Every now and then, shoe-frenzy makes a cameo appearance the blogosphere. Okay, it's omnipresent in blogs dealing with fashion and shopping, but most of us (male and female) have to shop for footwear at some point. And some of us feel compelled to blog about our particularly noteworthy finds, at least in passing. You know, like the incomparable Heather Armstrong at Dooce, who has waxed ecstatic about silver-metallic ballet flats (dismissed by her husband as "elf shoes"), and once wrote this wonderful paean to the joy of finding the perfect pair. Armstrong is known for detailing the minutiae of her daily life on her blog, but that doesn't mean the rest of us don't occasionally bliss out over an especially nifty pair of pumps. Which is exactly what happened in comment threads this week over at Bitch PhD and Shakesville. (Fair warning to the easily offended: why are you clicking on a link to a blog called Bitch PhD in the first place? Because you thought it would be about knitting while sipping mint juleps and nibbling cucumber sandwiches? Duh!)
Ah, but there are lots of killjoys out there on teh Internets, no doubt wearing too-tight or ill-fitting shoes (or, worse, clunky "sensible" shoes), which might explain why they're so cranky, and why they feel compelled to spoil other people's fun. Apparently some people criticized Shakesville's Melissa McEwan for departing from her usual hard-hitting feminist political fare to focus on something as trivial as shoes. I'm guessing this is something women scientists face as well. We aren't allowed, it seems, to take pleasure in the small joys of life and still be Serious Women, respected professionals in our chosen fields.
Um, screw that. I'm the patron saint of comfy sensible shoes — I'm known for it among my female friends, in fact (who are not always complimentary about my workmanlike choices) — but that doesn't mean I can't branch out once in awhile and be truly stylin'. Who says women can't be smart, serious, 100% professional, and still totally rock a pair of hot pink pumps if they want to? (Or asphalt-stomping Doc Martens, if that's your preference. To each his/her own.) In honor of Melissa, Bitch PhD, Heather, and all you other shoe-lovers out there, today's post will focus on the science of footwear.
First, a look at this week's featured products before we delve into the science. Bitch PhD offered these multi-colored beauties:
Then Melissa weighed in with these innocent-seeming pink pumps that launched a thousand angry comments (UPDATE: Oops! Apparently it was only a couple of negative comments, but it did inspire her to write a blog post on the topic):
Followed by these plaid ballet flats, for the more sensible-minded of her readers:
Just for good measure, since we're talking flats, here's Heather's silver ballet flats (a.k.a., "elf shoes"), which I covet greatly:
Perhaps your tastes run to more of a Goth/fetish look. A few blog posts ago, I mentioned going shoe-shopping with the Spousal Unit (who wore ostrich skin boots at our wedding, so he's a man who appreciates stylish footwear). I got some comfy low-heeled sandals for summer, a couple pairs of Skechers (for daily practical wear), and these fabulous New Rock Malicia Silver Spiderweb mid-calf-length boots:
Yeah. It's an indulgence. These boots are definitely not made for walking, although as stiletto heels go, they're surprisingly comfortable. Ergo, I bought them. That's what a well-made pair of heels does for you, and why they're worth paying a bit extra. According to a UK pal of mine, "fantasy heels" are all the rage this season for the "fashion forward." Take that, cranky Shakesville commenters! (Or, you know, the one or two commenters who complained…)
Okay, so we're fashion forward. Yay, us. But could there really be any actual science associated with sexy stilettos? "Mais oui!" Jen-Luc Piquant exclaims. "How could you doubt it?" We need look no further than Jolly Olde England. Several years ago, The Globe and Mail ran an entertaining article about a physics professor at the University of Surrey named Paul Stevenson who calculated the maximum height of stiletto heels a woman could wear without falling over, and/or cramping up in pain. He did so at the behest of a publicist at the Institute of Physics in London, who — while watching the series finale of Sex and the City — found herself wondering how the women in the show could possibly wear such high stiletto heels and still perambulate around the Big Apple with any measure of grace. I've never seen the appeal of the show myself (which puts me firmly in the minority among women), but must admit, it's a valid question.
