In Praise of Sensible Shoes

I’ve known for a long time that my biomechanics below the waist were, to put it delicately, fucked.

I had hip displaysia (it’s not just for German shepherds anymore!) as a child, so bad that by age 2, my mother packed me off to Houston with my grandparents to see my uncle, an orthopedic surgeon who served as team doctor to the Houston Oilers. I couldn’t climb stairs upright without falling down, and I remember that I didn’t climb them without using my hands on the treads until I was 4 or 5. By that time, as well, I had also sprained my left ankle (this will be important later) so badly that I was on crutches for several weeks during nursery school. I honestly don’t remember what happened, but I do remember that I was on the sofa bed for a while (the sick couch, where Kat stayed after she broke her face while learning to ride a bike), and my Valentine’s cards from nursery school had to be brought to me at home.

But those were probably the early signs that something was very wrong. I never had a real issue again until law school, when I would walk to work during the summer in relatively flat shoes and have problems with plantar fasciitis.

It wasn’t until about 6 years ago, when I was still running and many pounds thinner, that the chickens came home to roost. I was out running in Prospect Park (when I lived in Park Slope, in the crazy-kleptomaniac-hunchback-super apartment) when I hopped up off the road surface to a track that had been worn out in the grass. My left ankle led, and unfortunately, it buckled and I started falling. But I started falling down a ravine, so I threw myself the other way, and landed on my right knee. The knee turned out fine, though it gave me more trouble at first, so I didn’t notice the pain in my left ankle.

But I noticed it later, and I had to give up running. Then I started noticing how painful just walking was. Within two years, I had had surgery on the ankle to clear up the bone chips that had been knocked loose in the joint. I thought I was good to go post-op. But walking, and especially, running, was still very painful, and the pain had started moving up to my knee. Soon it got to the point where I’d try to get into an exercise regimen and have to quit within a month because my knee would start to freeze up on me outside of the activity (while not necessarily bothering me during the activity). My kneecap would pop and click and move off track, and I wouldn’t be able to walk down stairs, kind of an issue when you rely on the subway.

Now, my ankle surgeon told me to wear some kind of orthotic in my shoes, and I do — during the winter. But in summer, I like to give my feet some room to breathe, and so I wind up wearing rather flimsy sandals.

Big mistake.

Recently, I gave exercising the old college try again, this time — inspired by Liz of Granny Gets a Vibrator — focusing on weightlifting. Aaaand my knee starts up again, though not as bad as before (probably due to the non-impact nature of weightlifting). This time, though, I’m prepared. Through a link on the excellent women’s weightlifting site, I learned of various things that could be wrong with my knee, and of a therapy, active release technique, that could help. And, lo and behold, there are practicioners in my city who take my insurance. So, what the hell?

I went for my first appointment Tuesday, and was duly dressed down for my shoe choices (as I knew I’d be — I’d come in there in flip-flops). More importantly, the doctor showed me that my flat feet and wobbly ankles had not only affected my knee, they’d thrown my entire pelvis out of alignment, and, yes, that was affecting my back. Oh, and I have bursitis in my hip.

The technique involves a great deal of poking and prodding and massage to break up adhesions and scar tissue and allow the soft tissue to heal. Unfortunately, breaking this stuff up involves tearing the tissue a bit so that it can heal properly. And that hurts.

A lot.

I’m pretty stoic about pain, but, Mother of God. It hurts like hell. And the pain goes from the hip/buttock all the way down to the knee along the iliotibial band — which is a muscle you may never realize you have until it hurts. And it hurts.

The good news is that the therapy is making some progress — I’ve only had two sessions, but each time, there’s been a marked improvement by the end of it. The bad news is that it hurts like hell.

Which I think I’ve mentioned.

But with luck, I won’t have to do this for more than a month of twice-weekly sessions. And it seems to be poised to actually fix my problems rather than just put a patch on them. They were only going to get worse if I ignored them.

