Exploring New Heights
If young girls insist on wearing heels, there are actions they can take to protect their feet. Here, two podiatrists, Dr. Vera Malezhik and Dr. Ramona Brooks, share tips for minimizing the damage:
1. Choose the lowest heel height possible and look for styles with a rounded or square toe box.
“This allows more space for toes — helping to avoid crowding — and prevents blister formation from shoe friction,” Brooks said.
2. Opt for shorter block heels instead of ultrahigh stilettos.
“A block heel distributes the ground reaction forces more equally throughout the entire foot,” Malezhik explained, “while a shorter heel reduces the pressure on the forefoot, decreasing the risk of getting injured.”
3. Limit the time spent wearing heels to two to four hours maximum.
“I definitely don’t recommend that kids wear heels on a daily basis,” said Brooks.
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4. Shop for new shoes toward the end of the day.
“Feet have a tendency to swell throughout the day, so purchasing later will help the shoes fit appropriately if there is swelling that occurs during wear,” Brooks explained.
What’s the Appropriate Age to Wear Heels?
Kiana Mehran picked out her very first pair of heels — a glittery pink style — when she was just 2 years old. They were three sizes too big, but she had to have them. She wore them so much that her mother, Kat Javahershi, resorted to several visits to a shoe repair shop to fix a broken zipper and patch up holes in the soles.
Since then, heels — block, wedge and spool styles — have become a staple in Mehran’s closet. Although the New Yorker, now 7, is on the younger side of the spectrum, she’s part of a growing number of girls slipping into heels at an earlier age — whether driven by the desire to dress like an older sibling or to keep up with the latest trends trickling down from the women’s market.
Not surprisingly, kids wearing heels has become a hot-button topic that is sharply dividing parents, with some shrugging it off as harmless fun and others putting their foot down on a look they feel is much too mature.
Javahershi related being “shamed” by other moms, who scoffed at her decision to allow her daughter to walk around in such sophisticated shoes, but she said she believes in giving Mehran the freedom to experiment and wear what makes her happy.
“I always tell my kids, ‘We do what is right for us, and we don’t worry about what other people think,’” she explained. “Kiana’s a child — she wouldn’t wear heels if she didn’t truly like them or if they felt uncomfortable. She happens to enjoy them, and I make sure she understands that she has to wear more appropriate shoes for school, sports activities and the playground.”
Philadelphia-based Emma Cook’s hankering for heels started two years ago when she watched her celebrity idol, Ariana Grande, dance on TV in towering platform shoes. But the 11-year-old has yet to win her mother over to the idea.
“I’m just not OK with heels for girls this young, so I’ve had to stand my ground, as much as it disappoints Emma,” said Sarah Cook. “I worry about her growing up too fast and the message that these types of styles send.”
At 13, Californian Lily Feldman and her peers are celebrating their bat mitzvahs, a Jewish rite of passage marked with formal dress parties. While many of her friends are tottering around in trendy heels, Lily — who prioritizes comfort over fashion — wore ballet flats to her service, accessorizing her evening party dress with Vans sneakers.
“I feel lucky that Lily hasn’t wanted to experiment with heels yet,” said mom Nikki Feldman. “To me, 13 is too young to be wearing them; kids that age are still running around and having fun, and their feet are not used to the shape of a heel. At many of the parties we have attended together, we watch the guest of honor ditch her heels within the first 20 minutes because they are uncomfortable. Social media plays a big part in girls’ wanting to grow up so quickly.”
New York-based attorney Jessica Rothman has decided to take the middle ground on the issue, allowing her 7- and 8-year-old daughters, Abigail and Rachel, to wear wedges and platforms but not pumps. “That’s my compromise,” she said. “And none of the styles available in their sizes even have very high platforms or steep wedges. But [my girls] are not allowed to wear these styles to school or the park because they’re not safe for running and climbing.”
Rothman said she doesn’t have a magic age in mind when she believes girls are ready for higher heels. “I think it’s important to know your daughter and make a decision that’s suitable for her and you as her mother,” she said.
While parents’ opinions on the subject may differ widely, experts are unified in their stance that kids and teens are too young for high heels. New York-based psychologist and Hunter College professor Kathryn Stamoulis, who specializes in female adolescent sexuality, said dressing too sophisticated too soon — and believing that your value is tied to how you look — is directly linked to issues such as depression, anxiety and self-consciousness.
“Heels inhibit movement — the freedom to run, jump and play. And when this kind of footwear is marketed to girls, they are sent the message that looking sexy is more important than personal comfort,” she explained, citing the pervasiveness of social media as a key factor driving girls’ desire to experiment with more grown-up fashions. “It’s creating unprecedented pressure for girls. They are comparing themselves not only to glossy magazine spreads but to hundreds of digitally enhanced images of other girls ‘just like them’ every day. For many kids, wearing heels is part of this impossible standard of beauty that they feel pressured to chase.”
Stamoulis advises parents struggling to navigate the topic to look at the bigger picture. “If your daughter gets her self-worth from other domains in life such as academics, sports or hobbies, then it probably won’t have a negative impact. But it’s always good to ask your child why she is interested in something,” she explained. “Perhaps she feels that heels are special and she would be just as happy choosing a special pair of flats. If she wants them because she thinks they will make her look sexy, then a much bigger conversation is necessary.”
The podiatric profession is equally outspoken about the physical risks of wearing higher-heel styles too soon. Dr. Ramona Brooks, an Atlanta-based practitioner and a spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association, recommends that girls wait until they are between 14 and 16 years old — if not longer. “By this age, the growth plates have fully closed and feet have stopped growing. Also, the muscles in the legs and feet are well-developed to be able to tolerate greater stress,” she said, adding that heels can contribute to a wide variety of problems, including lower back pain, shin splints, ankle sprains and fractures, muscle fatigue, bunions and hammertoes.
Even once girls stop growing, wearing high-heeled footwear can shift their center of gravity forward, according to Dr. Vera Malezhik, a New York podiatrist. “This may cause changes in the postural system and a shift in angular alignment of the ankles and knees, putting girls at a higher risk for falls, stress fractures and other injuries.”
As Feldman pointed out, “girls have their whole life to be in pain from high heels. They already grow up so fast; we should keep them young and innocent for as long as possible.”
In the meantime, worried parents may find some comfort in knowing most brands don’t allow heel heights to exceed 1.5 inches in children’s shoes.
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