They used to be so simple. As a child, and before China was a major trade partner, just two pair sufficed: sturdy Buster Browns for school, and sneakers for play. Most of my friends’ parents subscribed to the same sound, practical philosophy of shoes, bought on sale but with an eye for quality and endurance, always gauging what size would be the best for the unpredictable growing foot.
“Too big,” the salesman would say as he pressed down hard at the big toe. “Nevermind,” was my mother’s reply, “she’ll grow into it.” And I learned how to wear fat socks, and turn the toes under to bunch up so my feet wouldn’t slide around so much. Occasionally an over-large pair would require tissues stuffed in as well (a skill I transferred later to other garments…). If I was lucky I’d fit into the shoes before they wore out.
These, I realize now, were important lessons for a budding shoe maven. A woman learns in childhood how to accommodate the foot to the shoe. Perfect sizing is a choice, a luxury. Women are malleable on size: even if the shoe does not fit, we may wear it, if the price and the color are right.
My grandmother lured me down the road to shoe decadence with a pair of black patent leathers adorned with the tiniest kitten heel. Oh, I remember them, with a lovely little strap that buckled at the ankle, and delicate cut-outs on top of the slender, tapered toe. Dorothy’s ruby slippers were no more precious as I turned my eight-year old foot this way and that, admiring them below the hem of my dress. For church and dress-up, she explained to my mother, who raised an eyebrow at my preening baby-steps, no doubt fully aware of the potential pitfalls of this approach as she comprehended the gleam in my eye. Of course it would be many years before I had the financial wherewithal to indulge this acquired taste; there was no way I was going to squander my childhood capital begging my parents to buy me things that their history of growing up in the shadow of the Great Depression would allow. Nevertheless, the die was cast.
Ah, the shoes that are available to a medium-sized foot at the end of a shapely leg when one is in one’s prime! While still on the budget of a college student negotiating the cost of textbooks and tuition, I made my first forays to the clearance racks of department stores. For a song I bought a stylish pair of olive suede Hush Puppies with a 2” heel and a kiltie fringe (no laughing, olive green was in then, and kilties). Then I got half off the second pair, so who could resist strappy, 4” vamp sandals for smart evening wear?
My feet complained if I had to walk very far or dance all night, but I remained deaf to their grumbling as I stuffed the floor of my closet over the ensuing years with precious pairs in a rainbow of colors and a kaleidoscope of prints: heels and flats, sandals, and thongs (that’s what we called them—say that now and you’ll get a startled look from your teenager), running shoes, and deck shoes, hiking boots and snow boots, ski boots and après ski slippers, and, I confess, a pair of boudoir do-me pumps (these were difficult to walk in, much less do a pole dance on the bedroom carpet…after a few tries, I just dangled them in front of my husband, and elicited much the same response as wearing them did, minus the laughter).
I packed for trips without considering the shoes, choosing outfits first, throwing shoes in to match at the last minute, without a thought for how many pairs I was packing, how far I would be walking. Style, glamour was king. Or princess so to speak. I was tricked out in those shoes I tell you. No matter what changes my body was springing on me over the years, pregnancy, post pregnancy, water retention, mid-life adjustments, empty-nesting, strands of gray poking through the scalp, smile lines, furrowed brows, the shoes were always a flashy or classy, sexy, professional or refined statement of who I was.
It’s not clear to me when I made the transition in the other direction, it was so subtle. The direction of what can only be called decrepitude. Incredibly, startlingly, at an age I thought was far too young, I found myself looking at shoes for the queen-mother…who was about a hundred the last time I saw a picture of her. That’s suddenly how my feet felt. I would put on a new pair, fresh from the tissue caressing them in the box, and find they were too tight. Way too tight. Hadn’t I just tried them on last week? Or last night? I would peer at my foot, sit down and strain it, cross-legged, into my lap, examining it for flaws, fat, fluid. None were obvious. Shove it back into the shoe. Toes squeezed by pointy leather fronts, canted alarmingly forward by the now insensible heels. Crying for room, oxygen, blood flow, the comfort of the fleece-lined slippers I’d just kicked off. Flats. I put them on. Looked in the mirror. My heart cried, “ugh!” My feet said ahhh.
