Bunion Blues

An insistent whirring sound drew me out of anesthesia and into the barbaric light of the operating room. While I had been asleep for a “minute or two”–as is protocol for day surgery in order to get patients home sooner–I was now awake and aware, though in no pain as my foot was numbed. I closed my eyes instinctively against the glare, but I could not shut off the sound, something eerily dental and unceasing: a Sagittal saw cutting off the protuberance of bone on the outside of my foot, alongside my big toe, that extended my left foot into what Edith Wharton might call a granite outcropping.

The surgeon removed the bone fragment, flushed the area with saline, then suctioned any remaining bone fragments from inside the skin that had stretched like a painter’s canvas to accommodate my former bunion. In order to get to the bunion, the surgeon had to cut open my big toe in one vertical swath, and in order to correct the hammer toe next to it  she had to do the same. My toes had parallel cuts running their length with stitches binding the flesh together. A horror show.

How did I get here? Once I was the girl with the smallest feet in the class, the one who scooped up all the leftover size 4s at the department store, the one who had her pick of trendy children’s shoes or dainty women’s selections. No more. Three pregnancies flattened my feet out to a size 7.

How many of your Austin Bunionectomy patients are women? I asked the surgeon injecting me with Cortisone and stitching the skin of my toes back together.

Ninety-five percent, she said. I gasped, having been under the false assumption that the bunion was an equal-opportunity problem. But, in fact, while bunions occur in about 30 percent of the population of most Western countries, they are seen most commonly in women.

The reason? Heredity. And shoes.

Men who suffer from bunions do so mainly because of heredity, but it is a combination of heredity and bad shoes that make it better than a 50/50 risk for women. Nearly 90 percent  of women in the U.S. wear shoes that are too small, and 55 percent have bunions. Reports Krames Patient Education in one of those glossy brochures that line the walls of podiatrist’s offices,

Squeezing a square-shaped foot into a shoe with a pointed toe increases the risk of a painful bunion.

What makes men sexy does not hurt them. But women seem to be influenced by people like Victor Chu, a former shoe designer, who says,

Unsexy shoes are anything under 2.75 inches … a 2-inch heel is a little dowdy. Too classical.

Chu trains women to “walk properly and painlessly in high heels and who co-produced the 28-minute video Legworks that teaches women to limber up, strengthen and stretch in order to squeeze into and walk seductively in heels.  In 2006, gyms in New York City offered “Stiletto Strength Classes,” and Stiletto sprint footraces were run in Australia and New York in recent years. WTF, women?

Eight days post-op, I am home with my foot raised above my heart so I don’t get a blood clot or swell into Sasquatch. Every eight hours I pop an Ibuprophen 800, and a Percocet when needed. There is no shoe my foot could fit into right now. It is bandaged and gauzed and booted to the size of a newborn baby. Nothing pretty, dainty or sexy here.

This is a moment for self-reflection, frankly: a coming-to-Jesus moment.

Look at the science: One 2009 study of 3378 women and men, average age 66, found that more than 60 percent of the women wore high heels, pumps and sandals in their past and suffered pain in their wake. Fewer than 2 percent of the men wore bad shoes.

Podiatrists make a living from people who hurt themselves for fashion–they can grind down their bones, “release” tendons to straighten hammer toes and place rods into toes that are unwilling to be straightened without force. Sometimes these rods are dissolvable, but when they are not, they are removed several weeks later, requiring more injections and more healing time.

I have crutches now. I have pain killers. I cannot get up except for the basic necessities. I will be somewhat immobilized for much of winter. And it’s all because I believed what I was told: that high heels enhanced my physical appearance, that I would be more attractive if my feet were positioned at impossible angles into miniature shoes. And still I persisted, even after reading Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan with its unsparing description of foot binding in literature.

Thankfully, I have also read Fara Warner’s The Power of the Purse: How Smart Businesses Are Adapting to the World’s Most Important Consumers–Women. Women who use their buying power wisely can change the way companies do business, she writes.

