04 Oct My Shoe Problem

My problem with shoes is this: I’m a sucker for a good buy. (And I love shopping.) Every time I go to DSW, I come home with a shoe that doesn’t quite fit and isn’t quite what I want. But it was a great deal. By the end of every year, I’ve got several pairs of new shoes that I never wear. Last week, I donated all of the shoes in my closet and vowed to start over, this time determined to buy only what fits and only what I really want.

I’ve come to realize that I have a wide foot. Wide shoes are hard to find because manufacters make the most money when they make the fewest exceptions — which is why most shoes these days are a “medium.” But your medium may not be mine. And shoes made in other countries, like Asia, where feet are typically smaller than American feet, can be most problematic. Last week, I ordered a work book that was supposed to be doulbe-E (“D” is medium) and found, after it arrived, that I could barely fit my foot into it. Same with a 9.5 medium sneaker. Both are going back. The problem with shoe styles is that designers are compelled to bring the shoe to a point. Apparently, this is supposed to look elegant. Worse, they bring the shoe to a point at the big toe. Most feet are longest at the toe that’s next to the big one. The result, in almost every shoe, is that the shoe constricts the wearer’s feet.

You’ve seen the damage, and most likely you’ve suffered some yourself: blisters, corns, bunions, and, at its worst, hammer toes. Hammer toe is a deformity of the toes’ foreward joints, which the shoe bends until the muscles shorten and the toes are permanently curled under. It’s incredibly painful and usually caused by wearing steep high heels. Which is to say women suffer this far more than men. And here’s where we return to the designers: they’re not thinking about comfort, not at all. They are, in fact, working in the tradition of an aesthetic that was responsible for the bound feet of women in old China. You may recall seeing photos of old Chinese women whose feet (well before Mao’s revolution) had been tightly wrapped from an early age in order to keep the feet small and “perfectly” formed. Designers of shoes have really not moved far from this ideal.

A few years ago, I found a great pair of boots that were too tight but I liked them so much, I kept wearing them — mainly because I simply couldn’t find anything wider in that style. The result was that, after two years of constant wear, these boots deformed my little toes, essentially crushing them and all but obliterating my nails on these toes. Now, when I regard this sad relics of abuse, I wonder: Was fashion really worth the ruin of my little toes?

My childhood dentist was a big man who wore “orthopedic” shoes: wide, thick-soled, thoroughly ugly things that frightened me. They reminded me of the boots that Frankenstein’s monster wore (the laces were on the side of the shoe!). In fact, only the geekiest people wore orthopedic shoes when I was growing up. God forbid that a child would have to wear them. The stigma would have been devastating. But Dr. Waynic was smart enough to know that, on his feet all day, every day, he needed to be careful. Our feet get bigger as we age, due to the force of weight and gravity. I know an MD who is on his feet all day for work: he used to be a size 9, now he’s 10.5. I myself have moved from a 9 to a 9.5 and sometimes a 10, depending on the shoe maker.

What complicates all of this is that 1) most of us can’t afford to have shoes made for our feet, so we must make do with whatever the market offers us. 2) We have come to expect that shoes are fairly inexpensive — and indeed the manufacturers have accommodated that expectation — but the result has been a highly limited selection of shoe sizes and styles. By “style” I mean that, although we see a vast number of sizes, the shoe itself retains a fixed width and in no way accommodates the vast variations in foot shapes. 3) We are so fixated on the fickleness of fashion that we think fashion should trump all other considerations. So, we orphan perfectly good shoes as soon they’re out of style and chase after ill-fitting shoes so that we’ll look cool.

Little feet have been revered for centuries among both men and women. Men of the eighteenth century, for instance, were considered more refined if their feet were “dainty.” This probably had something to do with comparisons to large men working in the fields beside large-hooved animals. The big foot was too beastly. The preference for the small also had to do with comparisons to the detailed work of fine craftsmen, whose miniature clocks and automotans and baubles for the rich were rare, awe-inspiring objects. There’s also a bio-psychological component that has something to do with perceived femininity and fertility, leading most men to think that women with small feet are more desirable.

If we thought more seriously about it, we might conclude that, of all the body parts we clothe, our feet are most important and most affected by our fashion choices. We may choose to wear tight jeans at great discomfort to our waists, but tight jeans aren’t going to ruin us — cripple us — the way tight shoes might. Also, if we look back into our history, we learn that shoes were some of the most expensive items a person could buy — because they were made by hand and made to fit the wearer. Would it be worth our while to consider having, say, two exceptional pair cobbled just for us and be happy with that? Yes, I know, that’s a fantasy. More realistically, we might consider buying only those shoes that truly fit, irrespective of fashion. Yes, perhaps that’s another fantasy.

Unfortunately, the fashion industry doesn’t make this second alternative easy because, even if you do find that ideal pair of shoes, chances are that it will disappear from the marketplace next year. I once bought a great pair of Italian-made oxfords years ago and then, two years later, couldn’t find them again. I had my old pair re-soled (yes, you can still do this) and they lasted another year or so. But after that, I never found anything comparable.

A third alternative is to do what Jill does: collect old shoes. She has a huge array and, because she has such a small foot (6), she can often find newish antique shoes at flea markets and yard sales. I myself have given up the collection route. I’m going minimal and, in fact, today marks the first of my new, paired-down shoe life: I just got some heavy duty oxfords (in the old days these were called brogans) and, yes, they’re double-wide. May you walk lightly in yours, whatever the fashion.