Updated: Jul 11, 2018
Normalising heels for girls is bad news according to Podiatrists and the NHS writes Samantha Gouldson.
“Most children’s shoes should come with a government health warning” says Tracey Byre, a Podiatrist specialising in children’s shoes (Guardian, 2010), and goes on to say many parents are tricked by “Well, if its on the shelf, it must be ok.”
Women wearing high heeled shoes are a common sight in Western society. It’s also common for little girls to want to wear their mummy’s shoes, to dress up as mummy, and there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of pretend play. But what is harmful is the increasing prevalence of heeled shoes designed to be worn by children. You can find them on any British high street, in shops like Next, Monsoon, Shoe Zone, River Island, M&S and Clarks. But why are retailers selling shoes that could cause permanent damage?
“They’re totally inappropriate for an eight-year-old…Aside from the issues of young girls dressing to look like sexually available women, heels as high as this are all wrong for growing feet.” Justine Roberts for Mumsnet
When a child is born, they have no bones in their feet at all. Instead the structure of the foot is formed by tough but pliable tissue called cartilage. Children’s feet are a different shape to adult feet; they’re rounder, plumper, softer and more pliable. They’re narrowest at the heel and wide across the toes. As the child grows, their feet grow too – often at an alarming rate, if you’re the one who’s constantly having to pay for new footwear! As time passes the cartilage gradually ossifies, turning into hard bones. This is a gradual and lengthy process, and the human foot doesn’t finish developing until around 18 years of age.
Because of the difference between a child’s foot and an adult foot, the best kind of shoe for a child is one that has been formed to match the foot’s developmental anatomy. Experts say that it should have a thin and completely flexible sole to support and facilitate the foot’s full range of movement. The toe section should be both wide and deep, giving the toes room to spread and curl. The shoe should be closed at the back, to prevent the toes constantly having to grip onto the sole in order to keep the shoe on the foot. The closure at the top should be adjustable, with something like laces or velcro, and there should be no arch support.
Heeled shoes do none of these things. Not only do they not support the soft, pliable and vulnerable structure of a growing foot, they actively damage them. Even adult feet are damaged by wearing heeled shoes, and so the harm inflicted on a child’s foot is that much greater. When the heel is held higher than the ball of the foot, the Achilles tendon shortens. Prolonged weight-bearing by 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.
Even if you ignore the physical harm caused by wearing such shoes, the sight of a child wearing heeled shoes or boots often makes the onlooker uncomfortable. In Western society we associate heeled footwear with sexual attractiveness, and for good reason. Walking in heels causes significant changes to a woman’s posture and gait; her buttocks are thrust out and her back arches, she must take smaller and more frequent steps, while her pelvic rotation and vertical hip motion become more pronounced. To put it simply, walking in heeled shoes both exaggerates the characteristics of a woman’s walk (women naturally take shorter strides than men, and have a slight sway of the hips/pelvis that isn’t present in the male gait) and mimics the posture of sexual receptiveness. Putting children in footwear that does this makes us uncomfortable because children are not sexual and should never be, yet we consciously and unconsciously associate heeled shoes with sex.
“There is a big distinction between children dressing up for fun and retailers producing items of clothing that target children and encourage premature sexualisation…We have to ask what effects some of these products have on children and young people’s ideas of body image and what is appropriate for their age. Retailers and adults have a responsibility to ensure children and young people grow up valuing the right things in themselves and other people.” Penny Nicholls, The Children’s Society
Although advice is to restrict children’s shoes to a heel height of 4cm or less, research has shown that the best thing for a child’s foot is to be barefoot as often as practically possible. This not only enables the foot to develop unimpeded but also helps the child’s gait (the way they walk) to develop naturally. Even flat shoes can affect the way a child’s legs and feet behave when they walk, particularly flat-soled trainers that mimic adult styles – children just don’t weigh enough to force the sole to flex.
“These shoes should carry a parental advisory label that says these are costume dress and not for everyday or all-day wear.” Dr Joseph Kelly, Society of Chiropodists & Podiatrists of Ireland.
The impact of wearing heeled shoes is even worse. Not only do they affect the way that a child’s body develops and moves, they also alter the way they play. A child whose footwear forces them to take shorter strides is unlikely to be able to run, climb or jump. And even if they somehow manage to do these things, the impact on their soft and still-developing feet will be far more damaging than if they were doing these things barefoot or in flat shoes.
Written and researched for Let Clothes Be Clothes by Samantha Gouldson
Images and high street research by Francesca Mallen