Monday, October 19, 2015

Women's Dress Shoes: A Public Service Announcement

With job hunting season in full swing and a recent trip to the mall, I've been reflecting on my old nemesis--women's dress shoes--and how difficult it is to navigate the world when you have health problems which conflict with society's view of acceptable dress.  Fashion and social norms, particularly for women, are inflexible and unaccommodating to an extent that people without chronic health problems do not understand.  It is unrealistic, and even harmful, to expect that someone with such health problems will invest the time and energy required to find a solution which works for them and is socially acceptable-- if such a solution even exists.  Instead, each and every one of us has a responsibility to make the world a better place for people with chronic health problems by not judging people harshly for failing to dress appropriately.  After all, none of us ever knows the full story.

I have severe, chronic foot problems.  I've had them since I was a teenager, and I'll probably have them for the rest of my life.  My foot problems seriously restrict my shoe options.  On better days, I'm limited to flats with decent arch or ankle support; on worse days, nothing short of hiking boots, custom orthotics, and foot tape will do.  By now, I've settled into three classes of workable shoes-- hiking boots, sandals with serious footbeds, like Birkenstocks, and cowboy boots.  Cowboy boots might seem like a surprising choice, but they're uniquely good at accommodating my weirdly-shaped feet, they're flat with very sturdy soles, and they allow me to use foot tape.

Like many women who have health problems that conflict with fashion norms, I have spent hundreds of hours trying to find acceptable options.  At this point, I can say conclusively that the reason I can't find dress shoes I can wear is not that I haven't tried hard enough, but because the design philosophy of women's shoes is fundamentally incompatible with what my feet need in terms of support.  Most dress shoes are heels, which I can't wear.  The flats typically have flimsy soles, don't offer any support, don't have removable footbeds, or are not high enough to accommodate orthotics. I'm grateful for sites like Barking Dog Shoes, but my foot problems are far more extreme than the issues they address.  I don't need comfortable shoes; I need shoes with a specific set of structural requirements that allow me to not be in pain.

It is much more difficult to dress around health problems if you are a woman than if you are a man.  If I were a man, I would have no problem finding appropriate dress shoes.  I know this because one of my male family members has the same foot problems as me, and standard men's dress shoes work for him.  There are a myriad of different health problems that involve a similar double standard-- imagine a woman vs. a man with a skin condition that prevented them from wearing makeup, or a woman vs. a man with a health problem that prevented them from wearing tight-fitting clothing.

I'm often judged negatively for not wearing appropriate dress shoes, and this judgment comes by and large from other women.  Men generally don't care.  In fact, they generally don't even notice.  Women have told me many times that it's my fault that I can't find appropriate dress shoes, and if I can't find decent dress shoes, my career will be doomed because I will fail every job interview.

Along with the judgment comes unsolicited advice.  This "help" can be reduced to four unhelpful categories:

(1) You should just put up with it!  For many people, this is not a viable option-- the short-term or long-term effects are too severe.  For me, assuming I could make it through the day, which I probably couldn't, I would likely be crippled for weeks.  I would be unable to cook, do the dishes, do the laundry, or any one of a number of mundane household tasks that require standing.  I'd be lucky if I could leave the house.  It's hard to understand the true extent to which health problems can impact your life unless you've experienced them yourself. 

Beyond the practical issues, consider the implications of that statement:  "Surely your health problems can't be all that bad."  "Appearances are more important than your ability to live your life to the fullest."  "Rather than accept you for who you are, the world and I would prefer that you suffer."  This attitude is toxic and offensive.

(2) You just haven't spent enough time looking!  Again, the implications of this statement are troubling.  How do you know how much time someone has spent looking?  Why did you automatically assume that lack of effort is the problem?  Or that continuing to look is a good use of time?

For me, my hit rate is so low I would have to spend tens of hours looking for shoes to even have a hope of finding something.  But, in those tens of hours that I spent fruitlessly searching for supposedly job-appropriate shoes...I could have spent that time on career development with actual substance.  I could have written a first draft of a paper, or learned a new programming language.  Personally, I'd rather put my time into out-badassing the competition by such a wide margin that nobody even cares about my shoes.  Not everyone wants to eat the opportunity cost that comes with an extended uphill battle against the system, and that's OK.

(3) You should just try X!  This response is a manifestation of a very common, and frustrating, occurrence for people with any kind of chronic health problem.  Someone with no firsthand experience of your condition or your day-to-day life sweeps in and declares that they can fix everything in one simple step.  It's clear that they mean well, but habitually fielding well-meaning but misguided advice is exhausting.  In addition, for some people, there is a very real cost to trying new products.  For someone whose skin is sensitive to makeup or jewelry, the result of a failed experiment could last for days.

