Owning your first pair of high heels often feels like a rite of passage, and pumps are generally considered a staple of every woman’s wardrobe. But even women who weren’t especially jazzed about this particular rite of passage (hello, blisters and aches!) and dislike wearing heels often don’t have the luxury of simply eliminating them from their closets — and this is just one reason foot pain is a feminist issue.
According to a 2013 study by The College of Podiatry in the U.K., over 40 percent of women (compared to 12 percent of men) continue to wear shoes that cause them significant foot pain. We don’t simply do this in the name of fashion — the dress codes at certain companies require women to wear heels to work. And even if it’s not specifically written into the rules of your workplace’s HR handbook, plenty of bosses make clear to women that they expect us to wear heels on the job. Sure, rebellion is an option — but workers are keenly aware that doing so could cost us future promotions, and that’s a luxury most women can’t afford.
“I see women more often than men with bunions, hammer toes, neuromas, heel pain, plantar fasciitis and ankle sprains,” Dr. Damian Roussel, a podiatrist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, tells SheKnows. “Bunions, hammer toes and neuromas, in particular, are usually caused or made worse by wearing high heels since this causes weight to transfer to the front of the foot and the ball of the foot to squeeze. Ankle sprains are also often the result of ankle instability from the lack of support a heel provides.”
Dr. Brett Sachs, a foot and ankle surgeon in Denver, Colorado, tells SheKnows that he sees women who experience foot pain for a variety of reasons. For example, women who wear high heels all day are more likely to experience pain in the big toe because heels have a narrow toe box. Other women who work on their feet all day may experience pain in their heels related to plantar fasciitis.
Although shoes play a major role in women’s foot pain, there are other factors that either cause or exacerbate our foot ailments. Even in homes where both partners have full-time jobs, the bulk of work to maintain the household falls at women’s feet (literally). According to a 2016 study conducted by the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, women do an average of 60 percent more unpaid work than men. Tasks that fall into this category include cooking, childcare and housework.
“Many women are balancing work, motherhood and family life, so they are on their feet a lot, especially when they have jobs that require a lot of standing — which is made worse if the job requires them to also wear dress shoes,” Roussel says.
For the women who are balancing careers and motherhood, it’s also important to note that pregnancy can be tough on your feet. “There are several things that occur during pregnancy that cause foot and leg pain,” podiatrist Dr. Tammy Gracen tells SheKnows. “The increased body mass, particularly centrally, puts downward pressure on the feet. Circulating hormones cause an increase in laxity of the ligaments. This combination causes the plantar arch to elongate and the foot to roll in, or pronate. The most common problem caused by this is plantar fasciitis.”
Roussel adds that because women’s feet frequently swell during pregnancy, it can be tough for them to wear their normal shoes, and they’ll resort to any shoes they can fit in comfortably, such as flip-flops. But flip-flops are unsupportive and can cause pain in both the short- and long-term.
Although the biology of women’s bodies isn’t something we can control, it’s clear that sexism and antiquated gender roles play a major role in female foot pain. Expecting women to sacrifice their foot health by wearing high heels to the office — and then return home in the evening to remain on their feet doing household chores — is rooted in sexism. It’s time for HR departments to consider women’s health when establishing dress codes, and it’s definitely time for men to pull their weight at home. The problem of women’s foot pain won’t be solved overnight, but there are clear, simple steps that can be taken starting today.