Business Women Bound by Stylish Shoes


Architecturally perfect shoes inspired by gothic style and fire. Note the back buttress. Feel the pain.

“Was there a trauma?” the physicians assistant asked as she studied my right foot, swollen and sore for nigh eight months at the base of the third toe. I could swear it was broken or torn out of a socket because it was emitting strange crunching sounds when I moved it.

Her question was a hard one. What woman hasn’t suffered so many foot traumas that they don’t register as traumatic? Depending on what shoes I am wearing, just walking to the copier could be a trauma.

“I remember falling out of my shoes,” I retorted. In fact, I had fallen out of several pairs of shoes. There was a particularly painful fall out involving the ball of my foot and rough pavement. And I had fallen over sideways several times too. Sideways falls are when you are on a high heel or platform shoe, and your ankle unexpectedly gives out. This results in a skinning and a sprain or an embarrassingly public tumble, say, in a gutter in Florence, Italy.

The problem was deciding which so-called trauma caused the aforementioned damage. To my surprise, an X-ray revealed nothing, so the treatment was an over-the-counter pain reliever and sensible shoes.

Sensible shoes are women’s shoes with low (under two inches) heels and round toes. “Sensible shoes” always refers to women’s shoes, because all men’s shoes are sensible. Men’s shoes hold the foot so the foot can move, in the ballroom or in the boardroom, to the top of a mountain or the top of the ladder.

Alas, such is not the case with women’s shoes. They are magic. Think of Dorothy and the ruby slippers that brought her home, or even Cinderella, whose prince would never have found her were it not for her most unsensible glass slipper. Stylish shoes, give their wearers beauty, sexiness, height, and power. This year, and mostly always, they are high heels. Sometimes they have very pointed toes and high platforms. Even when they fit, they do not fit. Pointed toes, for instance, require shoes with extra length, and the points easily catch themselves on stairs or cobblestones. Down you go.

Sensible shoes fit well and feel good. And they are ugly. They endow their wearers with dowdiness.

Still, I said to myself, you are a smart businesswoman with more than 30 years experience in marketing. You, if anyone, can wean yourself from that silly desire to exude from your feet qualities that should be emanating from your head. You will make that sore foot whole.

Off I went to a real shoe store where men in suits measure your foot and put something on it that fits. When I was a kid my mother brought me to this type of store, because good fitting shoes are important to kid’s overall health. We usually left with oxfords.

I learned that I had been buying the wrong size for more than years. I bought sensible black shoes that fit and felt great, and I wore them with everything, pants, dresses, skirts. My foot felt better, but one day I caught my reflection and it wasn’t pretty. Very slowly, I went back to heels.

At least I am not alone.

“I’m a heel person,” explained Pam, an executive assistant for a major investment company. As a result, she had a bone spur, which, her doctor said, resulted from a constant pounding of weight on one part of her foot – the result he said, of heels. After surgery, she was back to heels and pointed toes.

“I love pointed toes,” says a petite marketing communications director of my acquaintance. “They make my legs look longer.”

“They make me look hot,” says a barefoot coworker. She was binding a proposal while her beautiful pair of patent leather spike-heeled, sling-back sandals lay in a heap on the floor.

You would think businesses would put a foot down. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, pointed-toe, high-heeled shoes can lead to “discomfort or injury to the toes, ankles, knees, calves and back.” The academy also says that compared with men, women are nine times more likely to develop a foot problem because of shoes that don’t fit, and tight shoes cause nine out of 10 women’s foot deformities. Time off for surgery and recovery to correct these problems costs $3.5 billion annually.

As for the high heels, the American Podiatric Medical Association calls them “medically unsound. Doctors attribute postural and even safety problems to their use.” The Mayo Clinic concurs: “High heels are one of the biggest factors leading to foot problems in women.” There have been a number of studies published in leading medical journals, such as The Lancet, linking knee osteoarthritis to high-heeled shoes.

Of course, most women do not read The Lancet. More likely, we pick up Vogue or BusnessWeek to learn the latest way to look. I conducted a little experiment. In the photographs or illustrations in one issue of key magazines, I calculated what proportion of the women wearing shoes were wearing high heels? Vogue, of course, ranged between 63 and 78 percent. But what about business magazines? BusinessWeek showed a lot of professional women, and 60 percent of them were wearing high heels. In The Harvard Business Review, which has more illustrations than photos and a reputation for being scholarly, 61 percent of the women wearing shoes were wearing high heels.

This year I went for 3.25-inch heeled sandals, which push my foot forward so much I feel like I am going to fall out of them. I have also reclaimed my $15 bargain 3.75-inch wedgies. The heels look great with my Anne Klein suit, and many people have told me so. I figure that the sore foot isn’t that much sorer with the heels, and my other foot, which hurts at the ball where all my weight falls, helps me evenly divide the pain.

At least I am not as bad as my usually barefoot coworker. A very serious twenty something just establishing herself in business casual, she had purchased the most beautiful shoes that add several inches to her height and presence. They are high, they are streamlined, they shine and they taper at the heel with the grace of a Lalique vase.

“My feet are killing me,” she moans. “Shoes are a woman’s curse.” One pair is so painful she cannot bear to wear them even when seated. They lay most of the day unused under her desk. The problem is having to walk. Sometimes in business you have to go to meetings and the bathroom.

The other day she rushed to a meeting with shoes on the wrong foot and didn’t know, because the discomfort of those beautiful shoes on the right feet was about what it was when they were on the wrong feet. She would have looked ridiculous, but she felt so good about herself in the heels, which made her close to 6 feet tall, that no one noticed.