For next few years I balanced the ugh with the ahh, sacrificing the style of my shoes more and more over time for the comfort of my feet. I am now firmly encamped in the comfort zone, occasionally making a foray back to heady moments of style. Along the way I discovered that Chinese women walk a lot. And they like style. This translates into an abundance of stylish flats in the marketplace in Shanghai, a concept that has just begun to trickle into America. Kitten heels. Wider widths. Squared off toes. Elastic in key places. Colors and prints galore. Ahhh and lovely in the same shoe. What a concept. How did American designers miss this boat?
I now start packing for travel from the bottom up, carefully considering where and how much I’ll be walking, what misery I am willing to put my sole through for the sake of beauty. I concern myself less and less with which treasures will match my wardrobe.
Word has it the next step is buying shoes built for safety. Are you kidding me? It’s too much to stomach, this journey from style to comfort to safety. I see these shoes, lurking, hunkering down on the shelves, giant sphinxes of footwear ready to leap onto my feet, then sit there as immobile as stone. I have a palpable anxiety as I walk past them—how they blend in here and there with the comfortable shoes. Will I unwittingly buy a pair of these dreaded shoes mistakenly confounding solace with style? And if I accidentally purchase this mark of aging, will I know it? Or will a soon-to-be-former friend have to tell me? Will they pity my blind descent into safe shoes and keep quiet to spare me?
It’s too much to contemplate on such a beautiful summer day, a day for those strappy little coral patent leather flats and the matching capris. Anyway, there is no shoe shopping in my immediate future because there is no room for even one more pair in my closet. And I can’t bear to ponder which pair I might give up to make room for another. Ah, now that’s another kind of relief.
This is a short description of foot problems, many of which (but not all) are caused by a lifetime of wearing ill-fitting shoes:
Bone spurs are small extra growths of bone that often form at the edges of bones or joints. They protect the deeper bone from damage caused by chronic wear and tear. Bone spurs themselves are not painful, but may cause pain if they push against a nerve or sensitive softer tissue.
Bunions. A bony growth that forms at the base of the big or the little toe (bunionette—isn’t that cute?) forcing the toe outward, and often involving pain as the bunion enlarges. Shoes that are too tight in the toebox are often the cause.
Heel spurs. A bone spur anywhere on the heel. May not have any symptoms at all or may cause pain in the bottom of the foot, especially after resting the foot for a period of time, or in the arch of the foot (plantar fasciitis).
Morton’s neuroma. A collection of fibrous tissue usually between the base of the 3rd and the 4th toes. Sharp and/or burning pain occurs between those toes when the foot strikes the ground.
Mallet toe/ hammer toe/ claw toe. Fairly descriptive all by themselves, these are deformities of the toe joints caused by years of wear and tear, often from ill-fitting shoes. Mallet toe bends the very tip of the toe toward the ground, hammer toe the joint behind that bends to the ground, and claw toes bend up where the toe meets the foot and then bend to the floor. Imagine Cinderella’s evil stepsisters trying to shove their feet into the glass slipper: the contortions the toes have to make temporarily to squeeze in eventually end up as these permanent deformities.
Warts. Ugh. Viral infections on the surface of skin. Harmless, but ugly.
Plantar fasciitis. Inflammation of the tough fibrous tissue that connects the heel to the toes, and forms the arch of the foot. The pain usually starts at the part of the arch closest to the heel. Since 10,000 steps per day is recommended for healthy exercise, this condition can be very painful for those of us who walk.
Gout is pretty hard (though not impossible) to miss. It usually starts at the base of the big toe, and consists of painful redness and swelling. The pain is usually out of proportion to the appearance of the toe: it hurts like the dickens. Caused by a combination of dietary habits and possibly genetics.
Ingrown toenails occur when the end of the nail embeds itself in the soft skin around it as it grows. This usually happens only in the big toe and can create infection, characterized by increased redness and swelling, or it can simply cause pain. Avoid clipping toenails too far back at the sides. Leave a small amount extending past the soft tissue. Consider filing your big toe nails instead of clipping which can fracture the nail in ways you can’t control nearly as well as with a file. Don’t use the same file on your fingers due to risk of fungal infection.