(4) You should just try ordering online!  Online shopping is no magic solution.  It's great that many online stores have shipping and return policies that allow customers to try on clothes or shoes for free.  However, for some people, the hit rate is so low that they might have to try on tens or hundreds of items to find something that works.  This involves fronting large amounts of money over a long period of time.  Again, it is not reasonable to expect that everyone is willing or able to expend so much time or so many resources in this way.

In the end, for me, it is simply not a good use of my time or money to actively continue trying to solve my dress shoe problem.  The deck is stacked against me and the opportunity cost is too high.  I don't need to find the perfect pair of shoes; I need a paradigm shift. 

Listen.  The fashion industry isn't going to change any time soon.  Fashion editorials aren't suddenly going to start celebrating orthotic-friendly shoes, and high-end designers aren't going to start producing a flood of stylish and supportive flats.  So I'm talking to you, readers.  You get to decide for yourself how harshly you judge women based on their appearance.  If you sit on a hiring committee, if you get to decide in any way who you work with and how they get promoted, you have great power.  And with great power comes great responsibility.  You don't know whether someone's odd clothing, makeup, or shoe choice is due to some kind of medical condition they do their best to work around.  Don't be judgmental.  Don't be a jerk.

Because you-- YOU-- are the ones who can make a real difference.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I too have challenging feet and knees. I wear flats and sneakers. I have found a few brands (online) that accommodate my orthopedic needs. Fashion is what works on runways, style is what works for you.

  2. Wow. I'm sorry you have this problem. And I agree that a paradigm shift is called for. And not just about what women wear.

    I used to wear heels, but now live in running shoes, along with jeans & sweatshirts. That probably explains my only thought on your footwear choices in photos as a neutral "Interesting choice", to "like the boots with that dress!". In reality, I usually don't even notice the footwear in sewing blogs, I'm looking at the sewing.

    I do have a couple of questions - NOT offering up a miracle cure or anything - feel free to say "not your business!"
    1. custom made shoes by a real shoemaker? I imagine they'd be horrendously expensive though, esp. if there'd be no guarantee you could wear them successfully. Just wondering since you didn't mention that in any of the points you made above.
    2. Now that I've gone back and looked at the year in review photos, I notice you are barefoot in some - Do you pay the price for that also, or is the grass and sand good?
    3. Why not wear men's dress shoes? They might be an interesting alternative to cowboy boots with dressier clothes. Since your brother has similar foot issues, he might be able to steer you toward some good ones, saving you a bit of money & time.

    ok, shutting up now, I hope I didn't offend with the questions!

    1. Nah, it's OK-- you're pretty clear that you're willing to take "no" or "I don't want to talk about it" as an answer!

      For custom shoes, I've thought about it, but I feel like it would be too risky-- a lot of money up front, no guarantee the shoes would work for me at the end.

      For going barefoot, I think I know the photos you're thinking of-- I'm usually not wearing shoes for pretty mundane reasons like I'm taking the pictures in my back yard or on my front porch, or I was trying to walk on the beach in sandals but they kept getting swamped with sand. I definitely pay for going barefoot if I go for extended walks on unforgiving surfaces like concrete and asphalt, though.

      For men's dress shoes, they're too wide. I can wear some men's cowboy boots if I wear two thick pairs of socks, but that's not something you can get away with if the socks are visible.

    2. In one of my first jobs, a guy asked another guy why I never wore high heels when all the other women did. I think he was just curious, but he did notice. I'm very sensitive to the gendered and inequitable nature of dressing and the difficulties of finding shoes for women. I think high heels are dangerous, and many regular women's shoes have been painful and caused bunions. I also have very small feet. In short, finding shoes is a challenge. I don't fit the stereotype of the woman with a million pairs of shoes: If I find something that fits, I usually stick with it.

      I did wonder why you haven't explored custom shoes. You might be able to talk to a podiatrist about your specific needs and then to a custom firm. I would have looked into it, but the expense would probably be prohibitive. In your case, you might be able to justify it as a medical expense, I don't know.

      In general, I try not to be too judgmental. I care much more about the kind of job someone does. If image is important, what matters is the effort put in given the person's particular traits, not matching an image in a look book.

      But I am not sympathetic to women who complain about how painful their excessively high heels are, how they can only stand in them for two hours, and how running requires them to be removed. Wear something more practical. Stop sacrificing comfort and health to fulfill a silly ideal.

    3. Not even my orthotics are covered by my insurance, unfortunately, and they run about ~$300. The outrage!

    4. That is outrageous, not to mention short-sighted. As you are an academic, I assume you don't make a lot of money, but it might be worth it to look for a custom shoemaker. They probably keep your custom-made last for years, the way a bespoke tailor keeps your pattern on hand.

