury’s participatory-performative solo show at Salon 94. Fleury is known for her investigations of the fetishization of female glamour, luxury objects, makeup, media messages, fashion, and beauty, and the centerpiece of her current show — her first in New York in more than ten years — is a large Carl Andre–like silvery-metallic floor sculpture. Nearby are a chair, light stands, and a group of multicolored women’s high heels. I stared and turned to leave, whereupon two woman visitors said, “Are you afraid? Try them on and walk on the sculpture.” Feeling the sensation of “shrinkage,” I did. That’s when my life changed. And my body, I think.

I looked at the shoes as I never have before. Among my choices were neon-yellow and electric-blue pointy-toed patent-leather pumps by 2 Lips Too, gold-embossed “Snakeskin” black stiletto pumps by Boutique 9, and gold glittery stilettos with green and red glitter flecks by Penny Sue. I went for size and a yummy pair of candy-apple-red, mid-heel, round-toe patent-leather pumps from Nine West. (I had no idea that these shoes could become such detailed and extraordinary objects.) Putting them on wasn’t easy. After a tug here and there, splush, they slipped on.

My God. The misery began at once. I felt my feet take shapes they’d never had before. Squeezed, squished, pinned. I asked a woman if I could lean on her. I stood up. I have to say that, as a short man, I found it pretty amazing to be up this high. Nice view, I thought. As soon as the woman stepped away, the agony began. All my weight was on the front insides of the balls of my feet. As if a fire had been set inside my shoe! I could feel my skeleton screaming — shifting to compensate — and my sense of balance being thrown into high gear. I took a few steps onto the would-be Carl Andre sculpture. I couldn’t seem to walk without looking down. Sweat poured off my forehead as my body readjusted into an entirely new carriage. My ass seemed to turn into a shelf-thing; my knees locked; my lower back curved in a way it never had before; my pelvis thrust forward; and I grew moobs!

I felt totally alone up there, on display, an object, a God. People started taking pictures. But then my feet started burning, and my shoulders went into distress. After no more than five minutes up there, I teetered back to my chair. I think there were tears in my eyes.

Set aside whatever feminist messages are conveyed by stomping around in high heels on a reproduction of a sculpture by the alleged wife-murderer Carl Andre. I suddenly understood in my entire body and mind that women (or men) who wear these things are some badass macho motherfuckers! I’ve no idea how people wear these shoes, let alone walk in them, let alone do it all day on cement or cobblestone, dance in them, sometimes backward. Although I do understand now why people like to wear them in bed.

I love the idea of fashion, of being stylish, even hurting like hell to feel fashionable or pretty or just be a part of one’s moment. I love the idea of showing some skin without showing cleavage, of being taller, having the authority comes with that, having my legs elongated, my ass turned into a peacock plume. As for the moobs — well, let’s not go there.

I left in a daze. When I got home, I took three ibuprofen, by which time the ball of my left foot was throbbing badly, my right knee had new pangs, my back was still trying to relearn its curvature, my shoulder was cramping, and my neck was now twingy. This morning, I still feel some of the torment. I am afraid I will develop a bunion. But the world looks different. I’m sitting in my window looking out, amazed at the strutting, knowing that this means something to the wearer, wherever the need comes from, from pleasure, pain, or the “hideous industry” that drives women in particular to change their internal and external shapes. I want to go outside and ask every woman in high heels what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling. I asked my wife, and she just laughed at me.

This afternoon, wanting to understand more, I returned to Elizabeth Wilson’s Adorned in Dreams; Fashion and Modernity. I read, “fashion, including cosmetics, is women’s pornography, gratifying women’s highly developed sense of touch and their pleasure in their own bodies.” This may be wrong or essentialist. But it made new sense to me.