Recently, I fulfilled a longtime dream of mine: I went shoe-shopping with a podiatrist.
Let me explain: I love sandals. They’re kind of my kryptonite—I covet them, I feel powerless against their pull. I want to specify that I am not generally a crazy shoe lady—but then Memorial Day comes, and my feet long to be free. My toes want to mingle with the summer air. My mom has said that she and I are “foot nudists”: The way I imagine nudists feel about letting it all hang out, she and I feel about bare or as-close-to-bare-as-possible feet.
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I am not, however, a foot nudist who’s content to wear Birkenstocks or something similarly un-cute—I need sandals that look Italian and delicate and handcrafted. But sandals are a cruel mistress: The cuter they are, the more they hurt. It’s like that Anna Karenina quote: Comfortable sandals are all alike (ugly); every uncomfortable sandal is uncomfortable in its own way. Whether it’s irritation that results in an unsightly blister or lack of arch support or crisscross straps that cut up the bridge of my foot, every sandal I buy succeeds in finding a new way to mangle my extremities. By August, my feet and the rest of my body are exhausted and I still have at least two months of sandal-wearing to go.
So I decided to seek some professional help. I hoped against hope that looking at sandals with an actual medical specialist might finally free me from the cycle of open-toed misery.
Finding a podiatrist willing to shoe-shop with a journalist was going to be a challenge, and finding one who had good taste in footwear was a tall order indeed. But when Karen Langone, who has a podiatry practice in Southampton, New York, told me over the phone that lately she’s “big into kicking around in my Stan Smith sneakers,”—aka the Adidas worn by everyone from Kanye West to Brooklyn hipsters and currently, she noted, the most popular shoe in the world—I knew I’d found the woman for the job. We set up a time to meet in Manhattan at Bloomingdale’s. (Langone thought it had a better selection than Macy’s.)
We started on the outermost edges of the over-air-conditioned shoe salon, that archipelago of carpeted islands populated by every variety of shoe, each isle with its own topography of racks and boxes and fabulous footwear. We began by appraising the selection of Sam Edelmans. Langone frequently advises her patients on picking shoes, so she is full of tips. “One thing to always do is to buy your shoes at the end of the day because at the end of the day your feet are going to … ”—she paused to consider the shoe she was holding—“swell and expand. If anything is problematic, you’re probably going to notice it more by the end of the day.” A practicing podiatrist for 28 years, Langone is petite with short hair. She’s a lot like your mom—if your mom’s opinions about Uggs were backed up by medical science. (The boots offer no support whatsoever, she said. The company’s sandals don’t look half bad, though.) Her intuition about footwear is more than intuition; it’s almost a Spidey sense: After I admitted that the Vans’ slip-ons I was wearing weren’t as comfortable as I had hoped, she diagnosed the problem with a single glance: They were a little wide for me in the back.
Eyeballing one pair of sandals, her hands immediately went to the insoles. “If you squeeze it, they put a little padding in there, so that’s kind of nice, which makes it more comfortable to walk around on than a thin leather platform.” The inside, though, was light in color, which left it vulnerable to eventually getting dirty and discolored from the oils in your feet: This seemed to me precisely the kind of tidbit no one but a foot specialist would ever think of in advance. I was rapt. When I asked for her opinion of a pair of shoes that weren’t exactly thongs but had a little divider for the big toe, she said, “If that’s not a really smooth leather and really well-finished on either side, you’re probably going to get rubbing”—rubbing in sandals being the greatest of all sins. When she found something worthwhile, she stopped to detail its selling points: She looks for structure that will keep your foot in place and supported, with room so your toes don’t have to squish into a cramped pile, and enough of a footbed—the insole where the bottom of your foot meets the shoe—that you’re not “literally walking on the thickness of a dollar bill.” Ideally, it’ll be made of high-quality well-finished materials (like really soft leather), without rough edges and unraveling stitching.
She is exacting—“Shoes should never fold. This is not a shoe,” she said sternly of some flats that advertised their ability to be compressed for storage as a selling point. When we came upon a newish line of pricey heels, she offered, “I have to say, from a quality perspective, I’m not overwhelmed,” noting fraying fabric and cheap-looking material. “At that price point, it should be a nice shoe. $400 should buy you something that becomes the thing that you put in your closet and you have for 20 years.” That’s not to say she doesn’t understand shoes’ intimate connection to fashion: “These are interesting, these are Rihanna’s shoe,” she said when we approached a display of creepers and satin slides. The slides, with their Birkenstock-style contoured footbeds, won a nod of approval. I can’t imagine that most podiatrists are up on the Fenty collection.