Stevenson obliged by coming up with a formula for the maximum heel height you could wear without tipping over: h = Q x (12+3s/8). His formula determines how changes in foot slope increase the "tippiness" likelihood. It's based on the wearer's shoe size and something he calls the "Q" factor: taking into account sociological factors like how much pain a woman is prepared to tolerate for the sake of style. (If you're me, the Q factor is pretty low: if a shoe pinches or chafes, it's coming off, which is why those gorgeous Michael Kors sage green ballet flats I bought for half price are sitting forlornly in my closet, unworn. But a friend of mine once developed bleeding blisters walking around in ill-fitting shoes because she loved them so much.) It's hard to quantify that sort of subjective parameter, which is probably why we haven't seen Stevenson's paper on arXiv. But he made a noble attempt, figuring in things like "the probability that wearing the shoes will turn heads," how much experience (in years) the wearer has with high heels, the cost of the shoes (in British pounds), how much time has elapsed since the shoe style was all the rage, and of course, the amount of alcohol consumed by the wearer.
Going by Stevenson's handy formula, the answer is: about five inches. (Of course, that's assuming the wearer is sober; alcohol can really disrupt one's equilibrium.) It's basic Pythagorean geometry, really: much like the hypotenuse of a triangle, the sharper the angle of the foot in the shoe, the more unsteady the wearer becomes — especially since stilettos support the wearer's weight on a relatively small area. The answer would be different for a broader heel, since the greater area would probably help the wearer remain stable at even greater heel heights.
Stability aside, one's weight pressing down on stiletto heels produces a huge amount of pressure. The late, great songstress Kirsty MacColl has a classic tune called "In These Shoes," wherein the heroine turns down offers from aspiring swains to take her on all kinds of far-flung adventures, in response to which she sniffs, "In these shoes? I don't think so…." In the final stanza, an Englishman asks her to walk up and down his spine in her sexy stilettos. The response: "In these shoes? I doubt you'd survive." She's not kidding. A 100-pound woman in a pair of stiletto high heels would exert pressure under the foot that is 20 times greater than that of a 6-ton elephant. (Jen-Luc cautions: Don't make Sarah Jessica Parker angry by knocking Sex and the City too loudly, lest she stomp on you with her pricey Manolo Blahnik pumps!)
Stevenson's formula was primarily concerned with balance, but the awkward angles and high pressures associated with heels has been cause for concern in some circles. For years now, orthopaedists, podiatrists and other medical sorts have been warning women about the health risks of routinely donning high heels: bunions, stress fractures, joint pain in the ball of the foot (because weight is shifted to the ball of your foot, rather than being distributed over the entire foot), corns and calluses, hammertoes, ingrown toenails, toenail fungus, and something called "pump bumps" (enlargement of the bony area on the back of the heel). High heels have been linked to injured leg muscles, lower back pain, and osteoarthritis in the knee, too, because when you wear heels, the foot slides forward, redistributes your weight and creates those unnatural pressure points. You can pretty much kiss healthy spinal alignment goodbye.
High heels also mean your heel bones don't regularly come into contact with the ground, so the Achilles tendon can't stretch out properly while walking, and thus becomes shortened and/or tightened. Then there's a little thing called Morton's neuroma, a growth of nerve tissue in the foot — usually between the third and fourth toes — that arises when you wear too-tight shoes, causing sharp burning pain in the ball of your foot and a stinging or numbness in your toes. The list goes on and on. In fact, thanks to high heels, the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society estimates that women account for 90% of surgeries performed each year for common foot ailments. That's about $3.5 billion annually in the US alone, according to this May 2007 article in the Washington Post.
