When the shoe never fits |Vogue

Model and journalist Jess Cole is fed up with shoehorning her feet into heels that are too small for her. Here, she tells Vogue why the fashion industry needs to make more feminine footwear in bigger sizes.

For Vogue international

One of my earliest memories is being told by a close family member that I would be too heavy-footed to be a ballerina. I tried tap dancing, but the constant stomping only made me more fixated on how big my feet were compared to the more petite girls in my class. I would wear three pairs of socks to bed and tie my toes together with string in the hope of making them smaller. Anything so I could squeeze into those dainty pink ballet pumps, the symbol of femininity.

‘Women with big feet don't want to wear men's shoes all the time. We, too - shock, horror - want to be chic’

As a young woman, finding size 9 shoes for school, prom and parties was a nightmare, and an ex-boyfriend mocking my "dragon feet" didn't make me feel any less abnormal. Now, as a model, my feet continue to be a constant source of scrutiny. I've had jobs cancelled because my shoe size is larger than the usual samples, and on one occasion I forced my feet into shoes that were so small I had to be wheeled around set because it was too painful to walk. Thankfully my immediate colleagues are aware that, logically, tall women (I'm 5'11) have long feet. On shoots I have found only a few brands – CélineSaint Laurent and Prada – that seem to recognise that women with big feet don't want to wear men's shoes and trainers all the time. We, too (shock, horror) want to be chic.

'Moving through the world with pinched toes and bunions is a constant reminder that our place within society remains collateral with the pain of conforming to beauty ideals'

Outside of work, my clothes rotate around a pair of Converse, Dr Martens and posh loafers that only fit when I bend the backs down. The New York College of Podiatric Medicine confirms what I already know, too – its patients have admitted that although they wear trainers on a daily basis, on more polished occasions they will cram their feet into heels. Formal shoes are an essential part of working and social life, so for women who don't fit into them, practically the only thing they can do is buy too-tight shoes out of desperation. Moving through the world with pinched toes and bunions is a constant reminder that our place within society remains collateral with the pain of conforming to beauty ideals. Oppression, as writer and social activist Bell Hooks once wrote, is the absence of choices.

Since the 1970s, women's feet have grown at least two sizes bigger. This is down to genetics and richer diets, meaning we are growing bigger and living longer, with our feet spreading as we age. There is so much cultural stigma surrounding women with big feet, these stats can only signpost a much larger truth. According to research by the clothing brand Long Tall Sally, 40 percent of us haven't measured our feet in the past decade. The reality is women's feet are longer and wider than we would all like to think and admit.

'So much ideology is tied up within footwear for women that if a woman enters a store and is told her size does not exist, she is also being denied her female identity'

Women with small feet have epitomised femininity across various cultures. In traditional China, foot binding was a popular method used to break women's feet into the desired three-inch golden lotus. Achieving this incapacitated their movement, but gave them marriageable status which, ironically, improved their social mobility. Although the practice has died out, its legacy continues to resonate today. Just look at Cinderella, whose dainty feet are the only ones to fit into the glass slippers; that story has its origins in 9th-century China. Jaehee Jung, a professor of fashion psychology, says that despite "lesser gender boundaries for social functions and privileges", shoe size remains a symbol of the "physical characteristics that are associated with gender differences". These ideals masquerade throughout contemporary culture as shoes empowering women: Dorothy's red shoes transformed her from farm girl to heroine in The Wizard of Oz, Sharon Stone’s white stilettos dominate the male gaze in Basic Instinct and Carrie Bradshaw's success was footed by her Manolo Blahniks. The repetition of this imagery normalises an association of shoes with successful, sexy and strong women, and marginalises women whose shoes never fit. So much ideology is tied up within footwear for women that if a woman enters a store and is told her size does not exist, she is also being denied her female identity.

'Conditions like hammertoes (flexible or contracted toes, which are often painful), blisters, wounds, bleeding under the toenails and even losing toenails” are common issues caused by wearing shoes that don't fit properly'

When cultural ideologies pressure women into believing that they do not physically fit into the norms reinforced by retailers, they feel they must violently alter themselves to have a social standing. On a daily basis at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, Dr Marie-Christine Bergeron and Dr Matrona Giakoumis see the extent to which women deform their feet by wearing footwear that is too small. "Conditions like hammertoes (flexible or contracted toes, which are often painful), blisters, wounds, bleeding under the toenails and even losing toenails” are common issues caused by wearing shoes that don't fit properly. Despite these toe-curling issues, the doctors report that "it does not stop women torturing themselves to fit into the ideal mould dictated by society."

The sociocultural pressure placed on women to buy ill-fitting shoes comes down to shoe manufacturers not accommodating a broader range of shoe widths and sizes. "Footwear production is generally very technical and is an art," says Christina O'Shea, who is a footwear buyer for Long Tall Sally. "For every size of shoe, a bespoke 'last' (a three-dimensional foot-shaped mould on which each shoe is made) needs to be created – which is expensive." A lot of brands seem unwilling to take the economic risk of creating larger shoe sizes for women, because for so long women have bought ill-fitting shoes and accepted the pain. This is counterintuitive – like clothing diversity, the only way to normalise all female feet is to have adequate representation in stores.

'Our needs as women must be visible outside the digital sphere – we exist in the physical world, and our presence should be accounted for'

Again, it is mostly online that all women's sizes are being catered for. Net-A-Porter has identified "a significant increase in shoe sizes above a size 7 since last year", recognising the lucrative opportunity of larger sizes, which are already reaching "particularly high sell-throughs". Long Tall Sally has consistently catered for women with larger feet and ASOS offers wide fits and half-sizes. Although this is promising, our needs as women must be visible outside the digital sphere – we exist in the physical world, and our presence should be accounted for. It is also not enough to have a couple of boutique stores offering larger sizes – there has to be space made in stores and society to give women of all economic backgrounds the freedom to buy well-fitting shoes. It is only then that we can step beyond the sizing standards that minimise what we are, and what we can and want to be.

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