Digging In Their Heels

Many women choose to slip into something uncomfortable

October 19, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

At her job as a saleswoman at the Nine West shoe store in Owings Mills Mall, Rashida Webb often walks around in little pointy-toed heels, back and forth through the showroom, countless times throughout the day.

"I'm short, so I don't like to wear flats all the time," said the 5-foot-2-inch Webb.

But, unlike many women, Webb takes the time to find high heels that are comfortable, such as the black, toe-forgiving suede pair she recently wore to work.

"I don't understand why women wear uncomfortable shoes," Webb said.

As a woman who sells all manner of lovely shoes all day long, it's hard to comprehend just what Webb finds so hard to understand.

Women wear uncomfortable shoes for three reasons:

Because they look good.

Because they look good.

And because they look good.

It's just about the only reason most women wear anything - even impractical, unyielding or painful things. Like shoes.

According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, women spent more than $19 billion on shoes last year.

The group doesn't keep specifics on the types of shoes purchased, but it's a well-known fact that when it comes to shoes with a high heel, a woman's tolerance level for the impractical skyrockets.

Women will suffer pinched toes, sore ankles and tender soles. They'll teeter around off-balance, and shift their weight all day - first to the right foot, then the left. Then a subtle leaning back onto the heel. Then some flexing and pointing of the toes.

All those mini-machinations, simply for the love of a little strappy sandal. Or a sleek and sexy pump. A shiny, chic stiletto-heeled boot!

This season, there are more kinds of heels than ever to love: stilettos, sling-backs, pumps, wedges, T-straps, Mary Janes. Pointy-toes, open-toes and now, the coming-on-strong round-toes. And no one style is more popular than another. Wear one or wear them all.

It's undeniable. A female foot, hoisted inches off the ground on one end, is sexy. That coquettish arch a heel creates. That tensed calf muscle.

In a heel, a woman is taller. She's leaner. Her clothes fall that much better.

And heels make a woman adopt an instant come-hither stance. They tip her center of gravity, so to compensate, she slides her shoulders back and pushes her chest and backside out. The heels make her seemingly longer legs take longer steps. So her gait is more of a saunter, often with an accompanying sashay.


Sadly, though, a lot more than sex appeal comes with those extra inches.

A shoe with a heel is rarely as comfortable as a shoe without one, particularly for women who are on their feet long hours or have to walk some distance. According to doctors who work on foot-related problems, there's no way a high heel could be anything but uncomfortable.

"I don't think people really understand the negative impact that can come from wearing these shoes," said Mark Sobel, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in feet and ankles. "The woman's body is not designed to walk in that shoe. It puts the woman's body into positions that are not natural."

Sobel, a New York doctor whose famously high-heeled patients include Ivana Trump, said he performs surgical procedures on women 10 times more than on men. And high heels are the primary reason why.

"A high-heel shoe, inherent in the design of the shoe, increases pressure in the forefront area [of the foot]," Sobel said. "The higher the heel, the higher the amount of pressure."

And the shoes' design doesn't help.

"Most of these shoes all have pointed toes, which puts pressure on the toes, causing all kinds of problems, like bunions and hammertoes and calluses," said Harold Glickman, president-elect of the American Podiatric Medical Association. "And most of these shoes have soft, flexible soles which are unable to protect the foot. The more they bend, the more the foot bends, putting undue stress on the muscles, tendons and ligaments, which leads to fatigue and discomfort. I don't know why anybody would subject themselves to that."

Glickman, a Washington podiatrist, has a point. Why do women do it?

"It's all about how it looks," said Karen Segall of Stevenson, who was searching the malls recently for the perfect pair of chocolate heels to go with a brown tweed skirt. "Flats don't look as good."

Segall, who owns about 20 pairs of heels, said she knows the pitfalls of wearing shoes designed for fashion, not for comfort. She often finds herself taking her high heels off whenever she can for a little relief. And she tries not to walk in them any longer than she has to.

So why spend money on a 21st pair of heels that will be kicked off under the conference room table?

"Because they're in style and fashionable. You want to look current and attractive," Segall said. "And they make your legs look good."

Of course she's right. But back to Glickman.

Looking good is one thing. Bunions, however, are far from sexy. And it's hard to look appealing hobbling around in shoes that hurt, eyes winced in pain, arms held out for balance.

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