Suddenly Heather's "elf shoes" are starting to look pretty good, right? Ah, but are flats really better for your feet than heels? Inquiring minds want to know. The answer is, not necessarily. Flip-flops, for example, can cause other kinds of problems, like plantar fasciitis, thanks to the repeated lifting of the heel away from the shoe surface. Ballet flats don't offer much in the way of arch support, and can still be tight and/or ill-fitting; they're not really made for walking long distances, either. So perhaps now all the folks who snickered at the practical Teva clogs I wore until they fell apart will reconsider their harsh judgment of my fashion sense. I could walk for hours in those Tevas, they were that comfortable. And having lived without a car for many years in New York City and Washington DC, I've always been an inveterate walker.
So, what should we look for in a stylin' pair of shoes? The recommendation is usually for a rounded toe, more cushioning in the sole, and good arch support (a quality that is lacking in my pretty new Skechers and languishing Kors ballet flats). If one must wear high heels, it's recommended you limit the height to 3 inches (preferably 1 or 2 inches) and not wear them for more than three hours at a stretch — something that is not an option for, say, cocktail waitresses in Vegas. Wider heels are preferable to stilettos, and it's important to make sure shoes aren't too narrow for your feet.
The Mayo Clinic recommends shopping for shoes in the late afternoon or early evening, since the feet swell up during the day, and trying on both shoes of a pair, since many folks have one foot that is bigger than the other. Also? "There's no such thing as a 'break-in' period. Shoes should feel comfortable right away. Don't buy a pair that you think will fit well after you've worn them for awhile." (*hangs head in shame*) We have all been guilty of this… especially when I was impoverished in the Big Apple and Payless Shoe Source was the only outlet I could afford.
When I shop for "fashionable" shoes these days, I tend to avoid pointed toes as a general rule (because I have freakishly long, mutant toes), but here's something I discovered about pricier shoes: the pointed toes are actually "fake." What I mean is, they're made longer than usual, so one's toes aren't really being crunched together into that tiny space. That's certainly the case with my new Malicia spiderweb boots, and with the stunning black Dior pumps I purchased for our wedding. The downside: most of us can't afford the high price tags for high-end heels. Those prices have recently gotten way out of hand, with some of the most famous designers charging over $1000. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that many consumers have "balked" at paying those prices. Um, ya think?
The good news for women who love their stiletto heels is twofold. First, several shoe manufacturers are coming out with "healthy high heels" with more air-cushioning. For example, the Massachusetts-based Insolia has designed a line of heels with weight-shifting inserts that shift body weight off the ball of the foot, with a shape that places feet in optimal position for a high heel, thereby improving body alignment and ankle stability — while still making sure the shoes are attractive.
But there's even better news, according to this February 12 report: "High Heels Might Boost Your Sex Life." The same unnatural posture that wrecks your spinal alignment can also tone your abdomen and pelvic floor, according to Maria Angela Cerruto, a urologist at the University of Verona in Italy. She tested 66 women under the age of 50 and found that if they stood with feet at a 15-degree angle — achievable by wearing three-inch heels — the pelvic muscles were more relaxed, making them stronger and easier to contract. To counter being pushed forward by the heels, women naturally tighten the abdominal muscles and push the pelvis under. Cerruto thinks this might mean that wearing heals could reduce the need for so-called "Kegel" pelvic exercises — associated not just with reversing the toll of pregnancy, childbirth, extra weight and such on women, but also with improving sexual response/gratification. Manolo Blahnik, for one, is thrilled at the findings, no doubt with visions of dollar signs dancing in his head.
So there you have it: the science of shoes. The upshot is, be smart about your choices, but wear the styles you like, whether it be sexy stilettos, ballet flats, platform wedges, comfy Tevas, cowboy boots, or anything in between. After all, ever since humans began wearing shoes, the accessory has been as much about status and fashion, as about practicality and comfort. The WaPo article quotes Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, which has some 13,000 artifacts, including one that is nearly 4500 years old. "It's absolutely clear to me… when I look at cultures that impracticality is one of the primary features among the privileged" class, she said. And the rest of us seek to emulate the privileged class. Or perhaps, as Dawn once said in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's just because "Everyone loves a slender ankle."