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The High Toll of High Heels

Heels may be glamorous, but they exact a huge toll on the health of your feet.

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“It is generally agreed that if you wore women’s fashion high-heeled shoes with the narrow pointed toe box for up to ten years, you will end up with common foot deformities that are a direct result of the shoe,” says Dr. Carol Frey, a leading researcher on the hazards of fashionable shoes on women’s feet as well as an orthopedic surgeon in Manhattan Beach, California, and a clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at University of California–Los Angeles. “These conditions include bunions, bunionettes, pinched nerves, ingrown toenails, corns, and calluses.”

Furthermore, many women fall so in love with a shoe style that they will buy and wear it even if it’s too small. “Around eight years ago,” one woman confides, “I had been eyeing a pair of Prada platform high heels with a zebra print and a hot pink bow on the front. They were insanely expensive and I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money. Then they went on sale but only in a half size too small for me. So I bought them and squeezed my feet into them. They hurt but I wore them. I knew it was a bad idea, but I got so many compliments.”

Often the shoe size technically is correct for a particular woman, but the style of shoe does not fit her feet properly because the shape of the shoe is unnatural. But that doesn’t stop her. “I wore a pair of shoes the other day that were the right size but killed my feet,” another shoe lover relates. “I wore them anyway, knowing that by the end of the day I would be in excruciating pain. The heels were around three inches and I walked around in them all day. They matched my dress perfectly. They are tweedy, grey and black, with a silk grosgrain ribbon. I will probably wear them again because they go so well with this dress.”

Most women’s fashionable shoes are shaped differently from women’s unfettered, naked feet. Feet tend to be wider in front than at the heel, and toes do not naturally scrunch up to resemble the point of an arrow. Like most women, you probably have had no idea that wearing shoes with a shape that deviates from the shape of your feet is a recipe for disaster. After all, it’s perfectly fine to squeeze your fanny into tight jeans: the worst that will happen is the sprouting of “muffin tops” above your waistband. You can change into a different pair of jeans, the muffin tops will disappear, and you can breathe again. Phew! But shoes are not jeans and feet are not love handles. Says New York City podiatric surgeon Johanna Youner, “If you continue to wear a high heel, you will mold your feet into what a high heel looks like, but that is not what a foot is supposed to look like.”

When it comes to fashion for feet, we must remember that bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments are involved. The pressure of your body landing on your feet with each step is enormous. “Bottom line, the foot’s primary responsibility is to be a shock absorber to the body’s superstructure,” emphasizes Dr. Rock Positano, director of the Non-surgical Foot and Ankle Service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, and the foot and ankle consultant to the New York Mets and New York Giants.

Men and women alike need to take care of their feet to prevent problems, but women in particular need to wake up and smell the nail polish. According to a 2009 study by the APMA, far more women than men -- a whopping 87 percent versus 68 percent -- suffer because of painful footwear. Because of cultural expectations of femininity, only women feel pressured to endure pain on a regular basis. Only women are conditioned to believe that chronic pain is normal and the price of being considered attractive.

 
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