For Background Extras in TV and Movies, High Heels Are Still a Sexist Double Standard

male female feet high heels shoes dance floor disco

There are unavoidable occupational hazards out there in the modern American workplace but having to wear high heels should not be one of them.

If this is not self-evident already, let’s recall that:

— Wearing high heels leads to significant long term damage to one’s orthopedic health, causing a lot of pain in the process.

— Other than stroking our dysmorphic sense of aesthetics, high heels are useless in the workplace. Wearing heels does not enhance productivity of any particular task. On the contrary, high heels impede most physical performance as they literally limit one’s ability to walk.

— Wearing high heels is expected only from women, making it a sexist requirement and I have a problem with that.

Being a freelance writer, I don’t even have to put pants on every day, never mind formal footwear. So, I have kind of forgotten that high heels were a “thing” out there, still forced on women as part of their professional uniform. That is until I started moonlighting in the show business which turned out to be a “shoe business” I cannot abide by.

New York City is basically a real-size movie set for many Hollywood productions. And so, to break up the isolated, sedentary work cycle of the home office, I occasionally sign up as a non-union “background extra” for TV shows and movies.

Even though the pay is nothing to write home about, there is no denying that it’s a fascinating scene. You get a behind-the-curtain look at how movie magic is made. The sets are amazing, the logistics of production are awe-inspiring and the background extras are a funky bunch of New York dwellers that are fun to get to know and to observe.

Sure, the hours are dismal: you can easily start at 6 a.m. and go for fourteen hours. And then need to come back at 7 a.m. the next day and do it all over again. Your time is divided between shooting the actual scenes and the be-ready-at-any-moment waiting outside the set to be called back in. Many hours of this can be quite grueling, without opportunity to sit down for long stretches of time and involving uncomfortably cold or hot temperatures.

But I can work with all that!! Because, frankly, the life of an NYC freelance writer / language translator is no less intense than the show biz — but with none of the ego dividends! My schedule can be erratic, gigs come in spurts and, when they do, I go on deadline-driven writing / researching binges for days and nights non-stop. During those peaks, I can get pretty underslept and malnourished, while the rest of the time is filled with mounting anxiety about what’s next. These are the occupational hazards of what I do.

In comparison, ten-plus hours on the movie set is not so bad! Being a background extra is all about physicality, energy, attitude and doing what one is told. I get to use my attention span for following instructions and getting into the spirit of the scene, not generating knowledge or catching subtle errors. This kind of work allows my overactive brain to rest and I gratefully welcome the relief.

But, you guys, I just can’t with the fucking high heels!

I realize it’s cinema and it’s all about things appearing exactly right. But is it fair to expect people (ahem women) to wreck their orthopedic health for an illusion? We shouldn’t risk it for anything, ideally, but definitely not for the sake of being a visually pleasing blur in the background of a 1-second shot. At near-minimum wage. With no benefits.

The last movie shoot I did involved a very high-energy dance scene that took several hours to wrap up. It required a prior fitting during which I was assigned a pair of 4.5 inch high heel boots that could have only been concocted by Satan himself on a day he was in a particularly foul mood.

But actually, those torture devices posing as shoes were made by a certain well-known New York fashion designer who shall not be named for purely comedic purposes. Instead, he will be referred to by an alias created from scrambling his first and last name: Space Zon.

And so, I wonder if Space Zon ever tried on his own creations. Mr. Zon is a fashionable man, known around town for wearing heeled footwear himself  — just nothing like the towering beartraps he crafts for women.

Mind you, 4.5 inch heels might not even be the end of the world, if they are remotely designed for human functionality. But these puppies were super unbalanced in the heel and if that weren’t barbaric enough, the toes were pointed up.

I invite everyone reading this right now to take a moment to do a mock recreation of this scenario with your own foot:

—  First, stand on your tiptoes where the foot is at about an 80-degree angle upwards from the toes.

— Now, try to stretch those all-your-weight-bearing toes UPWARDS.

A physical near-impossibility, no? But women wear crazy footwear like this all the time! Yet, I guarantee you, we wouldn’t do this to ourselves without social pressures or financial incentives. Even sexual masochists might want to keep away from shoes like these. Knee surgery is not sexy and neither are the bills.

