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Six-Inch Stilettos: Economic Indicator or Sore Feet?

I was at Costco earlier this week (OK, so I do shop there a bit.) and noticed two women shoppers. Both had on high heels: a pair of burgundy rose stilettos, and the other, a pair of six- or seven-inch black suede platform pumps. While I admit that their shoes were very attractive, I kept asking myself, who would wear six-inch heels to Costco and stand or walk around on a concrete floor for an hour or two? That was enough to make my feet hurt and I was wearing a pair of Teva-style sandals at the time.

In need of a new pair of dress pumps, I previewed Nordstrom’s online selection to get a sense for the latest styles available. While I would not characterize myself as a Fashionista, I noticed the heel heights worn not just by younger women, but women of all ages, have gotten higher over the past three to four years. And while I think those high heels are cute on the store shelf and the on-line displays, I won’t be purchasing a pair anytime soon. I am one that suffers from weak ankles, so I gave up on anything higher than two-inch heels years ago.

When the heel height moved to six inches, I asked myself what are women thinking? Olivia, a good friend and former co-worker, informed me that high heels are linked to the economy. Since when, I said? She commented that she heard it from a television news source and it had something to do with heels getting higher when the economy goes into a recession or tanks. Sure enough I found information that supported her statements.

IBM Study

As reported in their November 17, 2011 news release, IBM made a computer-based analysis of billions of social media posts about women’s shoe fashions. [Ref 1] Apparently there is supporting data that shows that when the economy heads south, women’s heels go north. A look back at decades of shoe fashion research reveals that high heels soared during the worst recessions. “Usually in an economic downturn, heels go up and stay up as consumers turn to more flamboyant fashions as a means of fantasy and escape,” says Dr. Trevor Davis, a consumer products expert with IBM Global Services.

While it is not 100% clear to me why IBM undertook this study, one of the end results apparently was to show predictive capabilities of social media analysis as a source of valuable insight that can help drive business strategies and results.  After all, IBM or Big Blue as it is sometimes called is marketing their ability to provide business solutions. Based on economic indicators, the study predicted an intriguing change on the horizon in women’s shoe fashions, with heel heights – currently in nosebleed territory – poised to decline.

According to Davis, an analysis of the last four years of social media showed that discussions of increasing heel height peaked towards the end of 2009, and declined after that.  For example, key trend-watching bloggers between 2008 and 2009 wrote consistently about heels from five to eight inches, but by mid-2011 they were writing about the return of the kitten heel and the perfect flat from Jimmy Choo and Louboutin.  This is not to say that the sky-high heels have gone, rather that, as the economic downturn has wore on, they are discussed as glam-wear and not for the office or shopping trip, Davis said. I say tell that to the two women in Costco.

 Some women are still wearing the higher heels, even as the economy continues to move towards recovery. IBM says this data could be used by shoe manufacturers and retailers looking for insight into the kind of shoes to, respectively, manufacture and sell in the coming season. While I won’t dispute how business analytics can be used to predict fashion trends or improve customer service, I believe some of the women who have been wearing these higher heels for the last three or four years are having foot problems as their ankles, tendons and toes are now rebelling from the associated wear and tear.

Feet Problems

Perhaps some of those women who now refer to their high heels as glam-wear, have figured out that it is difficult to walk around in six- or seven-inch stilettos for 10 hours everyday. We have already established that economic downturns have an impact on fashion trends including higher heels. One thing that has probably also been around since the introduction of high heels is foot pain. High heel shoes can cause a number of foot problems, yet most women aren’t willing to give their shoes the boot, according to podiatrists at Loyola University Health System (LUHS). [Ref 2]  Ingrown toenails are among the most common problems that result from high heels. This condition, also known as onychocryptosis, occurs when the toes compress together making the big toenails grow into the skin.

High heels and tight-fitting or pointed-toe shoes create chronic pressure on the big toenails and prevent them from growing properly. Additionally, shoe pressure can cause the nail to puncture the skin leading to infection. Other causes can include trauma to the nail or fungal infections. Problems range from common concerns like bunions, corns, and calluses to more complex issues like misshapen hammertoes or that excruciating pain in the ball of the foot that seems to grow worse with each passing year. Back, knee, and leg pain are other chronic problems that result from extended wearing of higher heels.

Most women would agree that the higher the heel, the worse the pain. Cramped toes, corns, bunions, and pain at the ball of the foot were issues when the average heel height was four inches. How does adding three or four additional inches to the heel height help this problem? Still, many women refuse to give up their high heels: A survey conducted by the American Podiatric Medical Association showed some 42 % of women admitted they’d wear a shoe they liked even if it gave them discomfort. Seventy-three (73) % admitted already having a shoe-related foot issue. Women have said for years that they like the way heels shape their legs, especially the back calves.

Lower heel heights may be a signal for economic recovery, however, I think it is also a signal of the need for more comfortable fitting shoes. The good news in the Shoe Department is that most retailers carry a variety of heel heights and attractive shoe styles for just about every age and size.


1. News Release: IBM Social Media Analysis Points to Lower Heels, Bucking Economic Trend, http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/35985.wss, November 17, 2011

2. Bouchez, Colette, “Tips to Avoid Foot Pain From High Heels”, Web MD, http://women.webmd.com/features/tips-to-avoid-foot-pain-from-high-heels?page=3

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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