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High Heels and Workers' Rights

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, June 14, 2013

One of the strangest artifacts of American culture is the spiked heel as a symbol of female power. Many waitresses at America's casinos feel otherwise.

From Las Vegas to Atlantic City to the Connecticut woods, women balancing trays of drink have been forced to walk miles a day in high heels. Such labor practices, had they occurred in some far-away impoverished country, would have evoked international censure.

Waitresses negotiating their first union contract at Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Ledyard, Conn., have made the heels an issue. They are painful and, over time, foot-deforming. Some regard the requirement as a sneaky effort to get rid of older employees.    

Dr. Eric Levine is a podiatrist in Norwich, a few miles from Foxwoods. He's seen the feet.    

He shows high heel patients a cartoon of an elephant, standing with all four feet on a thumbtack. "It equals the pressure when you wear a 4-inch heel over an extended period of time," he told me. Or, to use another image, "It's like driving your car all on one wheel."    

In fairness, the Indian-owned Foxwoods demanded only a 2-inch heel and in recent negotiations dropped even that rule.    

"A 2-inch heel is biomechanically and structurally wonderful compared to a 4-inch heel," Levine said. Still, heels take their toll, especially as women age. (A high heel at a party now and then is OK, according to Levine.)    

Some foot doctors refuse to do bunion surgery unless the patient agrees not to wear high heels afterward. But some women won't give them up, and for compelling reasons.     

Levine: "I'll never forget when I heard a patient say, 'No matter how much my feet hurt, the higher the heel, the higher the tip.'"    

Which brings us to another issue for women in the hospitality business: sex. Night spots, however shabby, often try to sell themselves as sexy venues. Some want cleavage bared, in addition to spindly high heels.    

One theory goes that high heels are sexy because they suggest bondage. A woman in high heels is unable to run. That is an ironclad law, no matter how many James Bond movies you've seen.    

Not surprisingly, waitresses at Foxwoods talk dolefully of the day a consultant arrived, demanding a certain kind of "look." You know what that means.    

But we must be open-minded. Employers generally do have a right to insist on a uniform as a term of employment. In the entertainment sector, the look is often extraordinary. Should we shutter Playboy Clubs for requiring their waitresses to wear those silly little satin corsets? If a bunny thinks she's getting too old for this, perhaps it is time to find other employment. (Age sidelines baseball and tennis players all the time.)    

Let me reassure the sisterhood that I hold establishments obliging female servers to flaunt their sexuality in low regard. And there are certain cases -- flight attendants comes to mind -- where the campaign to reform the "look" and age limits for women brought a victory for female dignity.    

But again, there are businesses profiting off carnal instincts, and they contribute to our economy. And many young women -- Dr. Levine's foot patient, for one -- strut their stuff to enhance their paltry wages with generous tips from admiring-to-lecherous males. Who am I to stop the dance?    

There is a difference, though, when it comes to high heels. Showing cleavage does not create a condition demanding surgery. Tottering on heels week after week after month can.    

Heck, there's a movement to make offices provide ergonomic chairs to protect workers' backs. Shouldn't there be one to free female servers from walking all day on tacks?

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @fromaharrop.

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