High-heeled shoes (high heels) are frequently worn by many women and form an important part of female gender identity. Issues of explicit and implicit compulsion to wear high heels have been noted. Previous studies and reviews have provided evidence that high heels are detrimental to health. However, the evidence base remains fragmented and no review has covered both the epidemiological and biomechanical literature. In addition, no review has considered the psychosexual benefits that offer essential context in understanding the public health challenge of high heels.
We searched seven major bibliographic databases up to November 2016, in addition to supplementary searches. We initially identified all review articles of any design that assessed either the psychosexual benefits or negative musculoskeletal health effects of high heels, the latter looking at both the epidemiological and biomechanical perspectives. We additionally considered additional primary studies on areas that had not been reviewed before or in which a marked lack of evidence had been noted. Data were extracted onto standardised forms. Proportionate second review was conducted.
A total of 506 unique records were identified, 27 full-text publications were screened and 20 publications (7 reviews and 13 additional studies) were included in our evidence synthesis. The most up-to-date epidemiological review provides clear evidence of an association between high heel wear and hallux valgus, musculoskeletal pain and first-party injury. The body of biomechanical reviews provides clear evidence of changes indicative of increased risk of these outcomes, as well as osteoarthritis, which is not yet evidenced by epidemiological studies. There were no reviews on psychosexual benefits, but all five identified original studies provided evidence of increased attractiveness and/or an impact on men’s behaviour associated with high heel wear. With regard to second-party injury, evidence is limited to one descriptive study and eight case reports.
Our evidence synthesis clearly shows that high heels bring psychosexual benefits to women but are detrimental to their health. In light of this dilemma, it is important that women’s freedom of choice is respected and that any remaining issues of explicit or implicit compulsion are addressed.