For women in white-collar industries like law and finance, wearing high heels was taken for granted as part of what it meant to go to work, like an hourlong commute or a $15 desk salad. Now, many of them are questioning whether it’s worth the foot pain.
Podiatrists are seeing an uptick in injuries brought on by a return to the office, in-person conferences and other professional events that require a return to more formal footwear. Dr. Miguel Cunha of Gotham Footcare in Manhattan said his offices have recently seen an influx of overuse injuries, from shin splints to plantar fasciitis, among patients wearing heels again after ditching them for two years. During the pandemic, lower levels of activity and going barefoot led to weakness and tightness of muscles and tendons.
“Once the restrictions of the pandemic were lifted, many women resumed their use of heels for work without giving their body adequate time to transition back to their pre-pandemic activity levels,” Dr. Cunha said. For many, that’s led to intensified foot pain and discomfort.
“The body doesn’t like any kind of abrupt change,” said Dr. James Hanna, former president of the New York State Podiatric Medical Association. “Whenever you’re forced to do something all at once, suddenly you’re going back to the office, and now you’re wearing these shoes you haven’t worn in two years, that’s really like asking for trouble.”
Jessica Cadmus, a personal shopper and stylist for Wall Street executives, said her clients have scaled back from wearing heels everyday to just once a week, or only for important meetings. Over the course of the pandemic, Alice Sofield mostly wore sneakers while working from home. But after a major industry conference in June, she said that after four days in high heels, her feet hurt so much she couldn’t even stand. She had to get cortisone injections in her heels to relieve the pain.
As the commitment to heels falls by the wayside, more casual workwear staples have emerged, including white sneakers. “The shift has been towards a more casual overall aesthetic across the board on Wall Street,” Cadmus said. “The clean white sneaker has been trending for both men and women.” It’s a look that works when paired with more formal pieces, which clients feel reluctant to wear now that the office aesthetic has relaxed, she said.
Sofield has noticed this trend, but still feels like she has to adhere to a certain standard of footwear professionalism for in-person meetings. “When I met my clients at the … big industry meeting, they were all wearing sneakers,” she said. “I can’t, because they’re our clients, so I have to look nice.”
The data, however, suggest that women are buying high heels again, just not for work. According to a July report by market research firm NPD Group, higher heels are gaining market share over lower heels as women buy shoes for special occasions. “Dress footwear sales are also shifting away from pumps — a more conservative and work-oriented style — to open-toe sandals, which are more occasion-oriented,” said Beth Goldstein, an analyst at NPD.
Whether for work or for play, wearing heels after a long hiatus puts you at risk of rocking a much less trendy shoe: a medical boot. “Heels are going to make you less stable, more likely to have lateral ankle sprains and other kinds of problems,” especially if you’re out of practice, Dr. Hanna said.
Nearly two months after the conference, Sofield said her feet still hurt when she wakes up in the morning. As she lines up another visit to the doctor to see if she needs another round of cortisone shots, she said she won’t be going back to the closet full of three-inch pumps she used to wear before the pandemic. “I have a pile of them that are going to Goodwill,” she said. “Like, what’s the point?”