Even if you'd never wear Alexander McQueen's infamous 10-inch "Armadillo" shoe, the crazy styles seen in fashion shows have a trickle-down effect. "What designers show on the runway definitely influences what's reaching the masses," says Hillary Brenner, DPM, a podiatric surgeon in New York City. In the past few years alone, the average height of a high-heeled shoe has gone from 3 to 5 inches, notes Phyllis Rein, senior vice president of the Fashion Footwear Association of New York. Meanwhile, flip-flops are showing up at the office, and thin-soled casual flats and sandals can be had for less than $20 a pair.
The outcome for trend-seeking consumers: skyscraping stilettos fight for closet space with ballet flats so flimsy they can be folded into your wallet. And the result is not so pretty. "I used to see about five women a week with foot problems due to poor shoesnow it's about three a day," says Jacqueline Sutera, DPM, a podiatric surgeon in New York City. In fact, women's visits to the doctor for foot and toe complaints shot up 75% between 2005 and 2009, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Experts caution that bad footwear choices can wreak havoc all the way up the legs and into the spine. Maybe even as far as our heads: Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann made headlines in July when a news site reported that she blamed high heels for her migraines.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are more sane options than ever: Orthopedic surgeon Taryn Rose created an eponymous line of cute but sensible shoes; brands like the Cole Haan Air line are fashion-forward and user-friendly. Yet we still follow tastemakers like Kelly Ripa, who straps on 6-inchers nearly every dayeven while on crutches. Workouts aren't safe, either: Crunch gyms offer a Stiletto Strength class, in which you "bring your own heels and strut your stuff runway style."
Not only do we stuff our feet into potentially harmful shoes, but we go to crazy lengths to do so. A treatment known as the Stiletto Prescription or "Pillows for Feet" involves injecting facial fillers into the balls of the feet. "It's an effort to temporarily replace the fat pad that has worn away due to excessive use of bad shoes over time," Sutera explains.
Worse yet are surgical procedures to help shoes fit more comfortably, such as foot narrowing and "toe tucks," in which the little toe is trimmed down. Last year the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society (AOFAS) issued a strongly worded statement warning against such surgeries.