Now, about the shoes: I went out and bought some Merrells at Shoemania right after work the first day of therapy (good: they were having a sale. Bad: the salesman directed his attention to my tits, and their selection of size 11s was limited). They’re already having an effect. Unfortunately, one effect is blisters as I readjust to closed shoes. Another is that it appears my boss thinks they’re ugly, considering the look he gave them.

I’ve never been someone who wore heels, in part because I’m already tall enough, in part because they hurt, but mostly because I got a good look at the results of wearing high pointy shoes all day in the shape of my mother’s feet. Good lord, were they a mess. She had really, really dry skin (which wasn’t caused by the shoes but didn’t help their appearance), and her toenails had gotten mashed into thick, clawlike things that frankly used to scare us as children. She had hammertoes and bunions, and the muscles in her calves had shortened so that she had a hard time wearing flats. She was embarrassed by her ugly feet, and so mortified about getting her first pedicure when I bought her a gift certificate for one that she made me come with her (the woman had seen much worse, and Mom got hooked).

I thought I could escape such problems by wearing flats. Surprise!

So now I have to re-adjust my shoe buying habits. And it’s not easy finding shoes that are both supportive and look decent with a suit, let alone are supportive and cute. But now that I understand the damage that I’ve done to my body (and the level of pain it takes to heal that damage), I can never go back to flip flops.

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34 comments for “In Praise of Sensible Shoes

  1. July 14, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    Brunomagli makes really supportive, quality shoes that don’t kill your feet (and are great looking) if you are willing to spend some money. I work in a corporate environment so I wear a lot of kitten heels (1″ or below) and ballet flats, but I guess ballet flats wouldn’t look too great with a suit.

    Sorry you’re in pain, but yay for getting it fixed. I love Stumptuous and wish I had big womanly muscles like Liz. I’m working on it.

  2. July 14, 2006 at 2:41 pm

    Dansko. Dansko, Dansko, Dansko. Sensible, and some of the models are even – gasp! – stylish.

  3. July 14, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    And if you aren’t wearing specific orthotics, you can make OK shoes into better shoes by buying superfeet.
    I too made the mistake of wearing good shoes for running, and not good shoes for not running while training for a marathon. And paid for it (to my doctor bills). The folks at the running store who are multi-marathoners preach the gospel of the superfeet (and running shoes all day every day, if you can, but superfeet if you can’t). Even when I buy new running shoes I immediately discard the inserts that come with and put in superfeet, and I put them in my work loafers and everything else they’ll fit in (not sandals, alas).

  4. Sandblaster
    July 14, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    I’m going through the same rite of passage as you are. I went to the doctor yesterday after limping for 2 weeks and she told me I have plantar fasciitis. I was under direct orders to purchase some good “pro” walking shoes and wear them at all time, even in the house. So I went to the local sports store and found out that I wear men’s 10s. I love those garish lace, but my feet feel better than I can ever remember. The highlight was asking the salesman if he had manly looking wonen’s hiking shoes, because my husband is 5’4″. Heh.

  5. freya
    July 14, 2006 at 3:14 pm

    I’m seconding Rachel — Dansko has saved me a lot of pain. I’ve also had good luck with Sofft for dressier shoes recently.

  6. frumious b
    July 14, 2006 at 3:20 pm

    Have you ever heard of aqua jogging? You “run” through the deep end of the pool wearing a flotation belt. The actual motion is a little different from running on dry land, but it is similar enough. It’s hard as hell. It’s a great non-impact workout if you don’t care if you look like a fool.

  7. Alicia
    July 14, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    i have the most ridiculously enormous girl crushes on Liz and Krista.

    I’ve become a very big fan of Aerosoles. I don’t know how much support vs cushioning you need, but my jacked up feet are wearing their first heels in a LONG time without agonizing pain in a cute little pair of thier mules.

