This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 51 – April 2000
Objects, tools and instruments are subject to a form of evolution, similar to some extent to biological evolution. While, according to some experts, Man’s morphological evolution has stopped, objects evolve constantly and sometimes rapidly.
Take shoes, for example. They have constantly evolved and are still doing so. A most interesting feature of shoes is the heel. From a heel less form, shoes evolved into heel hypertrophy.
In the beginning, shoes entertained a symbiotic relationship with feet. Their only function was to protect them. Wearing shoes became second nature and shoemakers were kept busy by the constant demand of satisfied customers.
When shoes were first made, shoemakers did not see the need to adorn them with heels. But, as normal walking requires that the heel of the foot should strike the ground before the toes, primitive shoes used to be rapidly worn out at the heel, long before the rest of the sole. This annoying structural weakness prompted the shoemakers of the time to reinforce it and thus heeled shoes were created. The raison d’être of the reinforced heel was to protect the shoe against a premature wear, similar in a way to the calluses that grow on our fingers when they are subjected to continual friction.
But as fashion superseded function, heels were made bigger and bigger, reaching impossible heights. The heel mania spread sometimes to the whole of the sole, as in platform shoes. Guided by fashion, shoemongers manufactured shoes which, instead of offering protection and safety to the feet, became a danger to the health and beauty of not only the feet but also to the whole being.
High heels are at their most extreme in women’s shoes. Women who wear high heels are real acrobats since this word means literally ‘walking on tiptoe’. To play the acrobat without a net is a dangerous game though. Baby Spice would agree with this last statement: she once broke her ankle after a fall from the top of her platform trainers. Many other women, having toppled over on their high heels, also know, from firsthand experience, the inherent dangers associated with the wearing of high heels.
The health hazards caused by falls from hypertrophied heels represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Below this tip lurk many other, not so conspicuous, problems. Walking with heeled shoes interferes with the normal gait. The forward leg cannot extend fully and the anatomical heel is prevented from hitting the ground first. As a result, the calf muscles shorten, a shortening that can spread upwards as far as the neck muscles.
Women who are accustomed to high heels often complain that wearing flat shoes gives them pain. They conclude that flat shoes are not good for them. The discomfort they feel, however, comes from the stretching of their tight calf muscles and is a necessary pain that will last until their calf muscles regain sufficient elasticity. If they would persist in wearing flatties they would soon feel good in them and their whole body would benefit.
High and not so high heels force the lower back to arch and the tummy to be pushed forward. The great chain of muscles running from head to feet shortens under the influence of heeled shoes. This great dorsal muscular chain already has a natural tendency to shorten spontaneously; to encourage this tightening through ill-designed shoes is like adding insult to injury.
We are plantigrade, i.e., we use the entire soles of our feet. To be plantigrade is a privilege shared with a minority of mammals. To walk with high heels is a bit like walking on the toes only, transforming oneself into a digitigrad or toe-walker, and walking away from our plantigrade trademark.
Another conspicuous addition to ‘civilised’ shoes is the arch support. What’s wrong with the arches in our feet? Can’t they support themselves without any crutches? Judging by the great number of flat feet, they apparently can’t; at least that’s what chiropodists and other foot specialists want you to believe. According to them, fallen arches are caused by weakness in the muscles which support them. It is also believed that fallen arches can cause back and knee aches. There are many special shoes or shoe inserts that purport to cure you rapidly and effortlessly of these pains. Unfortunately, these methods are only palliative, dealing with the symptom and leaving the cause untreated.
Flat feet are not the cause of back or knee pains. All of these symptoms have the same cause: tightening of the great dorsal muscular chain. When tight, the internal rotator muscles of the lower limbs (and there are many, contrary to the classical teachings of anatomy) turn the knees inwards. When this happens, the elements below the knee have to adapt to this new regime. The usual feet’s response is to turn the sole outwards (eversion), and, inevitably, the inner arches capsize and take the shape of what is commonly known as flat feet.
In flat feet, the arches haven’t collapsed or given way under the force of gravity; instead they have keeled over under the influence of the inward-turned knees. If you have flat feet, you can check this theory on yourself. Stand feet a little apart and parallel, then turn your knees outward. You will be able to see that, now, your feet have momentarily recovered their arches.
Shoe inserts and arch supports can only displace the problem and encourage the perpetuation of the cause. They also prevent the normal and important spring action of the arches from taking effect.
Feet should not have to fit the shoes; instead, shoes should be made to fit the feet as gloves fit the hands. That means no pointed shoes, no arch supports and no heels. Demand shoes made that way, and walk tall without artificial props.