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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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Women far outnumber men as foot surgery patients. A staggering 94 percent of all bunion surgeries are performed on women. Women also disproportionately go under the knife to correct hammertoes (81 percent), neuromas (89 percent), and bunionettes (90 percent).

My belief is that if a woman knows full well that wearing her favorite shoes may lead to hammertoes and bunions, and she makes this choice with informed consent, that is her decision. However, most women are not informed and therefore put their feet at risk for the sake of fashion and beauty without even realizing what they are doing.

In all seriousness, I suggest that pointy-toed, high-heeled shoes come with a warning printed on the shoe box, just as with cigarettes: “These shoes are a health hazard. Wearing them for prolonged periods on a regular basis may lead to deformity, pain, and ugly feet. Your Achilles tendons may shorten, making it impossible to wear flats even if you want to. Wear with caution.”

Many people mistakenly believe that the way celebrities live is attainable for the rest of us. But stars are not like us, even if paparazzi capture them at the market buying the same cereal we eat. Too many otherwise sensible women foolishly deduce that since Susan Sarandon gave birth at forty-six and Geena Davis at forty-eight, they too will be able to conceive beyond their peak reproductive years. Just because we see celebrities in stilettos on red carpets at award shows and premieres does not mean that the rest of us can or should wear the same shoes on a regular basis.

Today there is an urgent need to educate women to make smart footwear choices because of two current trends.

First, today many women consider extremely high heels to be an indispensable part of their wardrobe, and they don’t just save these shoes for special occasions; they wear them all day, every day. High heels worn to work and around town are nothing new, of course, but now dizzying heights are taken for granted as “normal.” In previous years, a three-and-a-half-inch heel was ooh la la. Now that height is categorized as “medium height” and women feel pressured to go as high as five inches.

When I visited the Jimmy Choo boutique on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, I picked up a pair of slingbacks with obscenely high heels (and no platform) and turned to the saleswoman. “Over five inches,” she reported. “Can you walk in these?” I asked her. “I can’t,” she said. Another pair on display had a three-and-a-half-inch heel. “That’s the medium-height heel,” the saleswoman told me, without a trace of irony. “That one people can walk in.”

Actually, even the three-and-a-half-inch heel is painful for many and treacherous for most. Yet this heel height is dismissed as child’s play. The June 2009 “What’s In, What’s Out” page in Harper’s Bazaar says it all: “In: Sky-high stilettos. Out: Mid-height pumps.”

The new five-inch norm has been manufactured in large part by Christian Louboutin, the designer of signature red-soled shoes, currently favored by red-carpet celebrities. Few fashionistas know the pronunciation of his name, but that doesn’t stop them from wearing his pornography-inspired stilts. (For the record, the correct way is KRIST-yen Lu-bu-TEN, with soft Frenchy “n”s). When I visited his Madison Avenue boutique, some of the heels were -- I am not making this up -- over six inches high. I couldn’t decide which was more obscene: the height or the price. Marked down on sale, most of the styles were being sold for $657 (from $1,095).

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