  8. July 14, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    Sorry,I’m confused. What was the problem? I have scoliosis and Fibromyalgia syndrome and adore flip-flops (which is why my hubby sent me here)….is this a big problem? Please say no :(

  9. zuzu
    July 14, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Linz, I have flexible arches that flatten out when I put weight on my feet, and I overpronate. Between the ankle injury and the stresses put on my entire leg from walking with an unsupported overpronating foot, my whole left leg is a disaster.

  10. July 14, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Okey doke. Thanks for clearing that up so fast.:)

  11. Thomas
    July 14, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    flexible arches that flatten out

    Great. Now, in addition to the fat fetishists and the tit fetishists, you’ll have to deal with the flat and flexible arch/pronated feet fetishists. ;-)

    Sorry about the tough rehab.

  12. July 14, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    I second the recommendation for Dansko’s. I’m wearing a pair of their heeled sandals today. I started off with their clogs, and now have several styles of their shoes in my closet. I swear, I can wear even the heels, be on my feet for hours, and have no pain.

    Also have been receiving Active Release Therapy for a condition in my right hip that causes the musles in my right buttock and inner thigh to spasm. It’s amazing, hope it ends up working for you!

  13. Kali
    July 14, 2006 at 5:49 pm

    Well, they’re a very very long way from cute, but

    I’ve heard rave testimonials from women with all sorts of leg/hip injuries about these: people come up and talk to you when they spot you’re wearing them too. I don’t have any injuries; I just started wearing them for my (terrible) posture and balance, but wearing them is a weirdly awesome experience till you get used to it: who knew walking could be rendered so physically unfamiliar? I can testify that I have actual muscles on my formerly stick-like skinny legs since I started to wear them, and while I hate to mention this on a feminist blog, and it’s somewhat annoying that most of the women who buy these shoes apparently do so for their rumoured cellulite-banishing properties, they do in fact banish cellulite, at least on me. But mainly they’re designed to be therapeutic for leg injuries, so they might be worth a try. (plus: AWESOME! And like exercise for lazy people! I get all evangelical about these when shoes are discussed. I’ll try to shut up now.)

  14. kate
    July 14, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    Well, Zuzu isn’t the only one with foot pain and leg and hip problems, so I’m glad you posted this Zuzu, because I’ll check out the shoe sites for sure.

    I was born with my legs all a mess as I was a breach baby and grew in the womb with my legs twisted all around. My mother said I was told I”d never walk without braces. My father called me duck footed, as I tend to swing my left foot outward, can’t help it, that entire leg from the knee down is tilted just ever so slightly outward.

    I’ve been told that I walk kind of funny, but when I tell people why, they usually shut up.

    I had a tib/fib injury to that leg, precisely because of its tendency to swing out — I lost my balance on ice and that ankle took the brunt of my weight and spun. Recovery has been slow and the pain going from my left foot up to my hip and even traveling to my lower back.

    Thanks Zuzu, now I don’t feel alone and maybe better shoes or inserts would help me also.

  15. kate
    July 14, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    My mother said I was told I”d never walk without braces.

    Typo there, the doc told my mother. I like to think sometimes I’m smart, but I doubt that the doc and I were having a conversation just after my exit from the womb.

  16. July 14, 2006 at 7:12 pm

    And to second the running store folks…some running shoes stores have treadmills where they video and analyze your step for degree of pronation to get you the right kind of shoe. I had mine videoed at Fleet Feet.

  17. kate
    July 14, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    …and I haven’t worn heels in years. Could you see me trying to tell people ‘Yes, of course I can build your house’ while wearing a dress and heels?

    Much less I’d think them a little inconvenient for walking walls.

  18. Taube
    July 14, 2006 at 9:01 pm

    I also have really, really flat feet. They pronate so much that all of the joints in my lower body, up into my back, are misaligned, which sounds like what’s happening to you. I’m only 21, but I’ve had pain in my knees and ankles as long as I can remember, and my hips sometimes lock up and try to pop out of socket. I really recommend getting custom orthotics. They cost a bit, but you save money because you can eschew the really expensive good shoes in favor of moderately good shoes if you wear the orthotics with them. I have the hardest time giving up sandals though. My dr. also told me I should never walk around barefoot, even at home. I hate wearing shoes. The hardest part is that I do karate, and jumping around barefoot on the mat kills me. My instructor told me to look into getting some special shoes for it, but I don’t think I could wear orthotics since they’re so hard. Would be good for an actual fight, but I think my fellow students might not appreciate it. Hope your treatment works for you!