Anyway, at the fitting, after trying on the abominable Space Zon boots, I asked the wardrobe people to please give me something more humane. But because the outfits had already been lined up and photographed, they were not keen to switch out the boots and assured me that I would be fine. “You look absolutely killer in them,” they said, as if that helped. Hearing the word “killer”, I actually imagined myself tumbling dramatically down the movie set stairs to my death, Space Zon smarmily smiling and waving buh-bye at me from the top of the staircase…

I’ve never had any beef with this particular designer but now that I’ve had the personal displeasure of wearing one of your creations, you’re on my radar, Space Zon. Consider yourself my **arch** nemesis…

I went home after that fitting session with major anxiety welling up. I knew for a fact that agony was coming my way on the day of the shoot — and that there would be hell to pay afterwards. I spent the next week buying up knee and ankle support sleeves and rubbing crazy amounts of castor oil into my joints.

Each day leading up to the shoot, the nervousness got worse. And the anger started creeping in too. How the hell is it even legal to expect people to sacrifice their bodies for this bullshit??

And this is where the gender inequality is apparent: male extras do not have to decide between working and injuring themselves or not working at all — but it’s a choice women in the same position have to make on the daily.

You be the judge. There are both men and women on the set of a movie shoot, alternating between acting and standing around for hours waiting to be called in. But one group is doing it in loafers and athletic flats, while most members of the other group are teetering on stilt-like foot contraptions. For at least ten hours straight. Can it really be said that the two groups are working the same job? Seems like one of them is laboring harder and, more importantly, in a hazardous environment.

They say American women make only 79 cents on a man’s dollar (well, that’s a statistic about white women, while African American, Native American and Latina women make even less than that…) But it’s not just the salary: it’s health compromises that figure into the wage gap equation too. In this particular job as a non-unionized background extra in the film / TV industry, while both men and women get paid the same [pittance], the women are doing lasting damage to their bodies that will, in no uncertain terms, cost them more money down the road!

Back to the movie set. My worry was completely confirmed on the day of the shoot: the boots did not get any more wearable since I tried them on during fitting. Everyone was directed to act wildly enthusiastic. The whole time I was hobble-hopping around that dance floor with an ecstatic smile plastered across my face, my mind was going:







It wasn’t even about the pain, which was considerable but, like most women, I’m used to grinning and dissociating myself from whatever is going on “down yonder in the foot regions”. It was about the very real possibility of wiping out on that dance floor because either one or both of my ankles would eventually snap to the side and bring me down. Or I could very easily slip or be pushed by another dancer — and these leather foot binds were NOT made for regaining one’s balance, were they, Mr. Space Zon? Gravity is fake news and equilibrium is overrated anyway.

Could I have spoken up some more? Yes. And risk being branded a problematic presence on the set. The pressure to do what one is told on a mega-budget movie set cannot be overstated. It crackles through the air like electricity. If superstar leading actors like Uma Thurman can be bullied into doing a stunt she knew would get her injured, what chance is there for the rest of us?

Extras are really there to be animated furniture. Talking on or off the set is not in the job description. Complaining gums up the rapid-fire works of the filming dynamics. It is pretty understood that you just suck it up and do what you gotta do. It’s true: the crew has a lot to pay attention to and babysitting extras isn’t part of the plan (and most of the time they are quite gracious about it.)

And I am very down with cooperating and staying the hell out of everyone’s way. But the bottom line is that it was dangerous for me to spend hours dancing in the cruel Space Zon hellboots and though, by some miracle, I didn’t take a spill that night, I added more damage to my joints.

Since that time, I only sign up for the dowdier background roles, where I am allowed to bring my own shoes that are not high heels. As you can imagine, this cuts down my options significantly.

But, like I said, I just can’t with the high heels, not anymore. I spent over a decade of my physical prime running around in skyscraper pumps that would put RuPaul’s drag queen brigade to shame. I was that chick on the dance floor doing pirouettes in breakneck platforms. Because catering to the male gaze was the default behavior at the time and I was classically too immature to not be flattered by the attention and too shortsighted to care about future health fallout.

And then there is the fact that, until recent years, flats were not an available retail option for young women: ladies’ footwear almost always had some sort of unnatural elevation, it was just a question of degree of discomfort.

But now, we have sophisticated foams, gels and goos to cushion our overworked extremities!! And kick-ass athletic footwear. And I’m sure attractive “feminine” shoes could also be designed with better materials and health priorities in mind (are you listening, Space Zon & Co.?) No one should subject themselves to torture by bad footwear when memory foam technology exists. I love it so much, I even have a marketing slogan for them:

“It’s Memory Foam — or Go Hoam!”

Memory Foam, if you’re reading this, it’s my humble gift to you for enhancing my mobility.

