Feet Are Getting Bigger, and Many People Wear Shoes That Don't Fit Right

In a U.K. survey, more than a third of men and nearly half of women admitted buying shoes that didn't fit right

By Elizabeth Holmes
July 15, 2014 7:15 p.m. ET

When was the last time you had your foot measured to check your shoe size?

If the answer is more than a year ago, there is a good chance your shoes are causing you some kind of pain, from pinched toes to unsightly calluses. Foot shape and size can change in small but meaningful ways throughout adulthood, yet time-starved shoppers increasingly order shoes online and forgo proper sizing by a trained salesperson.

The need for better-fitting shoes comes with the news that our feet, like the rest of us, are getting bigger. The average shoe size is up about two sizes since the 1970s, according to a study released last month from the College of Podiatry, a U.K. professional group. Emma Supple, a consulting podiatrist for the College of Podiatry, says she believes the findings apply outside the U.K. as well. "We've all gotten taller and we need big feet to hold us up," she says.

U.S. shoe makers including Stuart Weitzman and Cole Haan report average sizes are creeping up. And retailers are watching the extended-size market carefully. Nordstrom has seen strong sales of larger sizes, says Anne Egan, national merchandise manager for salon shoes. It has held special in-store events for extended-size customers, including women who wear up to a size 14 and men who wear up to a size 20. Long Tall Sally, a U.K.-based apparel and footwear retailer that gets almost half its sales from North America, sells the most shoes in U.S. sizes 12 and 13, says Chief Executive Andrew Shapin. Size 15, added earlier this year, now makes up 10% of its footwear business.

No matter how big or small your feet, though, your shoes could be hurting them - or even causing permanent harm. In the U.K study, involving 2,000 adults, more than a third of men and nearly half of women admitted buying shoes that didn't fit properly. Shoes with a narrow "toe box," the industry term for the front part of the shoe, can push the big toe in and create or accelerate a bunion, says Steven L. Haddad, a Glenview, Ill., orthopedic surgeon and president of the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society. It can also constrict the toes, resulting in what are known as "hammertoe deformities."

"It's like when your mom said, 'Don't make that face, it will stay that way,' " he says. "It does actually stay that way when you put so much pressure on the toe over a long period of time."

Designers often weigh fashion against function in the quest to grab a share of the U.S. shoe market, where sales are expected to top $68 billion this year, according to Euromonitor International. To make shoes more visually appealing, manufacturers can fiddle with proportions, such as the height of the heel or the width of the "last," the mold on which a shoe is formed.

Stuart Weitzman, founder and creative director of his eponymous shoe line, says he has learned to resist temptation. "I won't make a last narrower in the front than it should be to give it a sleeker look—that's like wearing a girdle," he says. Three decades ago, the company's average size was a 7, and the company made shoes up to size 10. Now, the average is 8, and his company makes shoes up to size 12, he says.

Mr. Weitzman starts with a design based on looks alone, then goes about making it comfortable and functional. If it can't be done, he discards the design. "I've learned not to miss it," he says.

Stilettos top the list of pain-causing styles; the high and often-thin heels place all the weight on the front of the foot. But all kinds of shoes have pain potential, according to a 2014 survey from the American Podiatric Medical Association. About a quarter of people who wear flats, boots or flip-flops reported the shoes made their feet hurt. Two thirds of respondents said they wanted more-comfortable shoes.

Ballet flats are "just as bad as wearing high heels," says Alison Garten, a Washington D.C.-area podiatrist, lamenting their lack of support. "It's like walking around barefoot." She estimates that shoes are to blame for the problems of as many as 40% of her male patients and 60% of female.

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