Clare Chapman is a postural health and Yoga teacher here in Bristol. This is the third of her guest features and is part of her innovative work over the past five years with Californian natural posture teacher, Esther Gokhale. Following on from her previous feature on walking, Clare talks about foot health, fetish and fashion…
‘If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?’ Gloria Steinem, US journalist and feminist
In the early 2000’s there were a number of reports on Victoria Beckham’s feet, showing us what a love of heels and pointed shoes had done; in particular, it was the appearance and problems caused by bunions which occur on the big toe joint, proving that the world’s most sought after designer labels can do just as much damage as cheap shoes. By 2013, she had to have surgery.
So, what exactly is a bunion, and who gets them?
A bunion is a common foot deformity which can occur over time when the foot is pushed forward and/or downward from its natural position. In pointed stilettoes, the toe joints, already under a huge force from the weight of the body bearing forward and down due to the high heel, are additionally jammed into a small triangular area. Over time, the toes literally grow in to this shape, and, in response to this stress, the large joint of the big toe produces an overgrowth of bone in an attempt to prevent further damage to the foot.
Not only disfiguring, bunions can be extremely painful and difficult to rectify. Surgical solutions include literally sawing off slices of the bony overgrowth. Although bunions are thought of as a problem in the elderly, they usually start in earlier in life, especially if high heels are worn regularly.
Yet some people find their big toes distorting inwards despite generally wearing ‘sensible’ shoes. Often they see this as something that runs in the family – “just like my mum’s feet”. While it is true that our genes predispose us to certain foot problems, often it is poor postural habits that actually allow such weaknesses to develop. For example, if we have copied how our parents stand, as most children unconsciously do, and now also park our pelvis forward and lock out our knees, then an excessive amount of our weight will fall towards the front of the foot. This pattern will often accompany dropped arches and knee problems.
Poor posture always compromises our ability to walk well, and causes wear and tear in the body over time. Restoring our natural posture is a logical way to avoid foot problems, knee surgeries, hips replacements and lower back pain – a much better future than pain killers, surgery and mobility aids!
If this sort of damage is possible with ‘regular’ shoes, think what can happen with killer heels and the even more bizarre creations that have found their way on to women’s feet in recent years! Queue Lady Gaga!
Okay, so this is ultra high-end celebrity fashion, inevitably aiming to shock, reinvent and innovate to grab media attention. But this is what the fashion-conscious consumer is exposed to, and this is what sets the bar on what is trending and comes to be seen as attractive. For lovers of style, it is hard not to be swayed by the glamorous dazzle of the fashion industry. It is also human nature to feel more comfortable conforming to expectations than questioning them. For example, many of us would rather ‘dress the part’ and wear heels at work because some degree of physical pain in their feet, legs or back is more tolerable than the discomfort of feeling less ‘attractive’, less ‘on message’ less ‘savvy’. If women feel that such shoes boost their appearance and give them a social advantage, why would they choose to change them?
Extremes of fashion
Lady Gaga is recent fashion of course, but are such extremes entirely new? The ‘lotus shoe’ pictured here, was widely worn – by women that is – in Imperial China for some 1,000 years. This miniature shoe ensured that they would totter around submissively and decoratively, enhancing their value on the marriage market, and making daughters financially viable. Only poor labouring women escaped such drastic measures.
It is heartbreaking that Chinese girls as young as four would have their feet broken, and repeatedly bandaged into ever-tighter bindings until the feet
conformed to the aesthetic values of the time. It took a lot of binding to restrict an adult foot to a 12cm length.
The pain of binding was unimaginable, and many girls died of shock, or later from infection due to toes rotting through lack of blood supply. But, the results were considered beautiful, and the teetering steps were found sexually alluring, even inspiring erotic poetry. Thankfully, this practice was eventually banned in the early 1920s, but we should ask, is the deforming of women’s feet squarely confined to history?
Personally, though it might not be high fashion but I prefer to get excited about celebrating feet for the amazing pieces of bioengineering that they are. After all, over the years your shoes will come and go but when it comes to your feet, you only have one pair to last a lifetime! Let’s invest in them, and talk about how to future-proof the perfectly formed feet of our children….
For babies, the question about ideal footwear is clear – a baby is best off barefoot so they can feel the stimulus of different contours and surfaces. This induces them to engage and strengthen their arch muscles as they learn to crawl and then walk.
As for toddlers and older children, as they venture into cold or less friendly terrain, they may need protection for their feet, but for any age group, always choose a shoe that allows the foot to retain its natural kidney-bean shape into and throughout adulthood.
So what does a good shoe look like?
Well-designed shoes will have a kidney-bean shape (sole & foot-bed), and most people benefit from some degree of support at the arch and shock absorption in the soles – after all, we are usually walking on unnaturally hard, flat surfaces like concrete, not soft forest floors. If we are well aligned with our posture and have good strength in our feet, then we will have a smoother gait and can switch to a thinner-soled ‘barefoot’ type of shoe and sandal, at least for periods of time. These enable us to get better feedback from the ground and continue to improve our biomechanics further.
Don’t simply rely on a particular brand, as manufacturers do change their designs. You need to know what to look for! There are brands out there selling themselves on comfort and supposedly natural, foot-shaped credentials, which don’t fit our bean-shaped criteria at all! As well as the outline shape of the foot-bed, there is also the matter of its inner contours. Many foot-beds are mildly concave, either heel to toe and/or across the foot, and these depressions encourage the arches of the feet to collapse, bringing inflammatory bone problems and callouses on the ball of the foot. Men’s shoes are equally poorly designed in this respect, encouraging a straight, flat foot, and still without a broad enough toe box.
What about inserted arch supports and orthotics?
I am amazed by the number of people I meet who have been fitted for orthotics that are so radically different from their foot shape, that are so hard and painful on their feet, that understandably, they don’t use them. Any reshaping of the foot has to be gradual and comfortable. Ultimately, there is no substitute for developing the natural strength, spring and lift of a naturally functioning arch, and this means activating muscles.
People are made of stories, not atoms. Leonardo da Vinci
Strong yet delicate
It is a surprising fact, but our feet are every bit as intricate in design as our hands, with similar anatomical features in terms of the number of bones, joints, and nerve supply. In many respects our feet have a much more challenging job, taking our body weight and, by correctly synching with the buttock and leg muscles, enabling us to walk, run and dance our way through life.
Feet are Primal!
Your feet have not evolved for modern life, for our ancestors continually exercised their feet by walking on softer, more contoured surfaces than we encounter today. While the modern urban foot therefore tends to be underused and weak, it doesn’t have to be that way! The Gokhale Method course that I teach offers effective strategies for restoring healthy foot action throughout our daily lives. It uses specific foot exercises, backed up by a comprehensive course for restoring our overall postural balance. This approach is accessible to everyone through Esther Gokhale’s book, ‘8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back’, free online information at www.gokhalemethod.com and courses running in Bristol and London.