When customers come into Bally stores complaining that their shoes have been shrinking, the sales staff usually know exactly what's going on: It's yet another case of denial that feet continue to grow.
"Very often people are complaining that their shoes aren't fitting anymore because they're too narrow, but it's really the feet that are getting wider," a Bally spokesman said in a telephone interview from the Caslano-based company's factory in Switzerland.
And it's getting worse, he adds.
"With the sneaker generation over the past few years, feet are not held in as well as in more structured shoes where the foot is held in place more," he says. "We've noticed it especially over the last couple years, with the younger generation."
According to the U.K.'s College of Podiatry, the average foot size has increased two shoe sizes since the 1970s. And a recent survey of Brits found that one out of three men confessed to buying shoes that were too small for them.
It's all part of the normal course of the life of a human foot, says Dr. Howard Osterman, a Washington, D.C.-based podiatrist who serves as team foot doctor for the Washington Wizards.
"Here's what happens: For the most part, we're born with a certain arch structure, but that arch structure is predicated on the way the bones are aligned and the ligaments are attached to give it some stability and musculature to support the foot," he says. "As we age the foot wants to elongate and widen. The question is how long it will take to happen, because it will happen if you live long enough for it to happen."
Men generally tend to see their feet start to get bigger by about a half-size in their mid-30s, he says. In a full lifetime, the typical man will probably go up about a full shoe size, though it's not unusual to see people who go up a full two sizes. And because of the way the bones of the foot are structured--with several points of contact among the five metatarsals in front with only a single point of contact at the heel in back--people notice more that their feet are spreading out at the base of the toes, "growing" width-wise rather than lengthwise. Each half-size means about an extra 1/16th of an inch of width, which doesn't sound like a lot until you've rubbed the sides of your toes raw with a pair of loafers that used to fit you like a glove.
There are plenty of reasons why it happens, Osterman says. But the main reason may be surprising.
"How much we weigh, the activities we do, the types of shoes we wear, whether structurally sound or non-supportive," Osterman says. "But genetics is probably the primary factor in how our feet age. Studies on cultures that don't wear shoes have found that feet widen and elongate whether people wear shoes or not.
But don't plan on tossing out all your shoes every 10 years for a whole new set of footwear; there are things you can do to slow down the widening of your feet. If you take your shoes to a cobbler, he or she can stretch your shoes wider using a specialized spray and lathe, giving your tootsies an additional couple millimeters of breathing room.
The good news about expensive shoes is that they're also often better for your feet, using a more supple leather to accommodate swelling feet. Podiatrists can create special graphite inserts to make your favorite shoes more supportive. Or you can simply start wearing more supportive shoes more often--the kind that are stiff in the sole and flex at the toe. If you feel pain from your shoes--either from chafing or lack of support—then it's not doing its job correctly.
"The more supportive a shoe, the more it slows the progression," Osterman says.
In other words, put away those flip-flops.
There are even exercise you can do to strengthen the muscles that are the core of your foot's stability. Osterman suggests taking off your shoes and socks, then trying to pick up a sock or washcloth off the floor with your toes 10 times per set, three sets for each foot. This fires up the muscles of your arch.
It also helps if you lessen the shock to your feet every time you take a step. Keep your weight down. Choose shoes with rubber to absorb the kinetic energy, rather than hard soles--within the bounds of aesthetic acceptability, of course.
"Many people don't find rubber shoes fashionable," concedes Osterman, who prefers Mephisto or Ecco shoes himself.
And if worse comes to worst and you're still in the dumps because your feet, once as beautiful as the Norse god Njord's, have become as ugly as Baldr's, then consider that men don't have it nearly as bad as women.
"During pregnancy, a woman's feet will go up two shoe sizes in three months," Osterman says.
In other words, be glad that shoe isn't on the other foot.