Are our feet really getting bigger?

One high street shoe retailer has seen a marked increase in sales of larger sizes. But are our feet really getting bigger or are we coming round to the idea of "sensible shoes"?

Clodhopper, Big Foot, Yeti, flippers, clown's feet. You name it, Emma Supple has heard it from the patients who come knocking on the door of her foot care clinic.

Their motivation is to find some relief from the pain of years spent squeezing into shoes that are too small.

The result of this self-imposed form of 21st Century foot binding is a host of podiatric injuries, ranging from corns, callouses and blisters to trapped nerves, toes which have been compressed to resemble claws and a condition called mallet toe.

Just as the rest of our bodies are growing, upwards, frontwards and sideways so, it seems, are our feet.

Earlier this week, department store Debenhams reported a boom in sales of ladies' size nine shoes - up 23% last year on 2008. It's a similar story for men, according to the retailer, which said last year sales of men's size 12s had soared while "requests for whopping size 14 and above are flooding in".

Yet while some are seeking out big sizes, many - women in particular - are preferring to follow in the more moderately proportioned footsteps of the masses, and bearing the pain in silence.

But if we acknowledge that our bodies are bigger - for better or worse - than those of our parents or grandparents, why does this acceptance stop just south of the ankle bone? And why are our feet getting bigger? There may be more obesity, but does an extra couple of inches on the waist really transfer to the furthest extremities of the body?

Feet accompli

At 5ft 9ins Christine Browning is above average height for a woman. Her long legs and slim build - "on a good day people call me thin" - would draw envious glances from many other women. But her feet wouldn't. She is a size 11.

"There's a sort of peasant stigma. Women perceive narrow feet to be dainty, slim, refined. I used to feel awful. You become an object of derision," she confides. "If you are with a bunch of women or girls talking about shoes and it turns into a discussion about feet you suddenly don't want to be part of that conversation. You'll find a way to get away."

The sense of exclusion manifests itself elsewhere. Women with big feet can find it difficult to take up sports which demand a certain style of shoe - golf and tennis are two examples, she cites.

And while the overweight can work to draw in their waistline, with exercise and cutting calories, feet can't be slimmed.

Ms Browning became so fed up with the limited range of outsize footwear for women she took matters into her own hands - buying a small business which sold big shoes and revamping its image and stocks. She is now the managing director of Special Feetures, which caters for women with long and narrow feet, and After 8 Shoes, which specialises in UK sizes 8½ to 11 for women.

It is one of several suppliers of big footwear. But still women with big feet are in denial.

"I get a lot of teenage girls in our clinic taking size seven or eight and their feet haven't even finished growing at that point," says Ms Supple.

Nine is the limit

And whatever size they end up at, nine is the de facto upper limit she says.

"There's a mental block for women above size nine. They will say they're size nine when they are bigger and just squash their feet in."

In fact, it's not just the big-footed that squeeze their feet into ill-fitting vessels.

Almost four in 10 women buy shoes knowing they do not fit, according to a recent poll by the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists. And nearly two out of 10 men do the same.

Yet male attitudes are more malleable, says Bruce Davis, an elder statesman of the outsize footwear market in Britain. As manager of Magnus Shoes, Mr Davis has been peddling big footwear since the mid-1960s.

"The female side of the business is vastly more difficult and demanding. I've heard comments many times like 'I'd rather go barefoot than wear those'. Whereas for men, I can sell a brogue to a teenager and to a man in his 60s."

But not all fashion appetites can be sated with the promise of polished tan brogue and options for men have grown in recent years. As with other significant but disparate communities, the internet has provided a focus for the big-footed, with specialist shops which are sourcing from places such as the US.

Supply is simply reflecting demand, says Mr Davis, who believes the trend for bigger feet can be traced back to the likes of shoemakers such as Clarks and Start Rite. By encouraging parents to buy sensible shoes for children, with plenty of room for growth, our feet grew more than they would have in ill-fitting footwear, says Mr Davis.

Pancaking feet

So should we brace ourselves for bigger feet all round - what Debenhams has bluntly termed "Big Foot Britain"? Will the outsized dispossessed become part of the mainstream?

Mr Davis is sceptical - both about High Street chains committing to bigger sizes, but also whether our feet really are growing as much as has been suggested. It's difficult to be sure because the size of Britain's feet has never been properly documented.

Podiatrist Matthew Fitzpatrick says our feet are growing but in terms of attitude, we are growing up.

"Are we seeing our shoes getting bigger or are we just seeing people becoming more sensible in their choice of shoes, particularly women?" he asks. In short - are women starting to reclaim their real shoe size and refusing to be hobbled by the crippling strictures of fashion?

A slew of big-footed confessions from the likes of Kate Winslet (size nine), newsreader Kate Silverton (also size nine) and singer Macy Gray (size 10) can only have helped the march towards "sensible shoes".

Mr Fitzpatrick points out there is also evidence feet are being affected by diet. A recent study found obesity in children was leading to bigger feet, although in a more complex way than might be assumed. Children's feet are pancaking under excess weight.

"When you are young the bones in your body haven't hardened. So if you've got a foot in which the bones are still forming and an excessively heavy child putting the weight on that foot, the arch [of the foot] flattens."

The technical term is "splaying" and Mr Fitzpatrick says his profession is seeing more children with flat feet associated with obesity.

Even then, feet are not necessarily getting longer, but wider. Yet people with wide feet often buy shoes that are a size too big to accommodate the spread.

"We are probably seeing a general growth in the foot but not as exponential and vast as we are being told."

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