When I see some of the lengths fashion-conscious women of the past went to to look à la mode—tightly laced corsets, skirts so wide they couldn’t sit on a chair and so on—I wonder how (and even why) they did it. I’m glad we’re now emancipated from such follies.
But there’s a fashion item women still wear every day that’s every bit as ridiculous, restricts movement, results in chronic lifelong pain and causes crippling injuries that sometimes have to be operated on.
It’s the shoe.
Look at your shoes right now. Chances are, if you’re a woman, the shape of your shoe is nothing like that of your natural foot. For example, feet don’t extend to a point with the longest toe being in the middle (a shoe shape marketed as “almond toed”); the inside of your foot is actually straight (or should be, if you haven’t damaged it with faulty footwear), then curves down and round to the small toe; your heels are not 5cm or 10cm higher than the ball of your foot.
While we can make some allowances for fashion – some padding and rouging and other trickery – shoes are taking it beyond the extreme.
Shoemakers are stuck: if they made lasts that truly followed the shape of the human foot, perhaps not many people would buy the resulting product. This is because of the influence of media and popular culture: everywhere, there is reinforcing “evidence” that assures us that all women are obsessed with shoes (Carrie Bradshaw and the Sex And the City crowd have a lot to answer for); that high heels and pointy toes are attractive, feminine and make you look slimmer; that “sensible” shoes are for nanas and they age you before your time.
I’ll tell you what’s ageing: aching feet all day that make you purse your lips and frown.
Yes, I went through my teens, 20s and 30s addicted to fashion, poring over high-fashion magazines, and spending all my spare cash on clothes and shoes. I wore high heels every day, even to the beach.
But I saw the light some time ago. Still, I have some footwear that I shouldn’t have bought.
In this area, men generally make better choices than women. Ironically, pointy-toed high heeled shoes were a male fashion in the 17th century (starting earlier as riding shoes), but somehow changed sexes along the way (cuban heels and cowboy boots excepted). Now men generally make much better choices on footwear than women do.
I was waiting on the train platform the other day with about a hundred other commuters, and I took a look at the shoes people were wearing.
I know men sometimes wear pointy shoes, or shoes that are too small, narrow or ill cut. However, the vast majority of men on that train platform were wearing shoes they could, at least, walk in—run in, if they had to—that wouldn’t put them in danger of falling over, twisting an ankle or developing bunions.
That night, not many of those men would have aching feet because of their shoes, I mused. And they looked good: cool sneakers, chunky workmanlike boots, suede slip-ons, even black patent leather shoes to go with a big-city job.
And what were the women wearing? Some, granted, were in comfortable shoes, even some of the younger women: I’ve read that flatties are in again. But most were in high heels, some so high and thin they could barely walk; and pointed toes; and toes that curved upwards slightly; and enormous stacked heels that made them look like something out of a 1980s glam rock band (though I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing—I loved those bands).
There wouldn’t be a high-heel wearer alive who hadn’t got her heel caught in lawn, or a drain, or other trap multiple times, and tripped, fallen or had to remove the shoe to extract it.
Our own former Prime Minister had two well documented and highly embarrassing shoe moments, both of which would not have happened if she were wearing better equipped footwear. One was on a visit to India, when the PM’s heel became lodged in the lawn and she actually tumbled right over in front of the cameras. I cringe for her every time I see the clip.
As Gillard explained it at the following press conference, “For men who get to wear flat shoes all day every day: if you wear a heel, it can get embedded in soft grass, then when you pull your foot out, the rest of it doesn’t come, and the rest of it is as you saw.”
She also lost a shoe when she was extracted (in a ridiculous manner, I thought) from a situation involving Australia Day protesters in 2012 that her security team had deemed dangerous. In this case, she wasn’t even able to retrieve her shoe and had to leave it behind. It ended up with the Aboriginal tent embassy of long-term protesters in Canberra (they’ve been there 40 years). Check out the sensationalised report from the time:
Such is the power of this fashion “statement”, that even a deeply committed feminist and pioneer such as Gillard (our first female PM) couldn’t bring herself to defy its dictates.
It’s hard to buy women’s shoes that are truly comfortable and never hurt no matter how much you walk in them. My own workaday comfortable shoes have been wonderful, though they were so soft they offered little support. Anyway, they have worn out and I need to buy new ones. We have recently moved and I was delighted to see that there was a specialist shoe shop in our village with row upon row of comfortable but attractive-looking shoes.
They’re expensive, but I don’t mind paying extra for shoes that look good but won’t hurt me.
Well, I tried on every pair of shoes in my size in that shop, much to the exasperation of the assistant. Nothing came close to comfortable. She assured me they would “give” and that I would wear them in. But in my experience, shoes that pinch when you buy them still pinch in the same places when you’ve worn them in.
I noticed that one brand that purports to be a wide and comfortable fitting had those pointy toes that are “on trend” at the moment. The UK online site I used to buy my shoes from calls them “almond toes” and has put them on all its ankle boots.
I questioned the assistant about the “almond toe”, saying, but isn’t this brand supposed to be health-conscious? Do they have any round toes?”
She shook her head, “No, their boots are all pointed this year.”
Well, Mr or Ms Shoemaker, this is what I have to say to you: “A foot is not an almond.”