Simply having feet is an exercise in vulnerability around a podiatrist. Was my gait communicating things I’d rather go unsaid? When I decided to try on a few pairs in front of Langone, I couldn’t help but feel like I was submitting to the (probably apocryphal) sorority hazing ritual where pledges stand naked in front of the sisters and let them point out all their flaws. Was I ready to hear everything that was wrong with my feet? Was I ready to hear her tell me that the shoes I love aren’t just hurting my feet now, but for years to come?
Langone was quick to recommend custom orthotics, which I’ve heard before—Day 1 of podiatry school must just be custom orthotics. “That will stabilize your metatarsal [the foot bones that connect to your toe bones] enough so your bunions don’t continue to develop. And you pretty much freeze things in time the way they are now. Because you’re even getting a hammer toe there on your second toe. See how that toe is bending up? See the redness at that first joint there?” I was so ashamed.
But custom orthotics aren’t exactly compatible with sandal season—this time of year, it’s the fit that matters the most. “I try to really educate people on shoe fit because I think, statistically, it’s about 75 percent of the population wears the wrong size,” Langone said. “A lot of that is because people don’t really fit shoes anymore. Someone comes out, they drop a bunch of shoes in front of you, you’re pretty much on your own. There’s nobody really saying, ‘No, that doesn’t fit, that’s too big, that’s too small.’ ”
Here’s what to strive for: You want space for your toes (including a bit between the top of your big toe and where the shoe begins) but not so much space that the shoe is falling off. If anything bothers you when you’re trying it on, move on: It’s not going to get better as you continue to wear the shoe. One Langone maxim to live by: “Don’t ‘break in’ shoes. Either they fit and they’re comfortable or you don’t buy them.”
My most uncomfortable sandal experiences have been born of online purchases, and while I probably didn’t need to enlist a podiatrist to tell me to buy shoes in person and after a rigorous trying-on process, I like to think it helped. Langone applied the same discerning eye she cast on all shoes to how pairs fit me specifically: “Your foot is wider than the shoe,” she said of the first pair of sandals I tried on: automatic disqualification. “Your heel spills over before you even stand. In order for the shoe to be comfortable, if you already spill over, you won’t be comfortable.” Being told that you’re trying to squeeze your foot into a shoe that’s too small for it is pretty deflating—I felt like an ugly stepsister—but perhaps ugly stepsisters would be less ugly if their shoes fit them properly.
I tried on a bunch of pairs, and when I found one I was interested in, Langone recommended I walk around the store in them six times before committing. It was like a mindfulness exercise in making sure I really wanted to bring these shoes into my life—and it turned out I didn’t. (She also offered the kind of helpful suggestions that had nothing to do with fit but nonetheless made her a good shopping buddy: “Speaking to you as I would speak to one of my daughters: What if it wasn’t in black?”) But looking down at the two wide leather straps covering my feet, I waffled. Were they feminine enough? Was I sacrificing cuteness for comfort? Was I showing enough toe?
It’s here that I also learned that my summer credo, foot nudism, may be inherently antithetical to the best podiatry practices. I thought, because I didn’t want to wear flip-flops or Manolos, that I had reasonable expectations. It turns out that one of the very things I love about sandals—how free your feet are in them—is one of the things that makes them so tricky. If your foot is floppily free and the sandal offers no supportive base, well, you might as well be naked. And while that’s my ideal, it’s certainly not Langone’s—maybe it’s OK for lounging around the pool, but for walking around or working all day, you need structure, support. So much for every chic minimalist sandal I’ve saved to my Pinterest board. (Ever prudent, Langone told me she prefers winter shoes and boots to summer styles: more coverage.)
The thing Langone said that struck me most was her own personal shoe-buying philosophy: She has a few brands she already knows work for her, and so that’s what she buys (in the summer she alternates between these trusty brands and sneakers). She was surprised that I didn’t have a similar set of go-tos. Shoes may be made for the masses, she said, but each brand uses a slightly different model for its standard foot. This validated my distrust of personal endorsements: Foot-shape diversity means that what’s comfortable for you may not be comfortable for me. “I think everybody can find a manufacturer that works for them, that makes a heel that corresponds to their heel, and the forefoot is similar to their forefoot,” Langone said.
Apparently, I just haven’t found mine yet.
It was like realizing I’d never been in love. I looked back on my life in shoes, flitting from brand to brand, a series of Sketchers and cheap sandals that fell apart and J. Crew flats I didn’t like very much. I’d never found one I wanted for more than a summer fling. Armed with this knowledge and a more discerning way to evaluate shoes in person, I feel newly empowered to continue my summer 2017 sandal search. So far this has been more about saying no to the impractical shoes that cross my path than actually finding the right pair. But still I hope. My sole mate may be out there yet.