When Leora Tanenbaum was 38, she found herself in major foot pain for the first time in her life. When her podiatrist told her she had bunions, “I was totally horrified and freaked out. It reminded me of old ladies,” she said by phone. The result? She now wears orthotics (inserts), limits her high heel usage, and was inspired to write Bad Shoes and the Women Who Love Them (Seven Stories Press), exposing everything from scary foot surgeries, a sexual history of high heels and doctors’ advice on how to save your peds from peril. (Warning: You will likely want to remove your heels, as I did, while reading this book.)
“As women get older, our feet change. I didn’t know anything about this until I was 28,” Tanenbaum confesses. “It’s inevitable that your feet will get wider and yet the shoe styles available to us are so narrow, you’re forcing your foot into shoes that are too small. This will cause problems with your gait and will cause deformity, but it’s prolonged; it could take 10 or 15 years.”
So what are “bad” shoes, a term Tanenbaum repeatedly drops into conversation? “I’m really talking about a fashionable type of shoe, with a three-inch or higher heel and a pointy, cramped toe box where you’re smushing all your toes in in a really natural way. You could have an open sandal that’s a bad shoe also where all the straps are cutting into you like knives. Any shoe that’s going to ultimately deform your feet if you wear it enough, to me that constitutes a bad shoe.”
In her writing, Tanenbaum can occasionally come across as judgmental, not just toward certain types of shoes, but toward their wearers as well, with statements like “You can’t help but wonder if American women shut down their brains while shopping for shoes,” and, when explaining that low heels are one inch or lower and mid height is one to two inches, but “A heel that is four inches or higher is demented.”
In conversation, though, the feminist writer tempers her thoughts a bit. “I’m not against anybody doing anything ever. I’m not the shoe police,” she explains. “I just want women to be smart and judicious about it. If you’ve got a pair of demented four-inch heels, only wear them sparingly. If you have a special event and those shoes are so hot, wear them, but don’t walk in them, try not to dance in them and have a backup pair of shoes.” She profiles a woman whose shoes hurt her so much she wound up walking on New York City sidewalks in bare feet…but refused to give up her precious shoes. “When I point out to women all the harm they’re doing to their bodies and suggest wearing shoes that are a little more sensible and save bad shoes for special occasions, those women look at me as if I’m crazy; they’re almost unable to think about it rationally. I’m not trying to put down women; all of us have been subjected to it at some point.”
The roots of our heel obsession run deep. Tanenbaum gives a fascinating history: Who knew that men were the original wearers of wooden clogs on stilts, and as early as 1740 women were being warned about the dangers of heels? There were even sumptuary laws in Europe which limited the height of women’s shoes; those who broke the law had to pay a fine! An early version of Cinderella echoed some of the gruesome things women to do fit into their favorite designer heelsthe stepsisters lopped off a toe or part of the heel to squeeze into the famed glass slipper. Freud gets his due, too; Tanenbaum believes shoes are fetish objects for men and women; we use them to signal sexual availability (to men) and cling to them with an outsized fervor.
Her “Bad Shoe Hall of Fame” includes stiletto mules, high platform sandals, ballet slippers, and shoes that promise to help you lose weight. Not even slippers get a pass; unless it has arch support or a contoured foot bed, Tanenbaum recommends against it for frequent wearing. Asked if there are any particular shoe culprits she wants to call out, Tanenbaum responds, “Have you seen pictures of those armadillo shoes? Lady Gaga wore them, and Demi Moore wore on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar last month. They’re ten-inch spike heels; I’ve got to assume that not only can you not walk in them, you can barely stand in them. If you can’t even stand in them, don’t bother. And why would you want to have your feet look like armadillo feet? I don’t understand why that’s even sexy.”
So what can be done to keep our feet healthy even in “bad” shoes? Tanenbaum’s top tips are: Buy shoes in an old-fashioned store where your feet get measured by an actual person (just as your boobs may be different sizes, your feet may not be exactly symmetrical). Shop in the afternoon since feel swell. Pay attention to your feet width. Make sure you can wiggle all your toes. Walk on a hard surface, not just carpet.
Tanenbaum likens this latest work, a successor to Slut!, Catfight and Taking Back God, to the feminist consciousness raising groups of the ’70s. “I want to help other women. Don’t think it’s anti-fashion; it’s just pro using your head. If somebody wants to wear their Louboutin spike heels, I totally understand the appeal, but wear them judiciously. Remember the famous book Fat is a Feminist Issue? I’ve been joking that feet are a feminist issue.”
Tanenbaum will host a Bad Shoes book release party May 5, 6-8 pm, at Tip Top Shoes, 155 West 72nd Street, New York. Also, she’s holding a Bad Shoes Contest. Click through for the info.
Send one jpeg or gif image of your bad shoes (one pair) as an attachment (please no links) to email@example.com and include in the email your name, address, phone, and email. Limit one image submission per person (Shoes Wisely!). We will begin accepting submissions Wednesday, May 5. We will stop accepting submissions on May 19. Winners will be announced on Monday, June 1.
Bad Shoes submissions will be judged on their badness—in both senses of the word. First, bad—as in Michael-Jackson-bad—meaning hot, cool, hip, wicked, fierce. Second, bad—as in corn-&-hammertoe-causing-and-band-aid-requiring bad—meaning not so good for your feet or mobility.