We need to talk about high heels and wedges marketed to girls.
They've had the plastic princess shoes, the satin-covered heels for special occasions - but what about heels and wedges for everyday footwear?
Let Clothes Be Clothes are calling for action on retailers selling fashion footwear that could impact on the healthy development of feet. Casual heels and wedges are not only dangerous for young active children (exclusively marketed to girls only) but can also cause long term damage to soft, growing feet and ligaments.
"The results from the present study suggest that high-heel–related injuries have nearly doubled during the 11-year period from 2002 to 2012. Injuries from high heels are differential by body region, with most injuries occurring as sprains and strains to the foot and ankle. Although high heels might be stylish, from a health standpoint, it could be worthwhile for women and those interested in wearing high heels to understand the risks of wearing high-heeled shoes and the potential harm that precarious activities in high-heeled shoes can cause."
Abstract from a 10 year study focusing on high heel related injuries to US women between 2002 and 2012. This peer reviewed research found that during this time, 4737 girls under the age of 10 were also injured as a result of high heel footwear.
Lets start with: Children's Feet
Our feet are probably the most used part of our body. They carry our weight, and enable us to move around.
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.
Perhaps the most recognizable high heels marketed to children are plastic 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 the plastic princess heels picture. Even bizarre Pee Wee Pumps weren't actually suggesting that Babies First Heels were legitimate footwear, but what caught the eye of campaigners - and the concerns voiced by many, was not just the issues surrounding the sexualisation of young girls, but also the normalisation of heels as regular 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."
Picture gallery left, from top down: Monsoon 2021 Occasionwear Girls Shoes; Princess Enterprise Play Heels; Pee Wee Pumps; 1950's "Hi-Heel Play Shoes."
Heels are harmless?
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.
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?
Summer 2021 Research Gallery
The shoes below are all available to buy online from UK retailers, including River Island, TU at Sainsbury, Next, Amazon (various brands), George at Asda, Matalan, Sketchers, Shoezone and Peacocks.
All either described or listed as girls shoes and most are available from a size 10 (infants), with some examples from George starting at size 8 and a 9 at Next. That's about age 4 years.
Sketchers sizing chart for example, categorises 4 to 8 year olds as "Little Kids" with a shoe range of 9.5 (Infant) to 2.5 (Junior/Adult). Size 8 and 9 were in "Toddlers."
Nearly all of the retailers we checked sold ballet flats without straps, but high heels and wedges were noticeably absent from John Lewis, TK MAXX, Clarks, H&M, House of Fraser, Startrite, Marks and Spencer and Boden.
Yellow Gingham Ruffle Edge Sandals (May 2021)
Sizes 10 (Child) - 4 UK
"These pretty yellow gingham sandals with wedge heels and an open toe are perfect for their next sunny getaway."
Girls Black Patent T-Bar School Shoes (May 2021)
Sizes 12 (child) - 5 UK
Total heel height unlisted, but in the reviews this is given as 2" (5cm)
"My 10 year old loved them! However, I returned them as too high for school, she wouldn’t have been able to run around in them." States one reviewer
Spot on Girls Low Wedge Sandals (May 2021)
Sizes 11 (child) to 3 UK
Total heel height unknown
Slip on design with no strap, peep toe and a tall, graduated shape wedge. This makes these shoes particular problematic as there is a narrower base to stand on.
"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.
What about Ballet Flats?
So if heels are bad, are fashionable ballet flats good? Nope, 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 inside 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.
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
"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.
Change VAT Exemption Rules
Guided by the NHS
Challenge General Product Safety
Healthy, active children
Here's what you can do to 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.
Contact your local school. With more and more examples of high heeled school shoes and ballet flats, ask your local school to update their uniform policy. Get information on buying school shoes into the school newsletter, or arrange a healthy footwear event at school!
Shop wisely. We recommend only buying shoes for children online if you are familiar with the retailers products and have measured your child's feet correctly. Check for heel height information, and if you're not sure contact the store directly. Anything over 2.5cm is completely unnecessary.
Buying Children's Shoes
We recommend only buying shoes for children online if you are familiar with the retailers products and have measured your child's feet correctly. Many retailers now offer measuring kits (such as Foot Gauges) to use at home, but check how to make returns just in case the fit isn't right.
Feet should always be measured and shoes fitted properly, but off-the rack shoes are often significantly cheaper and therefore simply more affordable, particularly as children grow out of shoes so fast. Where possible, get children to try on shoes in store, but if you're not sure about the best fit, there are plenty of guides online you can check, including this one from Startrite shoes - click here
Beware of differences in fit between what is offered to girls, and what is offered to boys. For example, Clarks offer a standard width (F) on all their children's shoes, regardless of sex, yet some retailers style their shoes based on adult trends. For example, in response to a complaint based on the sizing of the shoes pictured below, a manager at Next told us "sometimes girls shoes are shaped thinner, its the style." Shoes should fit our kids feet, not the other way around!
Support Let Clothes Be Clothes and help us demand a responsible retail culture that puts children's health and wellbeing ahead of profits.
If you are a retailer and would like some more advice on our campaign and the research we are involved in, please email Francesca at firstname.lastname@example.org
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