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IF THE SHOE can bet it's not fashionable

by Julia Sneden

I look at the advertisements in magazines and newspaper these days, and cannot believe that shoes with spike heels and long, pointed toes have made a comeback. How absurd! How unenlightened! How absolutely cruel!

I have a friend who swears that designers of shoes must be men, who've never worn a three-inch heel or, for that matter, crammed a foot into some strappy little number that strangles feet the way a garrote strangles necks. They haven't worn shoes that jam their toes up, one against another, in an effort to fit them into the isosceles triangle that forms the so-called toe of the shoe. That triangular shape no more resembles the form of the human foot than a dunce cap echoes the shape of a human head. If you look down at your toes, you'll see that there are three long toes (which one is longest varies from person to person) and then two toes of descending size. If you were to draw the shape with a straight edge, you'd probably get something shaped rather like a shed, or lean-to, not a church steeple.

I remember reading a quote from a shoe designer who referred to the pointed shoes as "graceful," "elegant," and "making the foot appear smaller." Nonsense. How can something that elongates and defies natural shape make something appear smaller? From experience, I can state unequivocally that shoes with rounded toes make my very average size 7 feet look positively tiny. And the pointy-toed shoes make them look like size 10's. There's nothing wrong with size 10's if they are in proportion to the rest of you, but (at 5'2") on me they'd look like clown feet.

And we've not even begun to discuss pain.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I quit work in my seventh month of pregnancy. Once home, I reverted to my childhood preference for bare feet or loafers, grateful to get out of the high heels I'd been wearing daily to the office, ever since graduating from college. Within a few days, I began to have strange pains in my heels. Thinking it was something related to pregnancy, I mentioned it to my OB.

"Oh," he said, "that's just your tendons stretching. They became shortened from wearing high heels all day." I was stunned. In just 4 years, my shoes had shortened my tendons?

Tendons, of course, are the least of it. Calluses, bunions, malformed toenails, hammer toes: the list of woes goes on and on. Women who love shoes put up with all sorts of miseries in the name of style.

My mother was a mini Imelda Marcos. She kept upwards of 40 pairs of shoes well into her 80's, and was crushed when she had to give up high heels following a heart attack at the age of 89. Her sole criterion in buying shoes was style, not comfort, and she was very proud of wearing size 5 long after her feet had grown to 6. While she had a pair of old oxfords for hiking and gardening, I never saw her wearing anything but high heels for shopping, visiting, teaching, church-going, and general around-the-house wear. She loved shoes so much that she would order a pair that caught her fancy from a catalogue. If they didn't fit, she would give them away unworn to a friend or the daughter of a friend, to an employee or to the churchwomen's sale. "Fit," of course, was not a precise term for her. If she loved the look of the shoe enough, she'd cram her foot into it no matter what. As a result, her podiatrist simply shakes his head as he cuts her toenails. After almost 90 years of mistreatment, her bare feet are not a pretty sight.

I find myself wondering how on earth I escaped my mother's mania for shoes. Certainly I like good-looking footwear, and when I'm dressed up, I find that pretty shoes help the overall effect. But having endured a few hours of torture at parties (those glamorous strappy numbers), I long ago decided to forego glamour for comfort. It may take longer to shop for good-looking shoes that are also comfortable, but for me, they're worth the effort. And the thought of buying shoes without trying them on (from a catalogue, for instance) is anathema.

When I was a kid, the problem was getting me to wear shoes at all. Except for church and school, I ran barefoot. The first thing I did when I hit the front door was to kick off my shoes. The bottoms of my feet were so tough and callused that I could run on the gravel and small stones of our driveway without discomfort, while my parents and older brother winced on my behalf. I don't know why my well-shod mother allowed me to go barefoot when I went downtown on short errands with her, but I can still remember my embarrassed brother looking at me with distaste and saying: "Do I have to be seen with her? She's barefoot!"

When I was about 5, I was asked to be the flower girl at a favorite cousin's wedding. I was to wear a long, pink taffeta dress, and white Mary Janes with white socks. Came the morning of the wedding, my grandmother was there to help me dress. She took one look at my feet and ordered me to sit on the side of the tub while she scrubbed the bottoms of my feet.

"But I had a bath last night," I wailed, "and we washed my hair and rolled it on rags and everything!"

"You are NOT going to put those feet into clean socks," she snapped. I tried to convince her that the calluses on my feet weren't in the least dirty, until I saw the washcloth she had used to scrub. It was my first lesson in the fact that real dirt requires more than a gentle swipe to remove it.

"Sheesh," I groaned. "No one would ever know anyway. I mean the bottoms of my feet are going to be inside my shoes!"

She gave me a scathing look. "But you and I would know, wouldn't we?" she said, and ended the conversation.

These days I rarely go barefoot, and my feet are no longer tough. I baby them with expensive walking shoes or soft slippers, and as my arthritis progresses, I worry about my toes, which are so far unscathed. A friend who has diabetes tells me that she must use lotion on her feet daily, and I have decided to do the same for mine. Aging, thinning skin needs all the help it can get, and cracks in the heels hurt like the devil.

Thank goodness that some shoe manufacturers take comfort into consideration. Birkenstocks, of course, are an old standby, and there are several other brands of shoes that are actually made with consideration for the human foot. SAS and Ecco come to mind, and I'm sure there are others. Unfortunately, they tend to be very expensive.

However, these days we seniors are more than ever determined to remain healthy and independent; we exercise and take care of ourselves better than any earlier generation, and we're living longer. If saving our pennies for one really good pair of shoes will help to keep us mobile, we'll do it. But wouldn't it be great if the manufacturers of less expensive brands twigged to the market and began making softer, lower, more cushiony (but still attractive) shoes with the older buyer in mind?

It seems to me that as the baby boomers age, the shoe manufacturers are going to have to consider adding new lines, with basic design changes to accommodate aging feet. After all, one cannot wear sandals for every occasion. Right now, anybody who could give me a soft spectator pump with a 1-inch heel and a round toe that comes with a narrow heel would have an easy sale at just about any price. It would, in fact, be a shoo-in.



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