I’m doing a shoe purge. It sounds like I’ve got a huge shoe closet (maybe I do) but the reason I do is because it takes a long time for me to acknowledge that shoes I’ve spent good money on hurt my feet. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking my shoes will stretch. And leather shoes do stretch but when the toe box is so small – well sometimes I wonder who the manufacturers think have feet like that.
These shoes seem reasonable, don’t they? Sensible, even. So here is an outline of my foot and here are the shoes (The blue line is from the Newport loafers on the right). Apart from being way too long (and a good thing too because look what my toes would have to do to fit all the way down that pointy toe box) the width doesn’t look all that too small. But even without any socks on the metatarsal bones in my forefoot are squeezed. I can hear a little popping sound with every step. With socks on they feel like compression shoes.
The next photo shows what happens when we wear shoes with a too-small toe box, forever. We’ve been told that bunions are genetic. They are: you inherited your mother and grandmother’s taste in a smart shoe that unfortunately has a small toe box. Wearing the shoes does the rest.
So these shoes have to go because of the small toe box, but there is another consideration in my purge: heel height.
Heel height is contentious. Fashion people tell us to choose heel height to ‘fix our proportions’:
- If you’ve got short legs and a long torso, high heels will make you seem proportioned.
- The shorter the skirt the lower the heel.
- If you’ve got long legs you can wear flats.
- Heels go with dressy boot legged pants.
So to be healthy we should only wear short skirts and/or get longer legs.
But seriously, your skeletal frame and muscles don’t give a hoot about fashion or your proportions. We are finely engineered machines made up of levers, pulleys, joints and angles and while we have some individual differences, the skeletal frame and attachments are pretty much the same for everyone. What is different is the way individuals use their body and this is a mixture of cultural influences and the type of work and play someone does. But even if you’ve never done anything too extreme with your body, putting on a heeled shoe changes the stable structure that supports your frame.
Still most of us are surprised that wearing shoes with heels causes pain and deformity. Sadly the pain from wearing heeled shoes doesn’t end at the feet. It affects the length of the muscles in your lower legs, thighs, pelvis and lower back, middle back, shoulders, and neck. ALL the bones and joints in your body have to change in order to compensate for the unnatural angle we’ve put our feet into.
And I should add here, the shoes do not have to be high to cause problems. I am at a point where I can feel what is happening to my body when I wear my sensible under 2″ heels. I feel it primarily in my lower back. They have to go. And by this measure, most ‘walking’ shoes and athletic shoes have the same problem.
In the line drawing below, looks what happens if you add a ‘sensible’ heeled-shoe under a straight object – the object being the female form. But of course you can’t stand like that because you’d fall forward (middle illustration.) Our body makes a tuck here and a curve there so that it can stand upright and presto! You’ve got your third image. Fair enough when you are wearing the shoes, but here’s the rub: your muscles retrain themselves to be in that position even when you are barefoot.
By drawing a line, or hanging a weight from hip to ankle, we can see how the body has adjusted. In the photo on the right, which is my model’s regular stance, you can see how her knees are back and the thighs forward over the ball of the foot. To be aligned correctly a vertical line should extend from the middle of the hip, mid-knee and outer ankle. To correct her posture she needs to bring her weight back over the heels by backing her hips up. In the photo on the right the hips are backed up and there is more alignment, but this was the first time she’s consciously felt the difference between where she was before and after. She had to bend her knees a little to maintain it but as she practices it will become easier and her alignment will continue to improve.
Since most of us now look like the photo on the left to some degree, it doesn’t look unusual, BUT most of us are walking around with some degree of foot, knee, hip and lower back pain. Wearing heels isn’t the sole cause of these problems (you might have been in a car accident for example), but retraining the muscles to get the body back into alignment IS:
- a) difficult to do while still wearing even a sensible heeled shoe and
- b) can offer a very inexpensive solution of reducing or even eliminating pain – as long as you don’t take into consideration the expense of having to buy new shoes.
Ideally we need a toe box wide enough to allow toe wiggle room, a zero heel (zero-rise), and flexibility in the sole so that the shoes are as close to being barefoot as possible. Otherwise wearing shoes is like having your feet bound. Our feet are similar in terms of flexibility as our hands and fingers are, and they are designed to have a similar range of motion. Can you lift your toes and widen the space between them? Can you lift each toe individually? Take off your shoes and start practicing!
Which leads me to one last point: when I was younger I used to hear women say they didn’t want to go barefoot or wear flip-flops because their feet would spread and they’d need a larger (or wider) shoe. I can remember being warned against this! Which isn’t much different from foot binding mentality. We still believe small feet are pretty and sexy.
The guy below (Viggo Mortensen) goes around barefoot much of the time, which doesn’t have much to do with this article except I just thought about him.
Some of you will ask: don’t we need shoes for stability?
Thinking around this is changing (i.e. barefoot running) but yes, if you’ve always worn heeled shoes or boots, it will probably be quite uncomfortable to make the transition to a flatter or totally flat shoe all at once. A gradual lowering of the heel is usually a better choice as your feet regain some mobility and strength and the muscles in your calves and hamstrings begin to lengthen. Your feet will have to be conditioned either a little or a lot before going completely to Vibram’s Five Finger shoes.
And it doesn’t mean you have to swear off your heels forever. I have two pairs of relatively high-heeled shoes which are practically new and which I’m keeping, but they are strictly ‘date’ shoes. In other words my dear date, don’t expect me to walk any further than the car to the restaurant or movie theatre in them. They are both platforms and somehow when I bought them I thought the sole thickness took away some of the height (doesn’t it?) It looks that way if you subtract the sole from the heel but look at the angle of the mid sole. That’s how much my weight is thrown to the ball of my foot. That’s what you have to measure with wedges and platforms. They are sneaky. So by my standards theses are pretty high and it is why I can’t walk in them without pain. Oh, cruel shoes, you are so cute!
Now that I am retraining my muscles and undoing the damage, these are pretty uncomfortable to wear. And yes, I should get rid of them too, but – not yet. So,what are the alternatives? Katy Bowman, founder of Restorative Exercise(tm) shares some lists on her blog “Katy Says”:
Here is a minimal shoe list I keep on Pinterest.