  19. mia
    July 14, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    i have size 11 feet too, and i find that Dansko sizes run small. i have a hard time fitting into their closed shoes, even going up to 42’s. Bass is my current favorite. i just picked up some great 1″ mules that i can wear with a suit, and they are just as comfortable as their clogs.

  20. July 15, 2006 at 12:18 am

    Ecco makes ‘sensible’ shoes that actually look nice, while still being comfortable. And they have a store in downtown Vancouver.

  21. mral
    July 15, 2006 at 12:19 am

    While we’re on the topic, I’d like to give a shout out to my lady elizabeth hawes, an early american fashion designer who popularized slacks and flat-soled shoes for women in the 1930s. She also deisnged skirts for men and spoke out against designers who didn’t design for a woman’s natural form. did I mention she was also a labor organizer for women workers at the UAW? The woman rocks, and so do her books – if you can find them, check ’em out.

  22. July 15, 2006 at 8:48 am

    I offer sympathy, but more importantly, I can offer a link to an article you’ve probably already read [.pdf] about the importance of sensible shoes (and how terrible modern ones are).

  23. Kitty
    July 15, 2006 at 9:18 am

    1. Merrells are available through in all sizes. They have free 2nd day air shipping sometimes, too. You might also look at, which doesn’t carry Merrell but does have tons of other stuff, some of it even attractive.

    2. I, too, have hip bursitis, caused by a nasty bike crash ten years ago. Swimming and cycling both help, but I can now accurately predict thunderstorms, just by the pain in my left hip. Pregnancy was a real picnic, too. I have a pretty good idea of how miserable you are right now, and offer my profoundest sympathies. Good luck.

  24. JenM
    July 15, 2006 at 11:50 am

    At the running shoe store they gave me the neutral shoe fit b/c my gait doesn’t roll outwards or inwards, I have an average arch, no bunions or other foot issues – and I’ve never ever felt comfortable in flip flops. They have zero support and are so flat every bit of dirt/dust just works into your feet, bleh. If the sidewalk is wet your feet will be wet too. I’ll never understand why they are so popular.

    All my flat sandals have some kind of shape and lift – but good to know there’s a reason to avoid flip flops!

  25. July 15, 2006 at 12:35 pm

    Ye-oww: that’s a lot of pain to have dealt with! A few days in the Merrils and you won’t miss the flip-flops, I swear…

  26. Kat
    July 15, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    Swimming. If you can find a place to do it. That’s awesome exercise and could help to relieve your pain too. When i moved to Hawaii, my shoe of choice was flip-flops (or as they call them there, slippahs!), but my flat feet protested and so I got a good pair of birkenstocks for kicking around in. They make styles that don’t have a back strap so are as convenient as flip-flops. That helped a lot, got me through 2 pregnancies even where my feet seemed to double in size.

    I remember your trip to Houston! I remember you running and falling all the time when we were kids. Mom always attributed your interest in reading to having a hard time keeping up with the neighborhood kids, and therefore staying in more and reading. I also remember you tripping coming down the stairs, like from the school bus. You knew something was serious in our house when any one of us stood out from the other 5.

    Oh, and that sick bed! I remember spending time in it when I broke my cheekbone in kindergarten. They were talking about having to take my eye because of an infection and I was disappointed when they said they didn’t need to because I was really thinking a glass eye would be coo! I remember thinking is was fun getting sick because we got to stay in the sofa bed. How odd we were. Remember when we all had the mumps? and the chicken pox? and they crammed us all into that bed… and mom only took one of us to the doctor but got the pharmacist to make up the prescription 6 times…? Good times, good times…

    Oh, and thanks for the visual on mom’s feet… I’m off to get a much needed pedicure now….

