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Women's shoes: what's the big deal?

(by Matt Shaw, The Happy Magazine)


There’s really only one thing a man must know about women’s shoes: they’re a great icebreaker for a conversation with nearly any woman. (The effect may be heightened if the man’s shoes are themselves tidy and well-polished.) Much less clear to most men and women alike is why shoes hold such a special place with women. What’s the big deal with women’s shoes anyway?


Newsflash: women really like shoes. A majority even use the word “love” in describing their relationship with footwear. “The real meaning of things is your feelings towards them,” says Teddy Langschmidt, president of Hotspex, a market research firm that analyzes the emotions that products generate in consumers- making him an expert. Professionally speaking, on desire. “Men and women mostly agree on the things that elicit the greatest longing, or desire – with one major exception. If shown a series of images that evoke desire, men will invariably choose pictures of naked women as the most arousing and desirable images. Women choose pictures of shoes and accessories. In addition, women’s desire for shoes significantly exceeds men’s desire for naked women. These findings are remarkably consistent across time and demographic so we see them over and over again.”


130% of George and Brad


It’s well understood that men are most strongly affected by visual stimuli and women most strongly bond with emotions. But how is it that men and women are able to collectively agree on the colours (red and pink), shapes (circles and curves) and music (salsa and rock) that are the most desirable – and to differ so profoundly in our attraction to shoes? What is the relationship between a woman’s shoes and her emotions? And are shoes really 30% more desirable than George Clooney or Brad Pitt, as Langschmidt’s data concludes?


When should you choose to use any of the above information as a conversational icebreaker, do not ask a woman if she thinks her shoes are sexier than Brad Pitt. She will be embarrassed, and more importantly, she may not understand why she thinks the way she does about her shoes, or she may be reluctant to admit she loves shoes in the first place – and, try as you might, you might not understand, either.


The Happy Place


Anne Naugler of Saskatoon is a perfectly typical and pleasant young woman and schoolteacher who happens to own the region’s largest repository of size seven and a half women’s shoes. One room of her house is lined with shoes from floor to ceiling on all four sides. The effect of row upon row of colourful shoes is the illusion that at any moment the shoes Jill descend from the walls and walks about, like a scene from Mary Poppins. “They are not charged with the same pressures and body-image anxiety of other types of clothing or accessories. They actually deflect that pressure.” Anne refuses to count how many pairs of shoes she owns. To do so would spoil it she says, and besides, it’s not about the number of shoes she has, but how they make her feel: sexy, happy, even powerful, or special. Her friends call the shoe room “the happy place.” And for a moment, I almost understand – the room is bright lit in both the primary and complex colours of pumps, running shoes and flats, calmly and neatly ordered. Shoes waiting to be plucked from the shelves and showboated in the room ‘s mirrors. “When I told my father my plans for the room, he was unimpressed,” says Anne, laughing. “But when he finally saw it, all he had to say was that I really needed more green shoes!” For a man, maybe that’s as close to understanding as it gets.


While she has very special feelings for a particular rack holding her most treasured pairs, she is not entirely certain why she feels this way, nor can she further explain why men only partially understand.


Body, Mind and Shoe


Clinical psychologist Dr. Joti Samra suggests a possible explanation rooted in physiology and psychological conditioning. Consider a pair of classic women’s pumps: to wear them is to effect a literal transformation of the body by improving posture and making one feel taller. As every woman tells me, wearing heels takes skill, confidence and even physical endurance: they change the way a woman carries herself. “These physical details absolutely have the ability to affect our emotions,” says Dr. Samra. “If you consider how the act of wearing heels may positively affect a woman’s mood, and then consider the occasions when a woman wears them – special occasions in which she is taking care of herself, feels most at ease or assertive and in control – it makes sense that she would develop very powerful positive associations with her shoes.” And would men feel the same about their shoes? Probably not, says Dr. Samra: men may behave somewhat differently when wearing work boots instead of worn-out sneakers or polished wingtips, but the positive physical changes these shoes cause are much less drastic. Factor in other gender- specific differences, such as the particular pressures of mass media on a woman’s body image, and the gap grows. “A woman’s shoes are a neutral zone,” says Dr. Samra. “They are not charged with the same pressures and body-image anxiety of other types of clothing or accessories. They actually deflect that pressure.”


