Updated: May 18, 2021
Podiatrists tell us, children's fashion heels and wedges are for occasional use only, but what happens when retailers start adding exaggerated height to school shoes and sporty trainers? Heels, wedges and even ballet flats are best left inside the dressing up box, but our research suggests some of the UK's biggest childrenswear retailers are offering more and more casual, everyday styles that are just not good for growing feet.
Some shoes are bad for our feet, and loads of women (and some men, obvs) are happy to part with their well earned cash for an aesthetic that will have cramped toes staggering on cobbles faster than you can say “should have bought the next size up.” We’ve all been there? Those sensible shoes like a weathered saint, rescuing us from footwear sins when the going gets tough - often flat pumps stashed in a bag for the walk home. The last time I wore wedges I tripped, staggered about 10 yards, and threw my shopping into someone's front garden. The time before that (and oh, how we don’t learn) I tripped on cobbles and landed face down on The Strand in Liverpool in front of about 30 people. A seemingly kind woman came up to me, not to help, but to tell me that a man had just taken a photograph of me sprawled on the ground (though what she actually said was “that man took a photo of your bottom, dear.") Some pals from work took me to Ladies Day at the Grand National, and what I remember the most is not the extravagant hats or excitement of betting on some gee-gees (I’m not a fan tbh) but watching all those women, who walked so boldly on towering heels going in, literally staggering home barefoot - held up by friends and partners, knees bloodied, killer heels in hand. They may dance in heels on Strictly, but those women are trained to glide and bounce, whereas the rest of us will just sort of slam into the pavement. Plus despite the swagger we may put on, the power we may feel by adding inches to our stature or the confidence that a sexualised image of ourselves may induce, heels simply make us less able to walk, and crucially, run away.
Men and women have adored the heel for centuries, and lift has come and gone faster than a Lib Dem Party Leader. From 18th century buckle embellished footwear fops to young lads gliding swan-like on 70’s platforms; but footwear that propels your M&S lunch over walls, that prohibits and otherwise punishes, is rife in women’s fashion history. The Stiletto heel is named after a dagger, the Wedge sounds like poorly fitting underwear, and the Corset Heel isn't winning any comfy footwear awards. Don't get me started on the Lobster Claw. Heels were never intended for all the activities that children are likely to partake in on a daily basis, like walking too and from school, and running in the playground. Heels suggest a demeaner of girls not required of boys.
“I don’t want people to look at my shoes and say: ‘They look really comfortable!’ The important thing is that people say: ‘Wow, they’re beautiful!"
Shoe Designer, Christian Louboutin
At a Miss America pageant in the 1960’s protestor’s threw high heels in a trash can as “instruments of female torture” and its no secret that women’s fashions have run in the direction of some seriously unhealthy choices. Take Tho-radia, a beauty product line from the 1930’s (that included face powder and lipstick) that contained deadly isotopes like radium and thorium, giving you a radioactive glow that was an absolutely killer. In 2021 society's beauty standards are still toxic to women, from skin bleaching products to an unrealistic body image that contributes towards depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, self harm and eating disorders in women, young and old.
So what about fashion heels and wedges aimed at girls? The thing is, we are fast moving past heels and wedges being anything but harmless playwear, worn briefly at a party or for tottering down the aisle ahead of the bride. Occasion wear, which seems more than a little suggestive of "occasional use" has given way to "versatile" casual styles in high heels and wedges. Is a 4cm wedge on a toddlers summer sandals going to do anything other than sprain ankles, and restrict play? The NHS recommends a flat shoes with a maximum 2.5 cm heel for kids footwear, because there is simply no need for anything higher...
Children's feet are different to adult feet, and not just because they are smaller. They undergo massive change throughout childhood (particularly in the first year) and are more soft, pliable and rounded - in other words, more easily effected by the wrong footwear.
Essentially, children need shoes that allow feet to spread, which is why podiatrists bang on about "barefoot is best" and getting feet properly measured. Trying to shove kids toes into "standard" fittings is also a bad idea, which is why a choice of width fittings is a must.
"Squashed feet – in width or length – can cause balance problems and even gait issues, as well as affecting normal foot growth.”
Susannah Davda, Director of The Shoe Consultant
Children's school lives and daily activities also dictate that comfortable and practical shoes will prevent falls and encourage active lifestyles. Girls run, hop, skip, jump, climb trees, cartwheel and kick footballs, which is why fashion footwear (focused on style over substance) are best - if ever - for occasional use only, and that was the case until fairly recently.
