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Can’t Seem to Walk in Heels Anymore? This May Be the Reason Why

Photographed by Rocio Ramos

If you’ve recently stepped out in a pair of heels for the first time since before the start of last year’s lockdown, chances are you’ve been left with a gripping sensation in the backs of your lower legs the next day. Right now, even the most hardened high-heel wearers among us are struggling with the return to ‘regular’ shoes, but why?

“The biggest issue with wearing heels is that they cause the Achilles tendon to tighten and shorten,” warns Margaret Dabbs, CEO and founder of Margaret Dabbs London foot clinics, which treat the feet of international royalty, A-listers (pre/post red carpet) and supermodels, fresh off the runway. At the moment, they’re rushing to book Dabbs’ cult ‘medical pedicure’ — a 45-minute appointment that is a diagnostic tool, hygienist and foot ‘facialist’ rolled into one.

“When you first start wearing heels again after a long break, the Achilles tendon will have adjusted.” So, if you’ve recently experienced something similar to ‘exercise tension’ in the backs of your lower legs after wearing heels, that’s why. But, do we actually want to get back into wearing high heels? Or is this the perfect time to part ways for good? 

What impact do high heels have on our feet?

While Dabbs recognises the feel-good perks of a higher heel (plus how “they play a part in shaping your calf muscles”), the negative effects on our Achilles tendons are just the beginning of a long list of wellbeing woes. Prolonged wear can cause plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the soft tissues of the feet, and throw off your posture. 

“Leaning forward onto the ball of your feet can lead to back pain and have a knock-on effect on the skeleton,” Dabbs explains via Zoom — something to bear in mind after so many of us have spent the past year hunched over a laptop at a makeshift desk. Other side-effects are more visible. “If you’ve got a bunion, it’s going to be further exacerbated by weight being forced on to the big toe.”

Remember that familiar, pre-pandemic feeling of toe cramp after a long night out? “That’s when you get such things as corns and hard skin (especially under metatarsal heads or the ball of the foot). When your toes are squished and especially with pointy shoes, you can develop hammertoes and, of course, you can damage your toenails, which can have long-term effects.”

Women are also more likely to get Morton’s neuroma (a type of pinched nerve in the ball of the foot) than men. “It often affects thinner feet and can be exacerbated by wearing mules for longer distances. It can be really painful when you get up in the morning.”

Photo: Acielle/ Style du Monde

So should we ditch our heels for good?

The short answer is no, but picking the right kind of heel and putting a time cap in place is key. “An inch-and-a-half heel is better than not wearing a heel at all,” Dabbs explains. “When you’re wearing a heel, the Achilles tendon is shortened, but without any kind of heel at all it will be lengthened. Ideally, you want to avoid both extremes.”

Look for designs with lower and wider heels, which exert less pressure on the foot and offer more stability. Dabbs’ hack for easing back into your post-lockdown heels? “Always ensure that there’s a comfort pad under the ball of your foot.” 

As for the time limit? “I would say don’t exceed four hours. If you’re going somewhere great and want to wear high heels — which we all can’t wait to do — put them on at the last minute and don’t keep them on for longer than you have to.” 

There’s also good news for anyone who has something of a shoe-buying obsession. Having a variety of shoes on rotation will help ensure we’re not always exposing our feet to the same friction or pressure. 

Which shoes offer the best foot wellness?

Regardless of the style of footwear, the expert advice is the same: “Everything in moderation.” A rule that applies equally to our Birkenstocks and the recent homespun clogs revival, as much as those Y2K mules and vertiginous Vivienne Westwood platforms. 

“The great thing about clogs is they come quite far up your foot, offering support. They’re also naturally roomy around the toes, which means you’ve got less risk of friction and compression, lowering the chance of hard skin and corns.” Birkenstocks also ‘hold’ your feet well, giving stability. But you might want to reconsider wearing them relentlessly with bare feet as they can be dehydrating. 

“I will be able to spot a Birkenstock wearer just by picking up their foot because of the abrasive action on the heel due to the ridge at the back of the shoe. When the top layer of the Birkenstock itself has worn away, it can start to drain the skin of moisture and cause cracks.” 

It also pays to double-check you’re wearing the right size Birkenstocks. “Length-wise, if they’re slightly too short, you’ll experience pressure under the heel, which will lead to a build-up of hard skin and, again, trigger cracks”. (A vegan-friendly cracked-heel balm will fix it).

If you’ve lived in sneakers this past year, consider upgrading to a wider-front style to avoid long periods of toe compression. Adidas by Stella McCartney’s roomier trainers come expert-approved and work with every iteration of the breezy summer day dress.

The worst warm-weather shoe option of all? Flimsy ballet pumps, which Dabbs refers to as “a disaster”.

Photo: Suki Liang

The WFH slippers aren’t good news

“It’s easy to think of sloppy footwear as beneficial because it’s comfortable. But, in the long term, it’s the opposite. Non-supportive footwear will be exacerbating and encouraging all the bad habits,” she warns.

There’s also advice for anyone who’s embraced going shoeless this past year: take note of your flooring. “Walking on softer surfaces at home will no doubt feel amazing. Continuously walking [barefoot] on hard surfaces, however, can cause Morton’s neuroma.”

Make footcare a part of your weekly self-care routine

“You see a dentist and an optician for preventive care, but often people won’t really think about their feet until they hurt,” Dabbs tells Vogue. When you can see an expert, do. “I always like to think that we give you the feet that allow you to wear the shoes and sandals that you want to wear.” 

Naturally, we’re not about to cast aside our seven-inch Harris Reed x ROKER platform H-Boots or Bottega Veneta’s quilted slides anytime soon. 

Read Next: Flats or Stilettos? Anum Bashir and Diala Makki Debate Which Heel Height Reigns Supreme

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