  27. KnifeGhost
    July 15, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    Ecco makes ’sensible’ shoes that actually look nice, while still being comfortable. And they have a store in downtown Vancouver.

    Victoria, too.

    Which reminds me, I’m about due to nick in there…..

  28. abs
    July 15, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    If you don’t want to give up sandals in the summer, try Chacos. They are great. I wear Z2s almost all summer. I also wear size 11 and have wide, hurty feet. These sandals are the best I found. I think they will alos work with you on a custom pair. I also have a pair of Dansko sandals for dressier occasions. Not as great as the Chacos, but still better than most. I used to wear Naot sandals, but I found them to have gotten narrower over the years.

  29. July 15, 2006 at 9:50 pm

    I have plantar fasciitis also, and I strongly prefer sandals. And I’m completely obsessed with shoes.

    I usually wear flexible arch supports from either Dr. Scholls or Birkenstock if I need them; the custom ones, for my money, were not very much better, and they weren’t as easy to switch from shoe to shoe (and no way am I getting a pair for every shoe).

    Chacos are great, as are Keens (I have several pairs of their sandals that I wear instead of running shoes).

    Naot makes a lot of extremely comfortable and very pretty shoes that I wear with work clothes (their sandals are esp nice, but you do have to try them on — abs is right that the widths seem to vary a lot from one style to the next). I’ve tried some of the Danskos & find them a bit too clunky & heavy, & the arches are placed wrong for me. Birkenstocks only work if I buy them a bit too large — so that they’re a little too long for my feet, but the arches are in the right place. Merrells are usually OK. Taryn Rose’s shoes, if you can find them cheap enough to afford, are heavenly — she’s a shoe designer and an orthopedic surgeon. And there’s a brand called Think! that makes some very stylish and comfortable shoes. Oh, and for some of your more fashion-forward styles, there’s a guy I think named Jon Fluevog who used to work for Dr. Marten’s and who has his own line of shoes nowadays. Very comfy.

    I’ve had good luck in the past with Mephistos, but not so much lately.

  30. July 16, 2006 at 11:46 am

    I broke my ankle last summer and went through lots of pt breaking up scar tissue so I can sympathize with what you’re going through – ouch!

    I’ve been wearing Keen sandals this summer – supportive footbed like a running shoe but ventilated. I have a high arch and find them very comfortable.

  31. July 16, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    Tevas. I had to break down and buy new sandals last year when my 10-year-old Bass ones finally bit it beyond repair, and they don’t make that kind any more.

    I bit the bullet and bought Tevas.

    After a week, I went looking for sales on the internet and bought 2 more pairs at half-off against the future.

    I can now walk for hours, without having back/hip/knee/bunion agonies for days – something I haven’t known since I hit puberty. (My right leg has been all racked up for obscure, initially menstrual-cramp related reasons since I was12, but crashing into a bush while sledding at 14 didn’t help any.)

    Since my ancient cars frequently are undriveable, and gas is anyhoo expensive, the investment in Tevas has proven well worth it – after walking to work and the store and getting blisters that covered my entire heel the previous year.

    I like them so much, I go on wearing them into fall and on milder spring days around the house, where I always prefered sneakers before. The soles are extremely insulating.

    Yes, I would happily do commercials for them…

  32. July 16, 2006 at 1:39 pm

    Beautifeel make gorgeous shoes that are good for your feet. I’ve worn mine out for a formal evening and still left for home with happy feet.

  33. July 17, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    Birkenstock also makes closed-toe/professional/dressy shoes. Hard to find in stores, but they take orders online. See, for example,

  34. July 18, 2006 at 2:53 am

    Rockports make good shoes too — some of them are even almost suitable for work. I stand up all day in my job and Rockports are the only shoes that save my feet/legs/back from the pain.

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