For what it’s worth, even pampered celebrities are giving up high heels because the self-abuse is too much. Of all people, Victoria Beckham, the poster child for strappy stilettos, has tossed the pumps for flats and seems pretty unashamed about it. Is this the Apocalypse?? Or is it that, once women mature out of needing to please everyone, they can take a critical look at all the unhealthy, self-destructive vanity practices they engage in to impress men and “society at large” and decide that they are over it?

Well, that’s one part of it. The other, sadder, factor is that after many years of mistreatment our limbs just give out and refuse to function under stressful, unnatural conditions, leaving us no choice but to start wearing “comfort shoes”…

And so, it’s pretty much good-bye to being a film extra for me. Being that I am not even an actor, this is mercifully not a big deal, though I’m pretty bummed to have to give up work over sexist double-standards.

One upside: not having to suffer through any more bone-bending squeezewear by the likes of Space Zon and his sadistic fashionati colleagues.

If there is a Hell, I hope they spend an eternity there walking around on 4.5 inch iron spikes nailed directly into the bottoms of their feet and wearing sausage casing from actual sausages that is several sizes too small to breathe or move in… I mean, that’s actually still not as painful as what their models have to endure on the runway, but let’s be generous with our hell-wishing.

14 thoughts on “For Background Extras in TV and Movies, High Heels Are Still a Sexist Double Standard

  1. By your logic childbirth is a sexist double standard, as your requirements are that one gender does it, and it is dangerous. By this sense, I can say that going to war after being conscripted was a sexist double standard (It was), and that anything a man has to do that a women doesn’t is sexism. The invention of high heels was for Persian soldiers, and to quote, “High heels weren’t even originally invented for women.” This proves that it was not sexism, but how men and women wear that caused the difference in footwear

    • Only women giving birth is not “my” requirement, it’s nature’s LOL Not much any of us can do about that, like it or not. Natural differences, however, don’t have to translate into social inequalities — but that’s a different tangent.

      Back to heels. Don’t just go by what a random internet source has to say in a paragraph: you need more info if you’re going to debate historical trends. If you delve into this topic, you’ll find that “high heels” for men and women throughout history are nowhere in the same category. Those Persian soldiers you refer to — as well as cowboys throughout many nations — they invented these footwear adjustments for purely utilitarian reasons: they needed their feet to not slip out of the saddle stirrups when they were riding horses, so they came up with the “heels” that you find on modern cowboy boots. It is also healthy for a human foot to use footwear with a slight elevation, it actually improves mobility. So these guys lifehacked their clunky boots to make improvements that helped them do their jobs and be more comfortable. It had nothing to do with aesthetics.

      Women’s footwear has a distinctly different historical flavor: it has everything to do with restricting movement, speed and capability. In ancient China, women would get their feet bound from early childhood, so that their feet looked like disfigured stumps by adulthood. Ever try to run away when your feet are mangled sticks? Not gonna make it very far — and that was the point — to control women physically and psychologically. Modern women’s high heels, again, unlike men’s heels, are the opposite of functional. Have you ever tried to do anything in stilettos? Those things are evil LOL To facilitate this oppression, women have been sold a myth that it makes them more attractive and desirable to other men, so they should love wearing these awful things. The lie worked — but it’s a mentality that does women no favors. Then again, it’s not exactly a “choice” as there is a ton of pressure to do this. For decades, you couldn’t actually buy flats for women on the American marketplace, they didn’t exist. I can tell you, my Grandmother, who already had tiny feet, was forced to wear shoes a size or two smaller because her husband “needed” her feet to “look” more “feminine” in public. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to see her feet by old age — let’s just say they didn’t look like feet. I guarantee you, my grandmother would not have put herself through this useless torture, were she not forced by heavy societal expectation and judgment.

      And so, context is everything. “High heels” were never the same for men and women throughout history, not even close (put cowboy boots and high-heel pumps side by side and ask yourself — if you HAD to choose, which of these options would you rather wear on the daily?) For men, heel elevation was designed to be helpful to staying put on a horse. For women, restrictive, unstable footwear was designed under the guise of improving “aesthetics” that would be pleasing to the men, while making it really difficult for women to run for safety or get very far. Modern men are not expected to wear high heels to work. Modern women are. Do you honestly think that’s fair?

  2. With the 1900s bringing two devastating world wars, many countries set wartime regulations for rationing almost all aspects of life. This included materials previously used for making heels, such as silk, rubber, or leather; these began to be replaced with cork and wooden soles.[13] Another one of the numerous outcomes of these wars was an increase in international relations, and a more proliferate sharing of fashion through photography and films, which helped spread high heel fashion as well.[9] Examples of this were the brown and white pumps with cutouts or ankle straps combined with an open toe.[13] Their practicality yet professional look appealed to the new, fast-paced lifestyle of many women.