Perhaps the most recognizable high heels marketed to children are play heels, bridesmaid shoes and sparkly party heels. They are either categorized as occasion wear (i.e. for occasional use, such as one-off special events or parties) or play wear, such as solid plastic princess heels. Play heels date back to the 1950's and were clearly just meant for a few minutes of clopping about in before being kicked off for something else.
Even bizarre Pee Wee Pumps (pictured left) weren't actually suggesting that Babies First Heels were legitimate footwear, but what caught the eye of campaigners (and a concern voiced by many) was not just the issues surrounding the sexualisation of young girls, but also the normalisation of heels as regular, legitimate footwear.
The rise of what marketeers call the "mini-me" trend has certainly driven that agenda, and high heels, wedges and ballet flats (also a terrible shoe style marketed to girls) are becoming more widespread amongst standard footwear options. This includes the most potent of everyday footwear for youngsters - the school shoe. New styles which include trainer and summer sandal wedges are not the only problem, but the language used to describe such shoes has gone from "special occasions" to "versatile" (i.e. adaptable to different functions or activities) and even "comfortable."
When the heel is held higher than the ball of the foot, the Achilles tendon shortens. Prolonged weight-bearing on the ball of the foot can crush the toes together, forcing them into a bent shape and in some cases causing nerve damage. It’s not just the foot that’s harmed by wearing heeled shoes. Calf muscles may become shorter and tighter. The pelvis and spine are pushed out of alignment, and increased pressure is placed upon the knees. The bones of the legs don’t finish growing and forming until the mid-teens, and the changes to posture inflicted by wearing heeled shoes could well lead to permanent deformation in the bones of the ankles, knees and hips.
Plus, it is worth remembering that heels, wedges and ballet straps may force the wearer to alter their behaviour. Girls may feel physically restricted from the games and activities of other children, and risk physical injury should they join in. Boys aren't expected to inhibit their behaviour based on their footwear, so why should girls?
Heels & Wedges - 2021 High Street Survey
The shoes pictured below are all available to buy online from UK retailers, including River Island, TU at Sainsbury, Next, Amazon, George at Asda, Clarks Outlet, Matalan, Sketchers, Shoezone and Peacocks.
All are either described or listed as girls shoes and most are available from a size 10 (Child), with some examples from George starting at size 8 and a 9 at Next. That's about age 4 to 5 years. While Next for example include heels in their "older girls" range, this is a little misleading, since there is so much variation between the size of shoes, and a child's age. For example, my own daughter is 8 years old and is already wearing UK Size 4 shoes.
Sketchers sizing chart also categorises 4 to 8 year olds as "Little Kids" with a shoe range of 9.5 (Child) to 2.5 (Adult). Size 8 and 9 were in "Toddlers."
At the time of writing (May 2021), nearly all of the retailers we checked sold ballet flats without straps, but high heels and wedges (other than play or party heels) were noticeably absent from John Lewis, TK MAXX, Hush Puppies, New Look, H&M, House of Fraser, Startrite, Marks and Spencer and Boden.
This selection represents a snapshot of how the UK market has moved from play heels and heels for "special occasions" to everyday footwear styles - such as school shoes, summer sandals and even trainers with wedges.
"55% of children have suffered injuries by wearing shoes which are either too small or unsuitable for young feet."
Findings from a study by the UK College of Podiatry involving 2000 families.
River Island (Winner - Sheer volume of styles)
Out of 106 products offered in their 5 to 16 year old "Shoes and Boots" category online, only 7 were categorised as "partywear" which would carry the assumption of occasional use, however, this included non-traditional party designs such as black boots. Another 28 items were classed as "holidaywear" including wedge sandals, with an advertised heel height of 4cm, starting from a size 10 (Child) - which is about age 4-5 years (and the lowest in the 5-16 year old category). 23 of the 106 shoes listed had a large chunky heel, wedge or were visibly heighted in some way, including rigid flatforms that would allow for no movement in the arch of the foot. The maximum heel height given online for some of the wedges was 4cm. This would be proportionate to a 6-7cm heel height on a woman of average height.
Out of 53 footwear products for boys, not one was designed with a heel or wedge.
