Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Nov 1, 2000
4 min read
Coloured X-ray of a woman's foot seen in side view, wearing a high-heeled shoe. The foot is forced to rest mainly on its toes, an unnatural position for walking

By Wilson da Silva

HIGH HEELS were not invented for comfort, as this coloured X-ray of a woman's foot wearing a stiletto shows. But they have long been considered stylish, although it took the 20th century to take heels to new heights.

Platform sandals have been around since 200 BC, when they were popular with Roman actors. Heels first appear around 1500 AD, originally devised as a way of keeping the foot inside the stirrup of a horse. This soon became a fashion statement. 

High heels are thought to have been invented by none other than the Italian Leonardo da Vinci. By 1533, history records that the short-statured Italian aristocrat Catherine de Medici, married at 14 to the Duke of Orleans, wore shoes with 50mm (2-inch) heels to exaggerate her height. By the mid-1500s, it was the height of style for both men and women to wear high heels, a fashion that persisted into the first half of the 19thcentury.

By the 20th century, women had taken over the high-heels stakes. The British invented ladies’ pumps, and the race for height reached its zenith in 1955 with the coming of the stiletto (an Italian word for dagger). 

They may be fashionable, but high heels are not exactly good for posture. Compare the main image with the accompanying X-ray of a man’s foot in side view, wearing a flat-soled boot. In the main image, the woman’s foot rests mainly on its toes, bone and the soft tissue of the lower foot. The foot is made up of many bones, including the calcaneus (heel bone), several tarsal bones, five metatarsals, and phalanges (toes). The foot in high heels is quite distorted compared with the foot in the boot. 

Feet specialists – podiatrists – believe heels taller than 50mm invite trouble. They’re bio-mechanically and orthopaedically unsound, they say. If worn over an extended period they can lead to knee and back problems, shortened calf muscles and an awkward, unnatural gait that increases the chances of falls and injuries. They are a fashion item, however, and women continue to wear them regardless of the risks or the discomfort.

These days, the trend is moving away from heels and toward more comfortable shoes: two-thirds of women now say they wear flat shoes (including sports shoes) to work and only 3 per cent wear heels more than 50mm tall.

X-rays are high-energy electromagnetic waves. They can penetrate flesh and skin, which are made of the light elements of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, but are blocked by the denser tissues like bone (containing heavier elements like calcium and phosphorus).

Repeated exposure to X-rays increases the chances of tissue damage and possibly cancer. Years ago, shoe salesmen used X-rays to measure a customer’s feet for size. The practice was discontinued when the health risks of X-rays were realised.