What Wide Feet Want You to Know

When it comes to shoe sizing, shoe shopping, and avoiding hammer toes, wide feet have some things to say. (And all feet will back them up!)

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My mother shares my Amazon Prime. At first, she mostly used it to order bladder control accessories for my grandfather, who was transitioning to a nursing home. Then she used it to order braces for her hammer toes. Meanwhile, I filled our shopping cart with Judaica textbooks. It should have been no surprise to me that the Internet now serves me ads bluntly targeted for incontinent Jewish seniors with foot issues. (“This Passover, give the gift of steps…” Direct quote.) 

My initial reaction: LOL. LOL. LOL. The hammer toe braces in particular are quirky contraptions: a rigid pad that cups the ball of the foot, held in place by an elastic band that loops around the second toe like some kind of hideous minimalist sandal. I cracked up until I realized that I was developing a hammer toe.  

Up to that point I’d been in denial about the fact that my mother and I have essentially the same feet. Constricted and tortured by pointe shoes, yes, but also strong, bulbous, and wide. And, as I learned, prone to hammer toes and bunions — both deformations of joints in the foot that can be painful in the long run as well as causing imbalances in the knees, hips, and spine. Fun!  

Since then, “Do you have this in wide?” has become the story of my metatarsal life, and I’ve had to buy new shoes.  

And that’s where wide feet barge onto the scene: Wide feet do not give a crap about how cute your shoes are. They will tell you within steps whether a pair of flats is worth your while. They’ll send you love notes in the form of pinky toe blisters and aching knees, even when there’s plenty of wiggle room up front. In many cases, they’ll just go ahead and bust their way out. RIP lace-up boots from freshman year. The sides of my feet just barreled right through you.

In short, wide feet will reject the majority of shoes in the world, and the human relying on these stubborn podiatric brats must carefully consider what he or she is choosing to slip, or more often squish, them into. I’ll pass on some tidbits, from my toes to yours.

On behalf of all footkind, wide feet cordially request that you:  

1. Buy shoes in person.

Make physical stores cool again! Seriously, though: when you’re trying on shoes in a store, you’re less likely to “forget to return” them, and therefore won’t be stuck with an expensive pair that you guilt-wear to justify what you paid.

2. Get your feet measured properly, by a human.

It used to be standard practice for shoe store associates to measure everyone’s feet, first thing. If you decide to visit a physical store (do it!) and they don’t offer, just ask — even if you think you know your size.

If you’re opting to shop online, make the effort and get out that ruler at home. Sizing differs from brand to brand, and many will publish their size charts online. Of course, make sure to check your width as well, and remember that your feet may be different sizes, those sneaky fiends.

3. Assess the fit of the whole shoe, not just whether it pinches your toes.

Standard wisdom has it that you should be able to wiggle your toes at least a little at the end of your shoes, and that’s definitely true. But don’t forget about the other important spots: heel, ball, and arch. Ask yourself:

  • Does the shoe brush up against the little bones on the sides of my ankle? (Especially for pumps and flats, pressure here can actually create cuts and scars.)
  • Is the ball of my foot straining the shoes at the sides? (Yep…you might have wide feet. Congrats!)
  • Even if my toes aren’t pinched at the end, is my pinky toe squished inwards? (This can lead to bunions, protrusions on your big toe joint.)
  • Is the arch of my foot at the same spot as the arch in the shoe? (This is a big problem for those of us blessed with wide feet! Read on, comrade.)

3. Be wary of sizing up.

Yes, yes, give yourself enough space. But remember that shoe sizes grow proportionally. This means that even if it leaves your toes in the clear, the arch of the larger size will actually be further forward on your foot than you really need or want. An ill-fitting arch puts pressure on the balls of your foot and can sometimes strain your ankle, bringing your spine out of alignment, causing tension in your neck… It’s all connected.

Wide-footed friends, test that arch. Ditto for people with long toes.

The more people start asking for wide fit, the more shoe companies will be willing to offer their shoes in wide fit. Which brings us to…

4. Find brands your feet love and stick with them.

The sad conclusion to #2 and #3 above is that some shoes, even if they seem to “fit,” simply won’t be proportional for your feet. Get used to saying no. It will be OK.

On the upside, if you find a shoemaker that makes a well-fitting pair, chances are that its other shoes fit similarly. You can save yourself some time and blisters by checking out other shoes from the same folks.

5. Divide the price of the shoe by how many times you’ll wear it.

Shoes are an investment, and not just a financial one. They’re an investment in your comfort, your posture, and (dare I say?) your emotional wellbeing. Face it: you’re simply not able to be fully present in any situation when a little part of your brain is freaking out about that ache in your ankle or the blister on your heel that is so close to popping.

Does this mean you need to build a collection of fancy shoes, Carrie Bradshaw-style? Of course not! Stick within a budget that you feel comfortable with. Just remember that one pair of well-made, well-fitting shoes is going to be worth at least three lower-quality pairs, and your feet will definitely want you to wear them three times more often. Divide the price of the shoe by how many times you’ll wear it.  

I’d be in remiss if I didn’t also throw in here a very gentle warning against buying used shoes. If you can, save your thrift-store shoe purchases for things like fancy heels that you’d rarely wear. There you’ll get more bang for your buck. But for any type of shoe you’ll be wearing more than twice a week, opt for a brand-new pair, if you can. They’ll break in to your specific feet, and you can be a little more picky about fit.  

6. When in doubt, keep a shoe journal.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but before scrolling through Zappos, think carefully about which shoes you wear most often. Chances are, only two or three pairs actually make it out of your closet in a given week.

Then ask: Do they set off any red flags from #3? Why do you wear them so often? How do you feel when you’re wearing them? Do you stand up straight? Do you find yourself walking differently? Do they make you feel as if you could kill some monsters?

Yes, the monster-killing criterion is one that I actually use. I want to be able to jump into action and stay so grounded that I could swing a massive sword. Try it, that’s all I’m saying. Most of your shoes will fail this test. More importantly, they’ll tell you exactly where their fit is off (knees, ball, ankle, whatever it is, it’ll feel weird).

The takeaway

I’m happy to report that my hammer toe situation is under control (for now; check back with me in 35 years). But at some point, as I found myself scrutinizing the shoes of everyone near me on the metro, assessing the placement of their arches, their posture, and whether they looked the tiniest bit in pain, I wondered: was I becoming one of those people who just love shoes, ugh?  

Frankly, yes. I love how much a good pair of shoes — not necessarily showy, but durable, reliable, and benevolent — helps me stand taller, walk further, and think about things that are more important than a nagging pain on my heel.

We could all benefit from loving shoes a little more — or more specifically, loving our feet. These beauties are gracile assemblages of 26 bones, 33 joints, and hundreds of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. They anchor us to the earth, ferry us across the floor, and propel us into the air. For those of us who are able, walking is a huge part of everyday life, and one that we often take for granted. 

I don’t want to have to wear a hammer toe brace one day. No one does, even if my mom calls hers a “fashion item” and my Amazon has furnished me several fascinating spiritual, foot-related philanthropic opportunities. If you’re using your feet regularly and can afford even one pair of shoes this year, do them a favor and get a pair that really, truly fits.   

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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