The quest for happy feet – popularity of “comfort” shoes

Ellen Beardsley


Some people cry over spilled milk; others cry over feet so long and wide that they spill over the largest and widest of ordinary shoes, as well as suffer the trauma of finding shoes that both look good and feel comfortable.

The emotional upset is of three kinds: the result of a specific imperfection such as hammertoes, bunions, or a surgical loss; a sense of ill health due to chronic foot fatigue; and an overall dislike of the appearance of the foot, often characterized as “weird.” In each case sufferers have a strong feeling of inadequacy.

Florence, a 64-year-old haute couture seamstress, says, “I’ve never had a pedicure because my feet are so ugly…. I don’t want to expose my feet. I’ve felt this way since childhood.”

Laura, an attractive 42-year-old health professional, wears size 10B. “I remember how comforted I felt when I found out Jackie Kennedy wears size 10AAA,” she says. “Here was the glamorous and ultra-feminine First Lady having to wear a large size, too. And even now I like knowing Christie Brinkley wears a size 10.”

Dr. Arnold Kratter, a podiatrist at the Yorke Fashion Comfort Centre in New York, recounts the case of a 16-year-old girl brought in for a fitting by her mother, who was concerned for her daughter’s emotional health.

“The girl had always refused dates because she didn’t have the appropriate shoes for her size 13EEE feet,” Kratter says. “She’d been wearing men’s athletic shoes. After we fitted her with an attractive pair of shoes she was able to socialize more appropriately. We received a letter from her mother telling of the girl’s much improved outlook on life.”

Blaine, a 52-year-old housewife, turns visibly sad when she reflects on her problem feet: “My mortality was amplified when my feet became a problem,” she says. “I’ve gone from feeling healthy to unhealthy. Losing the full use of my feet has been like a death for me. I went into psychotherapy about my feet.”

Not everyone who has problem or hard-to-fit feet, however, suffers emotionally. Many find the physical complications of problem feet, such as how to get correctly fitting shoes, a more difficult challenge.

“The people who have hard-to-fit and problem feet generally fall into three groups,” says Cindy Emmel, director of communications for the Prescription Footwear Association (PFA). “There are the stars and monied few who have custom, high-fashion ‘costume’ shoes designed for a perfect fit. Then there are the medically impaired such as diabetics or amputees who require prescription or other accomodative footwear.” (Currently there is a Congressionally mandated demonstration in three states that will estimate the cost-effectiveness of therapeutic shoe coverage for individuals with diabetes and diabetic-related diseases.)

Emmel continues, “And finally there are those who comprise the largest group–those with hard-to-fit feet. This includes people with chronic orthopedic impairments, often inherited, such as bunions, hammer-toes, or ‘weak’ feet, and consumers who want to stop being tortured by the traditional footwear industry. This group is looking for comfortable shoes.”

For chronic problems, prescription footwear may be recommended. For those seeking an alternative to the “torture” of traditional footwear, “comfort” is definitely “in.”

“Comfort” shoes are the hottest retail footwear trend in years. Footwear News, a trade paper, has been running a “Comfort Report” column for more than a year and recently devoted a special insert to comfort issues. The reasons are clear for the mushrooming number of stores carrying comfort lines. As the population ages, foot ailments become more prevalent.

“In the next 12 years the 50-plus population will increase by 23 percent, while the growth rate for those under 50 years is only 8 percent,” the PFA’s Emmel says. But even those younger than 50 are demanding changes, since they’ve become accustomed to comfortable athletic shoes.

Another element in the shift toward shoes that ease foot fatigue is the application of athletic footwear technology to fashion styles. Skyrocketing sales of lines such as Easy Spirit and Rockport for both men and women reflect these changes.

A Footwear News survey of retailers reports that “… comfort shoes, which only a few years ago accounted for 20 to 30 percent of business for many stores, now often represents 40 to 60 percent of all sales, and in some cases–particularly independents–has grabbed as much as 85 percent.”

The demand for prescription and orthopedic footwear has not been quantified, but Emmel says it has increased. Between 1986 and 1990 PFA membership has more than doubled.

A more direct barometer of growth in the field of problem feet is the increased number of, and enrollment in, postgraduate residency positions in podiatry, the medical specialty devoted to the study and treatment of the lower leg, ankle, and foot. Dr. Thomas BiFulco, a podiatrist and member of the Residency Training Committee of Kern Hospital in Warren, Michigan, says, “Between 1970 and 1990 the number of available residency positions has leapt from 20 to 90. This means the consumer will have a widely increased opportunity to be treated by a podiatrist who has obtained the highest level of postgraduate training available.”

The combined trends of more and better qualified professionals who either treat feet or design custom shoes and orthopedic devices (as represented by the increase in PFA membership), mirrors the aroused consumer demand for overall foot health and comfort.

But with the increase in choices, how can the consumer determine which professionals to go to for foot and footwear problems? As a rough guideline, the most competent foot specialists are board certified podiatrists. Dr. BiFulco explains: “Fees for the services of a podiatrist are influenced by a combination of factors: the nature of your problem, your insurance, and geography. But if your complaint is of ‘sore’ feet or ankle pain, I would estimate treatment would require 4-6 visits, including a full evaluation, with an average fee of $34-$45 per visit. For problems requiring correction with shoes, a device, or surgery, approximately 5-10 visits will then be required.

“One of the most common procedures is bunion correction,” Dr. BiFulco says. “Using the most advanced methods, the fee for this surgery ranges from $700 to $1,200.”

In the event a doctor prescribes footwear, he or she may refer the patient to a board certified pedorthotist. If protheses or braces are needed, a doctor will recommend fitting by a board certified orthotist. Pedorthotists and orthotists will not charge separate professional fees, but rather the cost of their advanced training is reflected in the products that pedorthotists and orthotists fit the patient for.

Patients might have to make the choice between a fully customized or a custom-adapted shoe. Tom BiFulco of T. O. Dey, a company that specializes in custom shoes, says that in the long run it is preferable to buy a fully custom-made shoe rather than an orthodic accomodated by a ready-to-wear shoe.

“You have to take into account the personality of the foot,” he says. “The consumer may end up spending $500 for only 50 percent customization. With a fully custom-made shoe you’ll achieve better results.”

COPYRIGHT 1991 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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