I don’t typically start my blogposts with “what were you thinking,” but when it comes to middle-aged women, their feet and shoes, this is the only starting point there is.
With things now opening up, I received an invitation to a designer shoe sale. There wasn’t one pair of shoes for me in a 50,000 square foot warehouse. I enjoy shoes and am particularly hard on mine. For decades, my shoes have been comfortable and fit my orthotics nicely. They have a springy interior allowing me to walk no matter the distance. For some time, I sought out sensible footwear that is grounded, attractive, and damn near impossible to find.
We’ve lived through a surplus of styles that have taxed our tootsies from stilettos, kitten-heeled pumps, negative heeled shoes, go-go boots, sling-backs, mules, Frye boots, espadrilles, platform shoes, wedges, loafer and sneakers, to mention just a few. I don’t want to wear anything that could cause me to fall and injure myself—a genuine concern at my age.
My mother rocked stilettos. She wore them the way I wear sneakers, everywhere. I don’t remember her wearing footwear without a high heel. Old enough to purchase my first pair of heels, I couldn’t believe how uncomfortable they were. The toe box being tight, the heel rubbing and the pinching with every step. The abrasions and blisters had me longing for my sneakers. My feet looked like they just walked barefoot through the Amazon, followed by a walk on hot coals. Bleeding, sore, swollen and ugly. From that point forward, I realized that the price of fashionable shoes was naturally coupled with pain. Add to that the line shoe salespeople used, “They’ll be great once you break them in.” Utter madness. The only thing you’re breaking is your foot, and yet we all subscribed to that idea. Young and naive, I figured that was the cost of beautiful, fashionable shoes. No more. Purposefully purchasing uncomfortable shoes and intentionally mangling your foot to adapt to the shoe is no different than the modern-day approach to foot binding.
I recall gifting my mother a stylish pair of loafers. She wasn’t excited, associating anything flat as being compared to a man’s shoe. She couldn’t find joy in this style in the same way I couldn’t find pleasure in high heels. The last time I wore heels, I had a nose bleed. After a long time of careful consideration, she dared to try them on only to nonchalantly agree that perhaps they were more comfortable when I knew she was quietly groovin’ on them.
After she passed, I took a one-night course specializing in walking in high heels like a pro as an ode to my mom. The woman who ran the class was a burlesque dance performer. I was the oldest one in the class by decades, amongst several young women, primarily soon-to-be brides who wanted to walk down the aisle like they owned it. I had a classic pair of sexy heels that I brought with me. I discovered that I had inherited my mother’s gate, and I still had it. The younger women surprisingly not so much. Pigeon toed and high heels have their own struggle, but worse yet is not confidently owning them. You can’t strut when you’re feeling deeply insecure. As I slipped off my shoes for my sneakers at the end of the evening, the instructor winked at me wildly approving. With her super short shorts, she rocked heels the same way my mother did. A lovely reminder that eluded me that women our age can absolutely swagger with ease and grace, and we don’t need heels to do it. It’s a transferable skill birthed from confidence relevant to furry slippers or drop-dead heels—a delightful rediscovery during what was a vulnerable time for me.
Being 2021 and able to travel to Mars, we can certainly design underwear that doesn’t crawl up your butt and shoes that are delightful to look at while being incredibly comfortable. That should be the mark that all shoe manufacturers strive for. As we age, carry babies and live, our feet splay, bunions introduce themselves and calluses, and corns move in like dandelions on a front lawn. The mechanics of our feet get messed up. To cram them into a beautiful but ridiculously designed shoe, so the rest of your body compensates for the shock of the pain is extraordinarily expensive on our bodies and ludicrous.
I recall being at a barbecue with comfortable sandals. An acquaintance stood next to the bathroom off the kitchen, sipping her cocktail and making idle conversation with the passerby’s wanting to use the loo. She didn’t move all night. After using the facilities, I invited her to come outside and join the rest of us, but she said she couldn’t walk in her CFM shoes. She wore stunning multi-coloured crystal-encrusted mules that belonged in a shoe museum that were also excruciatingly painful. She confessed she could barely stand and spent the entire barbecue in a corner with her husband bringing her a plate of food while the serving staff got her drinks.
A woman standing solely on her high heel exerts more than 1,500 psi’s over an area of about 1/16 of a square inch. An elephant’s psi is only 75. That translates to knee, hip and back pain like lumbar lordosis, while some will experience it in their spine and neck. The increase in muscle demand can go straight up the body.
The senior population is projected to triple by 2050, with close to 2 billion people 60+. There will be a tsunami of foot issues, from increased forefoot circumference and instep to swollen ankles. Foot length and width, ball girth, upper arches will all continue to change. The first and fifth metatarsophalangeal will increase due to a higher prevalence of hallux valgus in women, which is as ugly as it sounds. There will be pain due to increased foot deformities like mallet toes, hammertoes and claw toes, and flat feet, which are more prevalent in older women, will soar.
We can’t forget injuries like ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis or heel spur syndrome, pain directly under the heel. There is also Haglund’s deformity, that painful bump on the back of the heel. Sexy time! But 42% of women believe they will defy those odds and go there anyway despite the fact they’ll net out with one or all of these issues from prolonged wear. The market hasn’t responded except for orthopedic shoes, which isn’t good enough. Even the young chics with gorgeous tatted legs will need orthotics at some point.
The million-dollar question remains, why can’t they make stylish and comfortable shoes designed to support a woman’s foot, not torture it? The pandemic has left the women I know wearing socks with sandals or hiding their feet. Their puppies having taken on the appearance of a beast from a Boris Karloff movie. Twisted, uncared for, not having had a pedicure in six months.
During the pandemic, I had a phone conversation arranged by my doctor with a podiatrist who never examined the mechanics of my feet. He was committed to the world of custom shoes that were uglier than sin and prohibitively expensive orthotics. There were no alternative solutions in his universe. I don’t know where the term “old people’s” shoes came from, but I think he had something to do with it, and it needs to go. I imagined he had never had a Mrs. Robinson moment with a sexy leg in an exquisite shoe waiting for him. It was no wonder his solutions were ugly houseboat-sized apparatuses vaguely resembling shoes. Shoes can have the sensibility of safety and mobility and not be void of style as foot morphology presents itself. Nothing like killing a sexy foot by wrapping it in what looks like footwear from the night of the living dead. He hustled so hard that I believed he had some investment in the company making the devices remotely resembling shoes. His recommendations reminded me of the clumsy gift boxes posing as footwear that I wore while being a Christmas Tree in the Santa Claus parade.
Shoe manufacturers need to approach their collections by supporting feet alongside good design and cease being soleless in this area. Millions upon millions of women our age are thinking, why should they compromise style for comfort? Why can’t they have both? Men do. Our feet carry us and take us places. I’m not interested in abusing mine. Forget fashion; I have my style, and comfort is intrinsically established into that. Our demographic has money and likes to look good. Give us something worth buying that illustrates you understand our needs and recognize our enormous demographic.
Our feet and legs can maintain a fabulous profile as steady as our hearts and heads as we age. It’s long overdue for manufacturers to realize that their ill-designed shoes will end up in some discount bin with a befitting sign reading “What Were You Thinking.”