I couldn’t agree more with you, Caron, about women’s footwear. I’ve had my share of ridiculously uncomfortable shoes that were the height of fashion. I still can’t work out why people buy those shoes, ‘though I did myself as a very young woman. Not now. To be honest, my first criterion now is comfort. If a shoe isn’t comfortable, I just am not interested.
Yes, and it’s so hard to find truly comfortable shoes. When I do, I should buy three pairs. But they’re usually extremely expensive, also. There’s nothing worse than being out for the day and getting that pinching feeling as you set off down the road…
I’m so sorry you’re having to hunt. I feel your pain, Caron! Women’s shoe shopping is an endless nightmare for me, and not just for comfort reasons. I am down to one—ONE—shoe brand that is narrow enough for my feet. That shoe brand, Naturalizer, has a few stores here and there, but none of those stores carry narrow shoes that you can try on. You have to order narrow shoes online. If they don’t fit, you pay to send them back. Cobblers can widen shoes, but they can’t do much of anything to narrow them (and inserts suck).
I’d found Naturalizer’s shoes were consistently narrow enough for me that I wasn’t having to pay for nothing in return, but just this past week I ordered some sandals from them…and the narrow is too wide. When I look at it, I see that it is a design issue more than that the shoe is too wide. A back strap, which is necessary for my narrow heel, has been placed in such a way as to look good but not quite hold your foot in correctly. It’s so frustrating.
If any of your other readers have narrow feet, they might be helped by a recent question about narrow shoe brands that I posted on Ask MetaFilter. It looks like there are a few around, but generally I’m screwed.
Maybe I should pay to have my feet altered into a wide almond shape.
Hah! Cosmetic surgery for almond-shaped feet! Thanks for that link. I was thinking of you as I was writing this, too, knowing that you have narrow feet and it’s just as hard for you as those of us who have wide feet. I have wide feet, but narrow heels, which means most shoes cut for wide feet always slip off my ankles. Grrr!
The narrow heel thing seems to be really common among women! And yet so few of the shoes cater to this. Why do they hate us?
I know! That’s the way it seems. And shoe shop assistants always telling you the shoes will “wear in” and will stop hurting after a while. Sometimes they do, but most times they don’t.
Oh, I love this post. I have lived it. I have a closet full of shoes I live to look at, should never have bought and cannot wear. And you’re right, it is almost impossible to buy a pair of shoes that are comfortable and look good. It drives me crazy!! I have a pair of flats that are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever had — they are wrecked but I hang on to them because I can’t find a decent replacement. Oh, woe is me!!!
Yes, I have a pair of flats that are comfortable but so terribly worn out that they have holes. Woe is me, too!
If you have narrow feet as I do, try the Ecco brand.
Thanks, Kay. I will let Kate know.
I’m barefoot, which is always my preferred choice of footwear. 🙂
Yes, when I lived in Thailand, I got so used to being in bare feet. The first place I worked was a school, and we all—teachers and pupils—had bare feet inside. The second was a magazine, and there was a “no shoes inside” rule too, and I wore lovely silk slippers. There was no point in worrying about wearing gorgeous shoes in Thailand, either, because as soon as you arrived at someone’s house for, say, a party, you had to leave your shoes at the door. It was hard moving back to Australia to get used to the idea of wearing shoes inside workplaces again.
I would be very happy in Asia where you have to remove your shoes. Sometimes, I take my shoes off at work and walk around barefoot. My coworkers look at me strangely.
Yes, and when you get used to working barefoot, it seems very strange to think that some people wear shoes!
The older I get, the more comfortable I want–and yet. Oh, and yet. I find myself wanting to look fashionable–and the round toe bit with no heel just makes me look like a pear. Sigh. My sensible side vs. my vanity, I guess.
I know, I know! In fact, in the past, I always found flat shoes less comfortable than those with a bit of a heel—but I’m trying to adapt. After feeling tall all my life, now I feel short in my flat shoes.
My feet are agreeing with everything you have said in this post. I’ve tried not to abuse them with high heels and narrow points at the ends, but even flats aren’t always a good solution if they don’t have good support. I also remember the horrible patent leather torture devices my mother made me wear every Sunday for church and “dress up” events as a child. They hurt so much, but my crying fell on deaf ears. As an adult, I still don’t think she did me any favors!
True regarding flatties, particularly if they’re too narrow to start with. My mother, who has had a major operation on both feet to correct bunions, tells the story of when she was a girl and wanted shoes exactly like her best friend’s because they’d decided to pretend they were twins. She could only buy the shoes in a size too small, and put up with awful pain for the sake of wearing these pretty patent leather shoes.
I was raised in a no-shoes-in-the-house family with genes for big feet, so I’m used to wearing comfortable footwear most of the time, and to buying men’s sneakers for everyday use. Playing a barefoot sport in the martial arts sector just adds to craving comfortable shoes in which I can move freely (and defend myself).
There’s one single pair of high-heeled ankle boots in my possession, and only because I love the colour. My favourite shoes these days are a pair of soft leather ankle boots with broad, round tips and a little bit of heel – just 2-3 cm of extra sole thickness in the back third; I’m so happy I can wear them again now that it’s cold outside again (they are a little too big, so I have to wear at least one additional layer of socks).
Those boots sound perfect. I love it when I can find shoes that look good AND don’t make my feet feel like they’re about to break off.