I have a rare physical abnormality, an abnormality not recognized by the medical community, but instead by the fashion industry: I have giant feet. While most women in the united states wear a size 7 or 8, and some even hit 9 or 10, I wear a size 12 women’s shoe. And while my height, 5’11”, helps to offset the peculiar largeness of my feet, keep in mind that I’ve worn the same size shoe since I was 5’4″. I also have large hands. Large enough to quite easily palm a man’s basketball. Had I lived in a time when dainty gloves were a requirement, I would have been sent off to live in a community of others like me. Others who until recently had to face the constant despair of never being able to shoe shop “off the rack”.
While I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, I think my inability to find women’s shoes throughout and beyond my adolescence was a great contributor to why I always dressed more masculine than my peers. At 12 and 13, girls began obsessing over high heels, boots, wedges… I suppose I would have shared the obsession if any of those things were even available to me. At that point, there was no such thing as online shopping and all but a few hard-to-find stores didn’t carry women’s shoes above size 10. I did develop an addiction to men’s basketball sneakers, and I know that’s weird, so please just leave me alone.
One store that has almost always carried 11s and 12s for women is Payless. GOD BLESS PAYLESS SHOES! (I’d like that on my tombstone. No, I’m not kidding). The same pairs of black Payless heels took me through every school dance I ever attended, including the one I didn’t go to alone. When I was a teenager, I went to visit my cousin in New York and she found a specialty shop for women like me. I can’t remember the name… probably something like “Shoes for Freaks”. She tracked it down like it was some sort of footwear speakeasy. This was the first time I’d found myself solely amongst my people. Tall ladies with big feet (and also some dudes who wore girls’ shoes, but hey, we were all fighting the same fight).
By college, I’d figured out that besides Payless, Nordstrom had and continues to have occasional selections. The one problem is that my feet are also narrow, and there is an assumption is that if you’re wearing a size 12 shoe, your feet probably run wide. (Oh, and please keep in mind that given the state of the world, I’m very aware that this is possibly the least important subject I’ve ever written about, and that’s coming from someone who writes A LOT of d**k jokes.) The story was the same well into my 20s: Even after hours of picking through my limited options, I’d often come up empty-handed. I’d make do with shoes too small for me, or construct odd insoles to fill out gaps because I knew that part of my plight was the inevitability of settling. You can’t wear Pumas to a wedding, and you can’t wear Air Jordans to most funerals, so I found what I could and I made do.
In the past few years, however, options have increased. Thanks in part to the internet – and to the fact that there seems to be more of a demand – it’s becoming much easier to find shoes if you’re cursed with size 11, 12, even 13, 14 or 15 feet. Payless is still in the race, especially if you need something in a crunch. Just go to the last aisle and walk all the way back… that’s where the 11s & 12s are. Nobody will bother you there. The selection pales in comparison to what’s available for “normals” but in a bind, it’s absolutely fantastic and you can’t beat the price. Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack have served me well, and other department stores have stepped up their game. But you need the right technique going in.
At a department store, don’t browse the floor for what you love, but instead to walk right to a salesperson (DO NOT look at the display shoes, whatever you do! You’ll just fall in love with ones you can’t have and leave with a broken heart). Tell the salesperson that you are a genetic weirdo and you need to know which shoes come in your size. Often times they’ll know the largest sizes available from various brands and designers. Tell him or her to keep bringing you shoes in your size, and choose from those. If you pick up a cute wedge from a display pedestal and ask if they carry it in a 13, chances are you will get laughed because OF COURSE THEY DON’T. BUT, if you’re willing to try on anything they have that might fit you, you will probably find something you want to buy. The sales person might hate you at the end of it all, though I’ve found some who enjoy the mission of helping a stranger find a happiness that has alluded them for so long.
Now… if you can wait a week, your best bet these days is to go online. One of the first websites I’d heard about for gals like me is barefoottess.com. (“….because style doesn’t stop at size 10.”) I found out about the site the same way ladies find out about most lady things – from another lady. I saw a woman on the sidewalk who had her giant feet encased in a lovely, feminine flat. For someone like me, this is like finding your birth father after searching for 40 years. When I asked where she got her shoes, she told me. I’ve been a loyal customer ever since. Barefoot Tess carries women’s shoes up to 15. In the past couple of years they’ve added services like free return shipping that makes the shopping experience much more convenient.
The most useful part of their site, for me at least, is that they note if the shoes run narrow, wide, big or small. I can log on, filter my search for 12s (and occasionally 11s) that run narrow. My options, even on the site, are more limited than most women with large feet, but more plentiful than I could have ever imagined as a 14-year-old girl with a closet full of shell-toe Adidas and one pair of all purpose dress shoes.” If I want a flat, boot or a cute sandal, I can find it now. It doesn’t seem like my greatest accomplishment, but it’s been incredibly freeing. I no longer have to “make do” with shoes I hate just because they fit.
I envy young girls with feet like mine who will never know the days of squeezing into a size 10. Basically, I lived through the civil rights era of feet. Okay, maybe that’s extreme, but I at least grew up during a time where I got to see the evolution of the big-footed-ladies-shoe-industry. And I learned some great tricks along the way. I still wear men’s shoes. Half the time, probably. In the period between famine and feast, I discovered certain brands of men’s shoes, mostly from the 1960s, that fit women’s feet perfectly. If you’re looking for something interesting, like a vintage boot or loafer, my last tip is to flock to eBay. I know I wear a men’s Florsheim 9 1/2 boot. And so, I keep a watch for that specific item. If a vintage pair in good condition comes up for sale, I bid. The brand runs narrow and the “Beatles”-style boots can easily pass for women’s because men back then preferred a small heel. The 1960s & ’70s were great eras for androgynous footwear. I may not be able to wear the cute white loafers I saw at that ladies’ boutique, but I ordered these the other day, they arrived and they fit perfectly. The best part is that nobody else will have them. It’s of course a crapshoot and you can’t return them, but once you settle into a brand and size you feel good about, the search becomes easier and the success rate skyrockets.
To my fellow clown-footed ladies, I urge you to never give up the fight. If stores don’t carry your size, suggest that they start. If they say no, then go back at night when they’re closed and burn the place down. OR just go to the places I’ve mentioned. Good luck. And don’t trip.
Oh, and if you don’t have big feet, you’re probably thinking, “Why did I read this? I thought I was clicking on a link about making a DIY napkin holder!” But who knows, maybe you can help someone else in your life who has big dumb feet like me. Feel their pain. Put yourself in their shoes, or rather, tell them how to put themselves in their own shoes. Imagine if pants only went to size 6 and everyone bigger than that had to squeeze into them. (Oh and if you’re one of those girls who actually does that, everyone can tell). Share your knowledge. You owe me ‘cuz of that thing I did that one time, remember?