River Island "Girls Pink Wedge Lace up Trainers" from size 10 (Child)
Next (Winner - Highest Casual Heels)
Next boast an incredible 1922 products in their girls "all footwear" section which are categorised into many different uses, including holiday, casual, lifestyle, sports and school. Next also sell brands such as Monsoon, Lipsy, River Island and Angel Shoes, which include styles such as the gold pair pictured. In our survey, we categorised shoes like this (sparkly, metallic, block heel) as traditional, (and omitted them for this reason) but the description online is a good example of how these types of shoes are being slipped into our consciousness as everyday footwear options. Plus you'd be hard pressed to ignored the suggestion that every little girl will want heels, as though its a rite of passage:
"Every little girl remembers her first pair of heels and these pretty gold Liza shoes are far from an exception. Coated with a fine dusting of glitter, they have a small, block heel, a round toe and a pretty heart shaped diamanté buckle on the strap. Too good to just debut at parties, pair them with tights and chunky winter knits to last through the season."
Pictured: Angel Face Gold Shoes, available from size 10 (Child)
Next also sell "Bootie Wedges" by Lipsy, which also start at a size 10 (child) but are described as having a 2" (5cm) wedge height - this is equivalent (on a 5 year old) to a heel height of 7.5cm on the average woman (based on a height of 164cm)
Bootie Wedges by Lipsy at Next, from Size 10 (Child)
Amazon (Winner - Worst features in a single pair)
Perhaps contender for the worst wedge sandals goes to Spot On, which we discovered on Amazon.co.uk. These shoes simultaneously combine a wedge that narrows (creating extra wobbles) with no strap and a peep toe, with no information online about how high that heel actually is. "Spot On Girls Low Wedge" from size 11 (Child) at Amazon.
Clarks Outlet (Winner - Tallest School Heels)
The shoes pictured "Frankie Street Jnr" are described as a girls school shoes with a "grown-up look and feel" and a "4.5cm chunky heel."
What about Ballet Flats?
So if heels are bad, are fashionable ballet flats good? No, not at all. They offer almost no support to the foot and are in fact too flat, a bit like driving a car on rubber bands instead of tyres - there's no shock resistance, causing damage to joints.
The shoes pictured left are from Next, and starting from a size 9 (infant) are described as "perfect for school."
Although they boast shock absorbing memory foam insoles, there is no arch support, and worst still nothing to stop the shoe flying off as soon as the wearer picks up a bit of pace. Podiatrists have also raised concerns that in order to make ballet flats stay put, customers are buying the next size down. (i.e in order to make them work, you have to buy the wrong size shoe)
What needs to happen next?
We are calling on the UK government to remove the VAT exception on children's heels and wedges of 2.5cm and up, that are both designed and marketed as regular, everyday footwear options. This includes school shoes, summer holiday sandals and sporty trainers. We believe this will send a strong message to retailers that such shoes are not appropriate for children.
Current VAT guidelines stipulate that children's footwear should be designed for young children, but there is extensive evidence (from Podiatrists, NHS) to suggest fashion heels, wedges and ballet flats are not safe for children to wear every day - precisely because these styles were designed for adult feet and adult lifestyles. We would also like to see action taken against retailers under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005, "obligations of products" (manufacturers and importers) to ensure that warning labels are added to play heels, and party shoes.
"2. Producers must provide consumers with the relevant information to enable them to assess the risk inherent in a product throughout the normal or reasonably foreseeable period of its use and to take precautions again those risks"
Warning labels would provide clear and consistent advice on heels and wedges for occasional, limited use only, and be applied to party shoes, occasion wear and play heels.
This is supported by advice from the NHS
Great Ormond Street Hospital, NHS
"We do not advise wearing high-heeled shoes during prolonged standing and walking. Fashion and party shoes are fine for special occasions but wearing sensible shoes for regular everyday use is best."
Association of Paediatric Chartered Physiotherapists, NHS guidance
"High heeled shoes can cause the foot to slip forward in the shoe. These shoes can also lead to weight bearing through only the forefoot which could cause pain."
Country Durham and Darlington NHS Trust
"The shoe should ideally be completely flat, but a height of up to 2.5cm in the heel is sufficient. If shoes with an increased heel height are worn, then the calf muscle can shorten, which may cause problems as your child gets older."
We urge brands, retailers and footwear manufacturers to adopt standards that reflect the needs of growing feet, and encourage healthy, active childhoods.
We need your help
Get in touch with your local MP. Ask them to take action on this based on why this issue matters to you. Do you have any experiences to share? Let them know this is something concerned parents, grandparents, teachers and friends are talking about.
Give feedback. Get in touch with your local stores and ask them to remove everyday fashion heels and wedges. Ask the big retailers to commit to footwear for all children that is practical, comfortable and encourages a healthy, active lifestyle.