Impact Factor: Clothed in Perceptions

The journal Fashion and Textiles recently published an article looking at whether women wearing heels are perceived differently than those wearing flats. The work expanded on previous work that found that men were more likely to approach and help women wearing heels than those who didn’t. It was also found in that study that heels had no effect on whether women would help other women. The conclusion of the study was that heels increase the attractiveness of women to men.  Two factors were identified. 1) heels change a woman’s gait by reducing stride length (small steps are found to be more feminine in many cultures); and 2) heels cause the pelvis to tilt forward changing woman’s posture and hip rotation.

Personally, I prefer wearing (comfortable heels) exactly because it changes my posture. I have had many hip problems throughout my lifetime and wearing heels assists my body to align my hips and activate my glutes while walking. I find it very difficult to stand with proper posture without the assistance of heels. I also like that my favourite pair of heels makes me about 6’2″, which gives me a lot of confidence as, for primates, a bigger stature is associated with power. I could imagine that the combination of these factors might change how I interact with men, which would in turn change how they interact with me. So, it is a little hard to know if it is the heels affecting men’s perception, or whether it is all of the factors that change the social interaction.

The new study in Fashion and Textiles set out to explore this by just showing people pictures of two women, one wearing heels and one not. They then asked participants to rate the pictures on several features. The pictures just focused on the woman’s posture and showed the woman from the shoulders to the mid calf.  The pictures did not show the shoes and, unbeknownst to the participants, the same woman was used for both pictures. Men rated the women in heels as sexier, prettier, younger, and more elegant. But interestingly, women also rated the woman in heels higher in these dimensions. It would appear that wearing heels changes the perception of both men and women, but only men change their behaviour based on the perception.

There are many studies about subtle things you can change in your appearance to alter how others treat you. Unfortunately, the literature seems skewed towards understanding how female looks change men’s behaviour, and I have seen less about how women change their behaviour around different visual cues from men. But it does raise an interesting question. Is it unethical to exploit these biological triggers to your advantage?

I know that I have many features that make me look child-like. This can be problematic because it can detract from my authority. Thus, depending on the situation, I might enhance or diminish those qualities to subconsciously alter how people interact with me. If I want a to seem non-threatening and get a lot of information out of a research informant, for example, I enhance the child-like features. Things like emphasize my wide-set eyes and adopt a smaller posture. On the other hand, going into a lecture hall, I stand tall and prefer make up that sharpens rather than softens my features. To a degree we all do this unconsciously, but is it ethical to do this consciously? What do you think? Tell me below in the comments.

Interesting Reads:

Guéguen, N., Stefan, J., & Renault, Q. (2016). Judgments toward women wearing high heels: a forced-choice evaluation. Fashion and Textiles, 3(1), 1-7.

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6 comments

  1. It’s interesting that this reasearch was published in Fashion and Textiles, it uses quite a subjective assessment of things my asking the samples conscious reactions. It would be interesting to do a similar experiment in an MRI to analyse how these images trigger responses in the brain. I wonder if we have been conditioned to believe heels are meant to be sexy because an instinctive sexual response will activate in a different part of the brain.

    • That is a good point. But they did try to guard against that by creating pictures that did not show what shoes the person was wearing. The picture stopped at the calf. And the purpose was to test subjective opinions. You can find the article here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s40691-016-0058-9 It is open access, you should be able to view it.

      It is not a perfect paper, but it brings up some really interesting ideas.

      If you do a similar thing using an MRI you will have to let me know. That would be fascinating. I did not know that instinctive sexual response activated a different area of the brain. I suspect that the reaction to heels is an instinctual reaction. Heels are often noted for accentuating the buttock and breasts, which are sexual displays.

      The article opened with a discussion on the colour red (which i felt was a little disconnected and out of place, but interesting) and discussed how it is associated with sex in men, but i was disappointed that there was no discussion as to whether women react the same way to men in red. If is a biological reaction to the colour red, i don’t see why it would be present in men but not women.

      • Thanks for the link, I will have a look at the original article. Sadly my passion for psychology and the brain is purely as an amateur, and I can only wish to have access to an MRI.

      • Who know, maybe the authors of the paper will come across this discussion when they google who is citing their paper and decide to follow up and do such a study. It is a good idea.

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