So let’s purchase our way to healthy feet. Let’s buy shoes from companies that promote healthy feet rather than heels that will draw catcalls. Eschew Choo. Sexy is socially conditioned; nothing inherent about it.

Let’s bring sexy back as a pair of Dansko clogs, Born slip-ons, L.L. Bean slippers, Saucony running shoes–whatever appeals to your aesthetics and promotes your well-being. Women in their 40s and 50s (prime bunion-surgery age) are to be reckoned with for their purchasing power. For the average cost of an Austin Bunionectomy one can purchase 64 pairs of Danskos!

Put your money where your feet should comfortably be. I will, too, once I am up on them again.

Photo via Flickr user Public Domain Photos under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. High heels today are the same as Chinese foot-binding. Don't torture and deform yourself.

  2. Instead of "bringing sexy back", how about we just say NO to sexy? My f*ckability is the least important thing about me. I don't care whether random dudes on the street think I'm "sexy" (which is the same thing as f*ckable), and honestly, I don't think any feminist should care about being sexy. Sexiness is about dudes finding a woman attractive, and not at all about women finding ourselves attractive on our own terms. Say no to sexy, and yes to shoes and clothes that make YOU happy, and don't cripple you in the process.

  3. I am lesbian and don't find high heels attractive at all. I believe being sexy lies in the woman's confidence and the ones wearing high heels often lack it. By being confident I perceive loving your body the way it is.

  4. I have never been able to comfortably wear high heels. I may have size 7 feet, but they are wide, with high arches. I was diagnosed a few years ago with plantar faschia in both feet. Since then I wear only flats, in fact Nike Free shoes are my favorites…along with Merrels, which are all pricey but worth it when you spend many hours a day on your feet, as I do. I'm over 50 and my husband still finds me sexy, so I don't give a rat's ass about what any other men think. I also don't own any make-up and haven't worn any for about 20 years. I color my hair only because I'm trying to get a full-time job, and don't want to remind any interviewers of their grandmothers. <g>

  5. Fran Luck says:

    Thanks for the article. I live in the "East Village" where I nightly see hordes of young women in extremely high heels, often literally tripping on the very uneven pavements of this formerly-working-class-turned-trendy neighborhood. It makes me want to scream: "How could another generation have gotten so cut off from the hard-won feminist victory of making it "safe" for women to be comfortable?"

    Then I remember the media pressure to conform to whatever fashion dictates .For instance, the Oprah show–watched daily by 34 million people–has had the "instructors" mentioned above, showing Oprah's huge audience the "correct" way to walk in high heels.–yet Oprah herself admits that she doesn't really WALK in the high heels she wears on her show, but only puts them on only to come onstage. "Makeovers" for women are also common on TV, with the "befores" (booed by the audience) wearing low heels and the "afters" (applauded wildly), appearing in high heels.

    Fran Luck (first of two comments)

  6. Fran Luck says:

    Media messages telling us it's the "in" thing to wear these crippling shoes, are shaping young women's psyches.. Feminists are going to have to re-amp earlier campaigns for the right to be comfortable. Spreading the word about the health effects of these shoes is a start., but we have to go further, and once again question why women need to put so much emphasis on constantly being sexy to men, take an honest look at the consequences of NOT playing the game (and there are often consequences, at work and in relationships) and keep up the feminist fight for ways that all women can be financially independent (equal pay and a "social wage" would help), so that we can afford to "be our own women.."

    Fran Luck

  7. Thank you for the Post, I see many women and young girls who wear to prefer high heels, they do not realize until they are effected with bunions. The best way is to educate them about the negative consequences that can occur wearing them.

  8. At least you will be able to drive the day after you
    have surgery if you have to. I did but with the crutches its a pain.

  9. My wife has been struggling with foot pain for a long time, but insists on wearing “stylish” shoes. They never seem to fit right, but that’s what she wants. However, as the pain hasn’t been going away, I have been getting worried and doing some research. Thank you for the tips, and I will definitely bring this article to my wife’s attention.

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