      In addition to shoes, I always had problems finding business clothes that fit and I liked. Alterations often would pull the skirts off grain and they never felt right. People who had no idea of the cost would suggest I had my clothes custom made. I sometimes wish I had sprung for a couple of suits.

  3. I used to think that I had trouble finding clothes because of my particular body type. Then, a few years ago, I read the comments to a post on Corporette, a blog for professional women. Small bust, large bust, short-waisted, long-waisted, etc., everyone had trouble finding clothes.

    I recall thinking that Society raises obstacles for women DOWN TO THE CLOTHES.

    It has to end.

  4. It is a feminist issue, isn't it? I have been reading more about feminism lately, with great interest and I agree that men would never suffer like this, or for such dumb reasons. From the time we are little girls, it seems we are ingrained with the notion that we "owe" it to others to dress a certain way. I am tired of it!

  5. I immediately thought of this awesome post I read years ago (skip to the rant) it's fabulous and exactly on this theme and a number of people comment on the shoe brand she wears (Dankso I think it is) which I think is an English one so not sure if you have already come across it before (you probably have so ignore that bit if I am the 100th person to mention it) Anyhow before this post I never noticed your shoes as being out of the ordinary it must get so frustrating though especially as I agree, it seems to be women who are the most critical and judgemental of other women, which is so disappointing. I really experienced this when I was breastfeeding. Although I was very discrete I only ever experienced discrimination from other women my age or younger. Men of all ages and older women were all wonderful, either outwardly supportive and sweet or just politely ignored me or never noticed. Interesting isn't it. I think the same thing happens in regard to what we wear.

  6. I have similar problems...I have RA and it affects my extremeties, so I can only wear certain kinds of shoes: sandals with support and cushion, cushioned supportive sneakers, and flat boots with a wide toe box. I've been trying to find shoes for my November wedding (in a month) and I can't find anything cute, formal, and weather appropriate. I bought a pair of Dansko sandals, but winter. :( I usually end up wearing flats to others' weddings and deal with the bunion pain later. I wear loafers to work, but I don't think they provide enough support. If there are attractive and formal solutions out there for ladies with foot issues, I'd like to know what they are.

  7. I have never been able to wear heels, and was always happier in flats, I have high arches and over the last 15 years I was developing problems with my feet and ankles both from running and working on my feet all day. I wear a flexible orthotic for the last 6 years (i work part time in a sports store and we make them) and I swear by them, and I also wear sports compression knee socks for work - both help enormously (I was running 8 km 3 times a week two years ago). it took about 2 years of wearing the orthotics for me to feel a sufficient difference so that I took up running again (the muscle etc around my achilles had righted itself in the intervening time) - anyway, I can wear these insoles with some shoes with a low heel if they fit. and finally - ' If a woman persists in wearing shoes that hurt her feet, eventually she will have the face of a woman whose feet hurt. . .

  8. Interesting thoughts. Is it a musculature issue? Does therapy make any difference? Not trying to critique, I've got my own issues. :-)

    1. Yeah, I've done physical therapy before, and still keep up with the exercises, but I've pretty much reached the limit of what it can do for me.

  9. I just found your blog. I was enjoying your sewing and then found this. Wow.

    I'm sorry you have such serious foot problems. Thank you for writing about it! I have serious foot problems, too and don't know anyone else in the same sort of situation. I appreciate hearing from someone who is. It so true about not really understanding how chronic health problems impact your life unless you've experienced them. That applies to a lot more than feet. And there are consequences of trying to just put up with it, or overdoing it. You have to be able to do all the ordinary, daily, things that require standing!

    I developed serious problems after a foot injury. And I have more ordinary problems in both feet, too. Most of the time, I have to wear my clunky sneakers with custom orthotics inside, and I haven't been able to bring myself to wear them with really dressy clothes. It just looks so wrong that I feel conspicuous. It was actually easier to dress nicely back when I could still wear one normal (flat) shoe and one "surgery shoe". The surgery shoe made it obvious why I wasn't conforming to what was expected. So I didn't get negative comments.

    I've had the same problems trying to find dress shoes that accommodate orthotics. Orthaheel makes some dressier orthotic flats with removable foot beds, but I haven't found one that really works with my custom orthotic, which I think must be a sport model. Unfortunately, the cowboy boots won't work for me - you look great in your evening dresses paired with the boots!

    Most of the time I'm just grateful not to be in excruciating pain anymore, and to be able to walk almost normally. But sometimes I miss being able to dress up, and especially my vintage things. I can only manage normal flat shoes for short periods - like into and out of a vehicle, with sitting in between. And that only works if my various issues aren't acting up. And I can't go barefoot, even indoors.