First, it was the corset. Now, the fashion industry has brought back skin-tight jeans, disco leotards and 7-inch platforms. And for accessories? Look for corns, bunions, sprained ankles, bruises, yeast infections and chafing.
Yes, for many of us, beauty and pain often walk hand in hand. But how far are we willing to go for fashion? For some, it’s all the way to the emergency room.
Heather Swanson, a 33-year-old photographer from Manhattan, broke a bone and ripped a ligament in her foot while wearing her favorite pair of 5 ½-inch leopard-print platforms. “I would always plan on not walking, but then you end up walking more than you think you will. The night it happened, I was on my feet the whole night.”
Until she tripped. Unfortunately, the taller you are, the harder you fall. Swanson’s injury forced her out of her heels and into a cast for six weeks, but that hardly dissuaded her from giving up heels entirely. Instead, she makes do with 4-inch platforms. “I like to wear heels because I feel more confident and therefore more sexy," she explains. "But I’m writing some of this off to being young and retarded.”
Renate Raymond, another 33-year-old woman, this one from Seattle, developed an abusive fashion relationship with her slimming BodyShaper. “The first time I wore it, I had bruises all over my body where it had cut off my circulation,” she says. “But even with the bruising, I put it right back on so I could look good in my clothes. I’m like a battered wife.”
Thong-induced infections, puncture wounds from underwire bras, tortured toes from stilettos — why do women put up with this stuff?
“We’ve all accepted that there’s agony that goes with looking fashionable and attractive,” says Carly Milne, a Los Angeles-based author who says at least a quarter of her closet causes her pain (a puzzle-piece corset even gave her skin lacerations). “If it makes us feel sexy on the outside, we’re willing to make the sacrifice. All we think about is, ‘Holy cow, do I ever look hot in those Manolos.’”
Julie Fredrickson, editor-in-chief of Coutorture.com, attributes our masochistic relationship with clothing to a style version of Stockholm syndrome.
“The clothes might be torturing you, but you become used to it,” she says. “The heels, the tight skirt, it all becomes a part of your life. They put you in pain, but you think, ‘No, it’s worth it.’”
Suffering for a perceived beauty ideal is hardly new, of course. In China, women endured foot binding to achieve an idealized dainty foot. And up until the 20th century, restricting corsets reigned supreme. But in this era of "The Beauty Myth" and body-positive Web sites like AdiosBarbie.com, haven’t we moved beyond all that?
Yes and no, says Milne.
“Redefining beauty takes a really long time,” she says. “And we’re in the process of trying to undo centuries of thinking. People are still wearing binding high heels and corsets, only now it’s not so much a mandatory thing.”
Or is it? A stroll through the newsstand or surf through the channels will produce all sorts of dictatorial “fashion don’ts” and warnings about “What Not to Wear.” Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty aside, isn’t the media slowing down our sensible-shoed march toward progress?
“It’s too easy to blame it on the media,” says Coutorture.com’s Fredrickson. “I’m not sure it’s a cultural thing — there might just be innate forms of beauty that we respond to.”
It’s responding to those innate forms — the exaggerated cleavage of the bustier, the curved arch of the high heel — without winding up with bruises or bunion surgery that’s the trick. And in a world where style-makers indulge in haute couture hi-jinks like Glamour’s recent 100-meter Stiletto Run and designers continue to produce women’s clothing based on an hourglass ideal despite the fact that most of our bodies are rectangular or pear-shaped, parsing the fine line between beauty and pain can be as difficult as squeezing into a pair of freshly laundered drainpipe jeans.
What can be done? For some women, like Renee Sedliar, a 35-year-old San Francisco editor who blames a pair of 4-inch red leather sandals for her sprained ankle, it’s a matter of making the tough choice.
“After years of heels, I’ve become almost exclusively dedicated to flats,” she says. “Let’s face it, there’s nothing like walking around in really sexy, fabulous shoes, but if you can’t hide the grimace of pain or oozing blood or swelling toes…”
For others, a common sense approach holds the key.
“The message is not that you should never wear these things, it’s more like have some sense and do it in moderation,” says Dr. Sherry A. Marts of the Society for Women’s Health Research. “If you’re going to have to walk six blocks to go to a club, slip your heels into a tote and wear flats until you get there. And if you’re going to wear a corset, make sure you can still take a deep breath.”
Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the recently released "."