Not long ago, I came across a video by a fatshionista blogger unboxing a pair of pretty foxy Louboutins. In the course of her review, she mentioned that other fat girls have asked her whether high stiletto heels can support the weight of a plus-size woman. As a die-hard heel addict myself, I was surprised when, after saying that she did pretty well in the specific pair she was reviewing, she said she wasn’t really sure that she felt that high heels overall were stable enough for curvy women. She suggested thicker heels, as I recall, saying that she felt like there would be too much wobble in stilettos.
Like I said, I love me some sky-high heels, and nearly every time I wear them (which, at my last office job, was almost daily) I’ll get women asking me how I wear such high heels. A lot of them– especially fellow curvy girls– specifically want to know HOW I wear them, as in, is it something that can be learned?
So I decided to write this post series to tell you, fellow femmes, that YES you can wear heels at pretty much any size.
Now let me back up one quick sec here. Before I tell you how you can strut your sexy ass in a great pair of shoes *and* be pretty comfortable doing it, there’s a couple of important things to be clear on. One, you don’t HAVE to wear heels. Ever. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to keep trying to make them work, and you are no less femme if you rock your flats for the rest of your Goddess-given existence. It’s like learning to drive a stick– it looks super sexy on someone who enjoys it, but it’s optional, and ain’t nothing sexy about grinding a clutch to dust just to prove something to the world. And two, some people– regardless of size– will never wear heels comfortably. You might have joint issues, or painful arches, or maybe heeled shoes aren’t made in shapes that work with the shape of your feet. It’s not a failure. Don’t injure yourself for someone else’s bullshit beauty standards.
(And guess what? Even if you’re here because you’re a budding burlesque performer, and you’re worried that you won’t get anywhere if you can’t dance in heels, I’m here to tell you that it’s just not true. Bare or stocking feet are hella sexy. I’ve done acts wearing everything from sequined Chuck Taylors to bedroom slippers to some of the butt-ugliest slip-ons you’ve ever seen. Develop a goth/industrial look and you can burn up the stage in combat boots. OPTIONS. We haz them.)
We all good on that? Good. Moving on.
For those of us who love our heels and feel good wearing them, there’s a particular kind of powerful-sexy that comes from stepping out in gorgeous heels of 4 or 5 inches. Considering how women are shamed for taking up too much space, it’s a big ol’ fuck-you to that shit when you claim some vertical space– and for us fat girls, who already take up more horizontal space, it’s like walking in this shimmering glamorous orb of EXCUSE ME I’M WALKING HERE. It’s proud, it’s fierce, it’s aggressively sexual in the way it puts a swing in our hips and makes us lift up our torsos and look the world in the eye. It’s an unapologetically bold expression of femininity, turning our walk into something more like the padding steps of a wild animal, up there on the balls of our feet. It is a way of literally elevating ourselves as if to say, Why yes, I *am* motherfucking divine, thanks for being appropriately mesmerized.
So how do you pick out and wear heels that are sexy, comfortable, and able to support big bodies, you ask? Here’s the secret (and you can click to Tweet me on this):
It’s All About the Architecture
You cannot cheap out on high-heeled shoes and expect to have no regrets. Nope. Not gonna happen. At best, cheap crappy shoes will fall apart before they fuck up your feet too badly. At worst, you’re going to reduce your poor tootsies to screaming, bloody messes– or wipe out when the heel snaps off in a subway grate or something.
In a just world, we’d all get paid fairly and would live in a culture that values good craftsmanship over planned obsolescence and disposable clothing. But that’s a rant for another day. In reality, most of us have limited funds just for life necessities, and not a lot left for splurging. That is not an excuse for bad shoes, however! If you’re going to buy heels, and you can’t invest much, you still have options. Skip the big-box crap shops and do this instead:
- Find a thrift store worth your loyalty. This is a hit-or-miss option, and you have to get good at assessing the condition of a pair of shoes to make sure they’ve got some wear left, but if you can find a shop with a big shoe section, this is your cheapest option for higher-end shoes.
- Find a discounter that carries designer labels. I swear by Ross Dress For Less, which carries some reliably good designers with prices as low as $10-15, if you’re willing to hunt them regularly and sift through the ugly stuff.
- Go to an outlet store from a high-end department store, or DSW. Overall, you’ll pay more than the other options, but prices are still discounted and the DSW clearance room is a gift from on high. Plus, these shoes are going to last you for literally years, so don’t be afraid to invest up front.
- You can hit some great deals on eBay, but I would only recommend this when you know what shoe brands you like best and can look for more specific items. I’ve lucked out on some great showgirl shoes there, but when you can’t try them on first, it’s better to buy something you already know will work for you.
Now on a side note– while you’re looking for your new BFF stores, also look for a good local shoe repair guy. You are going to be buying shoes to wear for years, which means replacing heel caps and doing other maintenance. A good shoe guy is gold. In the last place I lived, I found a guy whose shop sold hunting clothes and day laborer uniform stuff and luggage, but for 10 bucks he could revive my delicate heels and would even touch up scuff marks or worn spots for me. It’s SO worth it.
The reason I’m stressing quality so hard is that shoes that start out expensive usually *are* noticeably different from cheap shoes in their design and manufacture. This matters for any heel-wearer, but for those of us carrying more weight, better quality = more stability = easier to wear and less strain on our bodies than if we’re trying to compensate for a bad make.
What To Look For
- A firm, preferably rounded, toe box. The toe box is, simply, where your toes go. It doesn’t have to be completely rigid– in fact that might be too painful– but it should retain its shape if you pinch or prod it. Otherwise it’s going to eventually get stretched out and your foot will have more room to move around, which creates friction, which leads to blisters and calluses. Also, I really recommend rounded or soft oval toes over points. They don’t crush your toes like points do. If you must have points, make sure the toe box is long enough that your toes sit behind the sharpest part of the point.
