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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.

Editor's Note:The following is an excerpt from Bad Shoes & the Women Who Love Them (Seven Stories Press) written by Leora Tanenbaum and illustrated by Vanessa Davis.

Shoes have the power to transform an outfit from the mundane to the magical. High-heeled shoes give the illusion of elongating the legs, which is slimming. And shoes are relatively easy to shop for; you don’t have to enter a dressing room and disrobe. For many women, myself included, that fact alone makes shoe shopping particularly alluring. So what if my toes squish just a little to fit, or if I get some cuts and bruises? Isn’t that the price of being a woman?

I don’t enjoy being the messenger of bad news, ladies, but you should be aware that your most fashionable high-heeled shoes, no matter how chic and status-laden, harm your feet. And it is not only high heels we need to consider. Flip-flops and ballet flats can be just as harmful as heels. Since the gladiator sandal trend rose up, sphinx-like, there have been lots of ankles encased in complicated straps and buckles. Don’t be fooled. Pancake-flat shoes without arch support can make a woman feel like she’s been fighting all day long in a Roman amphitheater.

But don’t worry. There are still myriad captivating shoes out there that you can wear comfortably, safely, and femininely. By the time you finish reading this book, you will know all the tricks to look enchanting without suffering. You don’t have to give up your fancy shoes, but you do need to be smart about wearing them.

It’s okay to wear stilettos for a few hours once or twice a week at a party, date, or special event. I am not telling you to haul a bag filled with all your heels to the Salvation Army. Even if I did, you wouldn’t listen. So keep your heels. But know this: it is foolish to wear them when you will be walking or standing for long periods of time, and it is downright dim-witted to wear them all day, every day, for years on end. If you choose to ignore these warnings, the day will come -- maybe next year, perhaps in five or ten -- when you will wake up in pain. You will look back at your years of bad decisions and wonder: “My god, what have I done?”

In Sex and the City, Carrie and her friends pound the Manhattan pavement in stilettos very similar to the offerings at Saks -- shoes with itty-bitty toe boxes, zero arch support, inhumanly narrow foot beds, and a slope that forces feet forward so that you have no choice but to walk on the balls of your feet. For me, the mystery is not if they live happily ever after but whether or not they develop bunions (when the big toe shifts angle, pointing toward the little toes instead of straight forward) and hammertoes (when toes curl down), among other nasty afflictions.

Many of us recoil from the sight of orthopedic shoes because they are sexless, devoid of any style, and instantly add years to the wearer. But guess what? By wearing shoes you associate with sex appeal and youth, you are actually uglifying your feet. It is paradoxical but true: in the pursuit of beauty, you are creating ugliness.

Every spring, when the temperature rises and children gleefully run out to parks and pools, millions of women look down and groan. They notice that their toes are misshapen; ugly corns have sprouted, and hey, what is that hideous bony protrusion on the base of the big toe? Instead of enjoying the freedom of sandals, many women cover up their feet with embarrassment. According to a 2008 American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) study, more than 50 percent of women say their feet embarrass them “always, frequently or sometimes.”

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