    Alternatively, World War II led to the popularization of pin-up girl posters, which men would often hang in their bunks while at war. Almost all of these girls were pictured wearing high heels, leading to an increase in the relationship between high heels and female sexuality.[3] The tall, skinny stiletto heel was invented in 1950, strengthening the relationship between women, sexuality, and appearance.[10] There was a weakening of the stiletto style during both the late 1960s / early 1970s and also 1990s when block heels were more prominent, followed by a revival in the 2000s.

    • Nobody, if you were in my class, this right here^^ would get a solid “F” and a referral to the Dean’s office. Two reasons:

      1. Obviously plagiarism. Lifting other people’s words off the internet and using them as your own is a serious offense.
      2. Having no point of your own to make. What are you trying to say by copypasting these random paragraphs on the topic of high heels at me? Did you even read them? There is nothing in there to counter what I was saying whatsoever.

  3. Also, A French woman broke a world record for running a marathon in high heels when she finished the Paris Marathon with a time of 6:04:07.

    Christelle Doyhambehere, 34, of Pau, smashed the record previously set at the Chattanooga, Tenn., marathon by U.S. woman Irene Sewell, who ran the 26.2 miles in 7:27:53.

    Doyhambehere said her accomplishment was inspired by her partner, who joked she should try to run a marathon in her heels after watching her sprint to the car in the rain about a year ago.

    Sewell said she trained in tennis shoes during the day and ran in her heels at night to prevent photos of her unusual footwear choice from going viral on social media before the marathon.

    The runner, whose accomplishment raised funds for children’s charity Koala, said she has submitted evidence of her run to Guinness World Records.

    • ^^So??

      I asked you before if you thought it was fair that modern men don’t have to wear heels to the workplace and many modern women do. It’s ok if you don’t answer me, it is actually wiser to refrain from commenting on topics you haven’t thought through, I can respect that.

  4. Yes, I quoted a website after reading it, and this isn’t fucking Rutgers, and I don’t go there so you can’t report me. Also, the thing that this speaks on is that high heels were popularized by women.

    • I’m sure we can agree that if someone takes the time to respond to your queries, you can take the time to formulate your own argument in your own words. Are you actually interested in the topic of footwear, workplace and sexism?

      • I am, and I took time to formulate that, but the use of another’s words can be used to show that you have a strong, and supported argument, as my 2 sources established that:
        1. Heels were brought mainstream by women, for women.
        2. It is not to constrain women’s ability to do things.
        Now I am not a Republican, and I am not a fascist. (I wanted to establish that, as some people have called me that when I oppose their view). Although I do agree that at many points men did bring the product to the shelves, is that bad? I mean, I’m sure that a woman has brought a piece of menswear to the front. Now, I do at least thank you for not reverting to name-calling, and BS facts, but please also refrain from exaggerating things. I mean, I know walking in heels is hard, but not as painful as having your feet nailed in with a spike because you sold people a popular product.


        P.S. I write nobody because then I can still keep a feeling of formality in these posts, and not treat it as a horrid thing on the internet as I might if I didn’t think of it as somewhat formal.

        • Internet sources don’t “establish” or “prove” anything — they require a critical argument to put them in context. Just because women buy and wear heels does not make it a good thing (see my previous points about societal pressure and lack of other options). No one has argued that women can’t do things in heels — only that high heels are restrictive and unhealthy. The professional runner who chose to run a marathon in heels did it to challenge herself and beat a record — precisely because it is much harder to move in heels: she did it in spite of the difficulty, not because it was easier.

          But none of this is even the point of my article — I’m talking about separate standards for men and women when it comes to dresscode in the workplace. That’s sexism.

          If, according to your hypothetical scenario, women introduced a piece of menswear to the mainstream that was damaging to men’s health and mobility, that would be a terrible thing too. But that hasn’t happened. You know why? Because, unlike women, men are not in the habit of enduring supremely uncomfortable / painful / restrictive fashion choices for the sheer benefit of looking attractive to the opposite sex. That’s why men ditched heeled footwear as soon as they stopped riding horses: because the invention outlived its purpose. For women, the invention of heels was not to help them do stuff — but to look attractive to men — and since the pressures to look attractive is still very much there — it’s harder to purge those awful things from our wardrobe. And the point of my article is that, even when women want to switch to flats, that’s not always an option at the workplace.

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