Hell on Heels
Stylish stilettos make you feel beautiful and powerful at work—but may not be worth the health risk.
By Lisa Earle McLeod
I confess; I’m addicted. It’s painful, it’s unhealthy and it’s fiscally irresponsible. But all the cool girls are doing it, and I’m not going to be left out.
My vice is killer heels, and I do mean killer.
Yet as painful as it is to live with my obsession, the idea of parting with my beloved stilettos gives me the shakes. I mean, really, why would I want to go through life looking like the 5-foot-4, slightly frumpy mother that I am? I’d rather slip on my purple python power pumps and pretend I’m a glamorous 5-foot-7, long-legged beauty. Who needs Jenny Craig when you can improve your weight-to-height ratio with Jimmy Choo?
Sure, I might wind up hobbled with hammertoe by the time I’m 70, and already the varicose veins in my legs throb for hours after spending a day teetering atop my 4-inch silver snakeskins. And yes, if I added up all the money I’ve plunked down for fancy footwear over the course of my life, I could probably finance an entire village of underprivileged women who could start their own cobbler shop. But do you really think I’m going to give a big presentation wearing penny loafers? I’ve been doing seminars and keynotes for more than 10 years, and I can assure you that people pay more attention to a woman in heels.
Vanity, vanity. We may have come a long way, baby, but for many of us fashionistas, high heels are the new corsets. What our grandmothers’ generation did to their innards, we’re doing to our feet – pushing and squeezing them into a shape nature never intended so we can look more feminine and sexy.
One might argue that risking a bunion trying to impress people at a board meeting pales in comparison to contorting your colon in order to catch a man. But the irony of yet another generation of women who grin and bear it for the sake of beauty isn’t lost on me. Why is it that when the Chinese bound young girls’ feet to keep them small, it was considered in-humane; yet when a six-figure-earning female exec forces her tootsies into bone-crunching satin, it’s high fashion?
A Price on Pain
For the record, it’s not just us short, chubby types who love high heels. Tove White, a 5-foot-11 senior project manager at Kimley Horn, an engineering consulting firm, says, “When you’re tall and you wear heels, you don’t have to get your roots done as often.”
But whether your motivation is trying to keep the pricey hairdresser at bay for another few weeks or a love of Italian leather, the price that we pay for fabulous footwear is often far greater than, say, the $995 that Saks charges for the newest Christian Louboutin suede ankle boots.
Podiatrist Jaquelina Sutera, DPM, says her Manhattan practice routinely treats well-heeled women who limp into her office suffering everything from hammertoe to pinched nerves to permanently shortened Achilles tendons – conditions that keep Sutera in surgery three days a week. Her practice has literally tripled in the last three years, she says, proving that apparently you can put a price on pain.
“Women are trying to mimic the Sex and the City lifestyle,” Sutera says. “But walking from your office to your meeting to your home every day in 4-inch heels is not realistic.”
While skyscraping shoes may give you better stage presence, they also throw off your balance so much that your spine has to bend backwards to compensate. And in addition to hammertoe, they also can cause an equally glamorous deformity known as “claw toe,” when your middle toes contort into claw-like curves. Oh, and did I also mention that high heels can accelerate arthritis?
The percentage of women who regularly wear high heels has steadily dropped from 60 percent in 1986 to 39 percent in more recent years, according to the latest survey from the American Podiatric Medical Association. The study also reveals that younger women are more willing to endure pain for the sake of fashion than their more mature counterparts. Fifty-one percent of women ages 18 to 24 are likely to wear uncomfortable shoes, but the number drops by a full 20 points by the time women pass 60. A “mere” 31 percent of women over 65 are willing to suffer.
If anything, as I’ve aged, my heels have gotten even more outrageous. In my 20s I trotted around wearing Nine West church-lady, stout-heeled, full-coverage pumps, but since I’ve hit 40 my new shoe staples are Ann Taylor’s 3-inch, barely-there, arch-revealing d’Orsays.
What can I say? My face, boobs and bottom may be sagging, but my feet still look damn fine, and I’m going to show them off for as long as I can.
According to Dr. Sutera, when it comes to high heels, size definitely matters – as does how long you wear them. “Any shoes over 3 inches with a pointy forefoot” are the very worst a woman can wear, she explains, adding, “Moderation is key.” Sutera herself typically wears high-fashion heels at work (her office has a foot-friendly cork floor). But she puts on a “commuter shoe” – a sneaker or rubber-soled flat with shock absorption – for trips to and from the office or down to Starbucks. “I will not be caught dead on 57th Street in a 3- or 4-inch heel,” she says.
The moderation Sutera recommends sounds good. But can an addict like me really cut back? Can I discipline myself to only indulge on special occasions? Or do I need to go cold turkey and sentence myself to a life of Hush Puppies and nurse shoes? Only time will tell. But if you happen to see me limping through the airport in my 4-inch faux zebra pumps, feel free to stage an intervention.
5 Tips for Avoiding the “Stiletto Syndrome”
For those unable to part with their Pradas …
1. Don’t Overindulge. If you insist on going over 3 inches, don’t wear them for more than a few hours at a time or more than a few days in a row.
2. Create a Supportive Environment. Podiatrist Jaquelina Sutera recommends a stable heel that holds your own heel firmly in place and, if possible, an ankle strap.
3. Soften the Slam. Padded shoe inserts like Dr. Scholl’s Sole Expressions reduce the pressure on the ball of your foot and your heel, thereby reducing strain.
4. Prevent Hangovers. After a day in heels, you should stretch out your Achilles tendon. Five quick minutes of stretching will keep it from tightening over time.
5. Seek Professional Help. Most women don’t see a podiatrist until they’re already in pain. If you’re a frequent heel user, have a professional monitor your condition.
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