By Dawn Turner Trice Chicago Tribune.
Chicago native Karen Williamson began her online women's shoe business a decade ago after years of struggling to find styles for her daughter, who at the time was 18 years old, 6-foot-1 and wore a size 12 shoe.
Williamson was in Las Vegas recently for an international shoe show unveiling the 2014 spring and fall lines, and while perusing the trendy gladiator sandals, open-toed booties and motorcycle boots, she encountered familiar stumbling blocks.
"You still can't find a shoe manufacturer that will make anything above a size 11 without it being a special order," said Williamson, whose BarefootTess.com offers styles up to size 15. "It's like the bigger your feet are, the more you don't exist to them."
Shoe manufacturers and retailers, parents and physicians have known for years that Americans' feet are getting bigger. The National Shoe Retailers Association announced in late 2012 that the most popular shoe sizes have increased over the last 30 years, from size 71/2 to 81/2 for women, and from size 9 1/2 to 10 1/2 for men.
Experts say one reason for our expanding feet is that they're proportionate to our expanding bodies. Over the last century, Americans have gotten taller and heavier. To what degree hormones in food and even wearing casual, less-supportive shoes play a role is up for grabs.
What is clear is that the supply of larger-size shoes, especially for women, continues to lag behind demand. Although brick-and-mortar shoe sellers are willing to stock slightly bigger shoes, many are reluctant to purchase the ones whose sizes fall at the further end of the bell curve because they're still not convinced they will sell enough.
In recent years, online outfits have stepped in to fill the gap, dramatically expanding the options for women accustomed to wearing unattractive and ill-fitting shoes. And blogs offer advice on a variety of topics, from how to measure feet to ensure a proper fit, to how to handle adolescent teasing and build self-esteem.
"Online is the saving grace to all of this," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the market research firm NPD Group Inc., which follows retail trends. "There are more women who are a size 10 now than 7, but retailers still buy more 7s than 10s. They buy one pair (of the larger shoes) because they only think they can sell that one."
He said some retailers have never bought two or three pairs and have no idea whether more of them would sell. "Old habits are hard to break," Cohen said. "It takes a progressive retailer to break that tradition."
It's not clear how many Americans have feet that are larger than the average because not much research has been done.
The U.S. Census Bureau collects industry data on the colors and types of shoes sold but nothing on foot size. The National Center for Health Statistics keeps comprehensive anatomical statistics on Americans, from the average circumference of our heads to the skinfold thickness of our triceps, but has next to nothing on feet. Its last foot survey was in 1963.
"We do know that each area of the country has exerted its own footwear demographic," said Peter Hanig, a member of the National Shoe Retailers Association and the owner of Chicago's Hanig's Footwear, which has been in business for more than 70 years.
"In regions of the country where there are higher populations of Asians and Hispanics, the average shoe size is smaller. In the Northeast and Midwest, shoe sizes tend to be wider. Colder weather and walking enlarge the feet."
He said people in the Southwest, particularly Texans, tend to have narrower feet.
Barbara Thornton, a Boston-based shoe-fit expert and blogger at AskTheShoeLady.com, said she's been advocating for more in-depth research on foot sizes since the 1990s when she started her shoe business "for women who leave a larger footprint."
So far, she's been left wanting. The exception is a University of Iowa study released last year confirming what generations of women have suspected -- pregnancy can make a woman's feet longer, flatter and wider.
Thornton, who is 5 foot 111/2 and wears a size 12 shoe, said the Internet has given women and men with larger feet more choices. But, she said, a lot of these shoppers are still reeling from having spent years making do with shoes that are homely and either too big or too small.
"When my own daughter was 13, we thought she wore a size 13 because there were no shoes we could find that fit her correctly," said Thornton, who owns designershoes.com. "As time went on, we realized she was an 11 1/2 wide and the poor kid wore a size 13 shoe in junior high." Thornton's daughter is 5 foot 10.
Thornton's blog provides information about how shoes are constructed and teaches women how to find styles that properly fit their feet.
"I hear mothers say, 'My son wears a size 14 and we can't find soccer shoes' and that's a problem," Thornton said. "But I've seen the way girls blossom from tomboys into girly-girls after slipping their feet into more stylish shoes."
Whitney Miller, who stands 6 foot 2 and wears a size 13 shoe, said that before she started shopping online, she crammed her feet into too-small women's shoes or wore men's athletic shoes that appeared to be unisex.
"And then there were the flip-flops," said Miller, 35, a Chicagoan who played volleyball in high school and college. "I'm from Ohio and I always joked that I needed to move somewhere warm so I could be in flip-flops year-round."
Candis South, a 5-foot-11 1/2 Chicagoan who wears a size 15 wide shoe, said that when she was younger she also wore men's loafers and gym shoes and hardly ever found women's dress shoes that were large enough. Her mother would buy the largest pair of shoes available.
"Once, my mother made me put on a pair of thick wool socks and she used a hair dryer to stretch the leather," said South, 28, who was on her high school's track and field team. "As a teenager, I used to get teased about my feet all the time. I didn't understand why they were so much bigger than anyone else's, even friends my height."
While people who are taller and heavier tend to have larger feet, Dr. Robert Bielski, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, said it's not clear if other factors such as diet contribute.
"Although there's been some controversy over whether children's growth has been affected by hormones in food, even girls entering puberty early, nothing has been proven," Bielski said.
"If you look at kids who have growth deficiencies and are treated with growth hormones, there's an increase in their shoe size, but it's proportionate to their height," he said. "People ask if there's some relationship between growth and the things we're eating. The answer is we just don't know."
Naperville-based podiatric surgeon Marlene Reid said we do know that when a person's arch falls, his foot is elongated.
"It's more common for this last generation to wear flip-flops and ballet flats and shoes without support," said Reid, past president of the Illinois Podiatric Medical Association. "We don't know, but it would be interesting to find out if that has affected the arch of a person who may be genetically predisposed to flat feet, and whether that's made a difference" in his or her foot size."
At the Magic Market Week shoe exhibition last month, Barefoot Tess' Karen Williamson took note of the perforated and quilted shoes that will lead the fashion trends this spring and fall.
She said that her Baltimore-based business refuses to make huge compromises when getting manufacturers to create the larger versions of average-size shoes. And she's gratified when women who have smaller feet swoon over her customers' shoes and try to find replicas in their size.