- Padding inside the toe box. This is important. Too-thin soles lead to the balls of your feet feeling burned and chafed. You need a little shock absorption in there and a little support. I love shoes with a slight platform– like half to three quarters of an inch– because they tend to be better padded. A really quality shoe will have cushioning that is shaped so that there’s a little “rise” between the ball of your foot and your toe pads. It curves to the shape of your toes and helps keep your foot comfortably in place. Yes, you can buy inserts, but it’s never the same.
Slip-resistant soles. Turn the shoe over– what’s the sole made of? Is it a “grippy” rubber sole with a little texture, or one of those cheap-ass smooth soles that your mom would’ve made you scrape with fork tines before you wear them (or at least, mine did)? A quality sole has enough traction to walk on a polished floor without fearing for your life. [NB: If you’re going to be dancing in it, you might choose a shoe with a little more slip to the sole so that you can execute spins and gliding moves.] If a shoe is too slippery, you’re going to carry huge amounts of tension in your thighs and knees trying to keep yourself stabilized. Again, you can buy anti-slip sole material to add on, but really, just buy better shoes.
- Steel is the only shank that counts. Quality heels have steel shanks. Period. The shank is the support piece layered between the insole and outsole and located between the toe box and the heel. It’s placed inside the structure of the shoe sole to stabilize the shoe, support the arch area, and help manage the load and stress on your feet, ankles, and calves. Take the toe and heel of the shoe and try to twist them in opposite directions, gently. If you can’t do it, the shoe probably has a good steel shank. If you can, it’s probably got a plastic or some other cheap shank. The reason you want this rigidity is that without it, you will wobble and feel unstable, and stress your ankles constantly trying to hold your balance. Having it will also ensure that the heel remains properly aligned. Note that in flats, you can have leather shanks or none at all and be comfortable because you’re keeping your normal center of balance. Check that the insole in this section has good arch support for the shape of your arches, while you’re at it.
- A cushioned, cozy quarter. The quarter is the back of the shoe that goes around the back of your foot. You want a little cushion in the insole here (the “seat”) too, and ideally your heel will kind of nestle into it, which helps keep your weight correctly distributed between front and back of the shoe. The counter (the rigid layer in the quarter that gives it its form and shape) should be firm and snug but not pinch. Too tight will get painful quick, but if it moves around much, you’ll get blisters and find yourself having that flip-flop effect that means you’re going to walk right out of your shoe at some point and possibly trip. Also check that the top edge doesn’t dig into your skin– if so, it’s too high for your foot and will give you blisters.
A properly centered high heel. Most heels have a tempered steel core that can support a lot of weight, so don’t worry about that. What matters is that the heel’s center runs perpendicular to the floor and sits directly under the center of your heel. This lets the shoe carry your weight without putting stress on the joint between the heel and the shoe. Some shoe designers who are brilliant engineers have found ways to play with the heel placement and still achieve that supported balance, but in general, that’s where you want it to be. A few years back, there was this trend of kind of flat-rectangular heels placed under the very back of the wearer’s heel, and I hated that– it felt like they were going to snap off with every step. You need to be able to rest some of your weight on your heels; you should never have to walk entirely on the balls of your feet.
A Couple More Things to Consider
- How high can you go? Some master shoe designers consider about 4″ to be the highest a shoe should go for comfort– this is roughly what your foot would do if you were moving and dancing in relevé (on the balls of your feet), so it’s still fairly natural. When you go higher, you start to put more stress on your arches, which can be painful. However, if your shoe has a platform, you can add more heel height and keep roughly the same foot angle. I personally prefer no more than about an inch or so of platform, but I’ve worn 3-4″ platforms comfortably.
- Lower the pitch: The pitch is the incline between the back and front of your foot. The steeper it is, the more weight will go on the balls of your feet. Platforms are often used to help make the pitch more gradual and more comfortable, but differences in shoe design can affect it. (Protip: the distance between where the high heel touches the ground and where the front of the sole touches the ground makes a difference– the longer it is, the more gradual the slope.)
- Straps and laces: Many high-heel lovers feel more secure in shoes that buckle or lace, and if you’re dancing in your shoes, straps can really be your friend. Just make sure they’re long enough to fasten snugly without digging into your skin. Honestly, I prefer shoes I can kick off easily, but it’s up to you.
- You don’t need to “break them in”. If they feel like shit in the store, they will always feel like shit. Trust me. I know it’s hard to pass up a gorgeous pair, but a good shoe that fits properly will feel great right off the bat and it’s just so much better than limping around trying to justify the money you spent.
- Materials matter. This is somewhat a matter of preference. Some people may find patent leather too hard, but I personally like it. Likewise, I find a fabric lining in a shoe to often be too abrasive and I like smoother materials. You may have to experiment a little.
- It takes practice. If you’re not already used to wearing heels, you should NOT just slap on some sky-high d’orsays and assume you’ll be okay. You won’t. Walking in heels is like anything else that uses your muscles in a new way– it requires some practice and strengthening. I’ll get to that in my next post, so in the meantime, take my word for it that this is something you need to work up to. I’ve been wearing heels since my mom let me have my first pair of 2″ character shoes for jazz dance class, so don’t expect yourself to know how to do something right off the bat that femmes like me have been doing for years.
Till Next Time…
Whew! Well, that was a journey. So now, you’ve got intel at your fingertips when you head out shopping for fabulous shoes. In my next post, I’ll talk about how to start getting used to wearing heels and what you can do to learn to walk naturally and comfortably in them while feeling strong and stable.