She Surely Shops for Shoes


What about this loaded question: do women really need to buy more shoes? “Shopping itself is a source of pleasure,” says counselor and psychotherapist Kimberly Moffit. Studies have demonstrated that the act of shopping actually produces neurotransmitters that profoundly affect our mood – the same neurotransmitters that make us feel good. “It’s well-known that women respond more strongly than men to emotional connections. So imagine what happens when a woman combines of the pleasurable experience of shopping itself with the positive feelings women can get from their shoes!”


Despite these very powerful and real reactions to shoes, a full grown woman might still think it immature or vain, indulgent or silly to admit that she loves shoes in the first place, especially to the strange man who accosts her on a downtown street – or phones from across the country to seriously ask her opinion on something that seems trivial.


Every interview for this story began much the same way, with an explanation of credentials to allay the “suspicious creep factor” and establish an aura of professionalism and seriousness, often destroyed moments later with his first serious question: “do you love your shoes?”


The Language of Love


What is often most interesting is not whether women say they do or don’t love shoes, but the manner in which they respond. It usually goes like this: the question is asked; the woman pauses, laughs or smiles; then she answers impulsively and with enthusiasm. The corresponding emotions might first be confusion or relief, followed by a moment of genuine pleasure, which is expressed regardless of whether or not the interviewee truly enjoys shoes. It is the pleasure of being asked such a frivolous, even ridiculous question – which, as psychotherapist and counselor Kimberly Moffit confirms, “is she admitting an indulgence.”


For that is in part, as Anne Naugler and others say, what makes shoes so much fun. They are a bright and colourful distraction from the day to day, and a rare treat for a women who may otherwise rarely take much time for herself. Leave the black and brown at home; a woman’s shoes may be as bold as she chooses. Shoes give her the freedom to express herself confidently in a way that clothing, so often associated with body image anxiety, cannot.


She may choose the height and style that suits her assertiveness and mood, and enjoy the instant confidence that comes from wearing them. That which she has desired – the pair that she has specifically chosen – now makes her feel more attractive, beautiful, desirable, powerful, in control.


Despite her considerable shoe collection, Anne’s attitude towards her shoes is not so much different from that of many other women, even if she has acquired more shoes than most. She is also not immune to the telling momentary pause or verbal nuances that hint at a deeper layer of a woman’s complex feelings towards her shoes. She answers the question, “Do you love your shoes?” as many others, with the usual pattern of pause, relief, and positive response – followed by a qualifier, an explanation, or a full on recant. She loves shoes but is wary of appearing to love them too much. Common themes among the responses include practicality (“I love shoes, but I’m more of a practical person”), previous youthful immaturity (“Well, I used to really love shoes, but not so much anymore”) and gender (“I love shoes, but I just can’t explain it to you”). Both Dr. Joti Samra and Kimberly Mofit suggest there is an element of same in there responses – the shame of financially irresponsibility or appear overly indulgent.


Men, and Women’s Footwear

Perhaps its more than any man could hope to understand. Are these deflections merely caution or polite, intended to ward off an interloping male, or do they indicate deeper, more complex later of meaning?


One piece of practical advice: men should conduct the experiment themselves. Asking a woman about her shoes always triggers a response of some kind; at best. It might provoke a rare insight into the female mind. If not, many women are utterly charmed by the subject of shoes. And that someone has noticed hers – and doesn’t every woman deserve to be charmed? That’s a secret George Clooney understands. We can’t all be like George, but if you know something about a woman’s shoes, you don’t have to be – studies would suggest you’re already sexier than he is.


How’s that for an icebreaker?


Matt Shaw puts ideas into words for corporations, charities, social enterprises and publications. He couldn ‘t walk in heels if he tried.


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