The only woman who was designed to wear high heels is Barbie. The rest of us struggle, and sometimes hobble, as best we can, caught between the allure of high-heeled shoes and the reality of walking and standing in them for hours. “I wear high heels and they hurt and I keep doing it,” says Ami Sheth, a DPM (doctor of podiatric medicine) based in California. When she rose to the presidency of a statewide podiatric medical group, she honored the unspoken dress code required of women leaders everywhere and donned heels for public appearances, despite everything she knows about foot health and how high heels stomp it into mulch. “I’m a podiatrist, and these are podiatrists I work with,” she says. “You’d think it’s the most accepting arena, but societal norms push us in that direction.”
Barbie is fictional, and so is the notion that someone can wear high heels for hours on end, day after day, year after year, without suffering harm. “The foot is not meant to function on an everyday basis when it’s above two inches,” says Alan Bass, a DPM in New Jersey. “If you continue to put your foot in that position, I don’t care what anybody says, it’s going to hurt, and there will be consequences of keeping your foot in that position.” They include corns, bunions, hammertoes, ankle sprains, nerve damage, and permanently shortened Achilles tendons. But if you’re a dedicated wearer of high heels—shoes with heels that measure at least two inches tall—you can take action to seriously lessen the pain and fend off health problems.
“The foot is not meant to function on an everyday basis when it’s above two inches.If you continue to put your foot in that position, I don’t care what anybody says, it’s going to hurt, and there will be consequences.”
Steps one and two are finding a podiatrist and a cobbler that you can trust. The first will care for your feet. The second will care for your shoes. The next steps involve making sure your high-heeled shoes fit and getting rid of them when they wear out. This is good news because it provides a solid reason to go shoe-shopping, an activity you should pursue after work, when your feet will be slightly swollen from bearing your weight all day. Grace Torres-Hodges, a DPM in Florida, also counsels against rigidly sticking with a specific shoe size no matter what brand you’re trying on and no matter how the shoes actually feel on your feet. “There’s so much discrepancy in shoe sizing and measurement,” she says, likening the variations to those seen in off-the-rack clothing. “When you try them on, they should feel good from the get-go.”
High heels aren’t literally radioactive, but they’re similar in that it’s wise to limit your exposure as much as possible. “Wear them as much as you need to, not as much as you want to,” Dr. Bass says. “If high heels are a necessity, commute in sneakers. No one looks at you on a train or a bus.” Kick them off once you’re seated at your office desk, or ensconced behind a lectern.
At the end of a day spent in heels, perform an after-care routine. “After wearing heels, massaging your calves is really important,” Dr. Torres-Hodges says. “Stretch and flatten the ball of your foot. Any kind of cooling also helps.” If you can, you should deliberately vary the heel heights of the shoes you wear: Follow a Saturday in sky-high Louboutin stilettos with a Sunday in kitten heels or well-built flats. “You rotate your tires for a reason. There’s a wear pattern in tires. With shoes, you don’t want to get used to one position,” Dr. Torres-Hodges says. “Anything you can do to give it a break is good.”
Gel inserts and moleskin padding can help, but depending on the situation, it might be smarter to take your heels to the cobbler for adjustments. “If your shoes are tight and you add a gel insert or moleskin, it just takes up space and makes things tighter,” Dr. Bass says. And if you know you’re in for some punishment—let’s say you have a wedding coming up, and you’re going to dance in heels—consider bringing over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication to use when the festivities end.
If the big event is far enough in the future, you might try taking your must-wear high heels to your podiatrist for troubleshooting, if he or she is open to the idea. “Often I initiate that by asking, ‘Do you have any events coming up? Bring your shoes in and let’s take a look so you can keep functioning in your life,’” Dr. Sheth says.
“We do what we do not because we’re foolish. We’ve got different demands and needs,” Dr. Sheth says. “Wear heels in moderation, and listen to the physical cues of your own body.”