The Problem with Pretty

My running shoes are on their last legs — no pun intended — or, more accurately, their last bits of tread, placing me in the market for a new pair. Like a number of runners with high arches, I underpronate my feet, so I need to look for shoes that work with my foot’s natural motion instead of against it — which, given that more runners overpronate, a lot of running shoes are not good for me. In short, my feet deviate from normal; therefore, I am all kinds of picky about my shoes.

However, I am picky in a way that is largely related to function. I’d be lying if I said aesthetics have zero bearing on my choice of shoe; they do, but not nearly so much as whether I can run comfortably in my running shoes.

Relatively straightforward, no?

I thought so too. I’d done my research, reading up on styles I thought would work best for my stride and my feet. I wrote down brands and model names and key features, and organized them into charts of why I thought each might work for me. I swear, I did not do this much research when buying my last car — which may explain why I’ve spent my summer loving my city bus pass.

I’m not naive; I didn’t expect it to be a simple process. These are the shoes that are going to carry my running body for the next 400 miles, the ones I’m counting on to help protect me against ankle injury as well as foot, shin, and low back pain. Already, before their purchase, I have a strong emotional investment in these shoes. This investment is the combined product of my running goals, my stride, actual shoe fit, durability, aesthetic, and price. But I did enter into this shoe expedition with the expectation that it would be guided by fit and function, that the other factors would play supporting roles only.

Apparently the four sales associates at the three stores I visited on Monday did not get this memo. All were specialty shoe stores, and two were specialty running shoe stores, yet all seemed to be primarily occupied with selling me a pair of shoes that looked good. And not just “stylish-good,” either. The words I heard over and over again were about shoes that were “cute,” “adorable,” and “pretty.”

I’m not really a stranger to this response. It happens regularly when I’m looking for professional-ish shoes for work, where many sales associates interpret “work” as something that does not involve me walking an average of 6.5 miles during the school day. But I well and truly expected that if I was going to stores that specialized in running for shoes in which I will be running, the primary emphasis would be on…

… finding pretty shoes? In purple, maybe, which is cute and does not show dirt as much as pink or aqua do?

These were from people who’d listened to my shoe concerns, observed the wear pattern on my current shoes, and in one case, put me through a gait analysis of their own. And twice (though fortunately, not in the store that conducted the gait analysis), sales associates suggested shoes that were designed to add stability for feet that overpronate — in other words, that were designed to do the exact opposite of what I want my running shoes to do — because they’re “cute” or they “look awesome.”

I see two issues with this. First, that aesthetics overrides function: The problem with “pretty” is that it overshadows actually, you know, running in my running shoes. Second, the use of diminutive terms like “cute,” “adorable,” and “pretty” to minimize my running — or at least the value I ascribed to my running in the context of purchasing these shoes. To put it bluntly, if the most expensive shoes I own are the ones I purchase just for running — then I think my running is pretty fucking important, at least to me. It is not something I do because I think running shoes are “adorable.”

In the end, I left two stores and later sent them emails expressing my disappointment and dissatisfaction with their services. In the end, my best bet turned out to be an associate-in-training, who — for whatever he may have lacked in auto-recall product knowledge — was willing to actually listen to me when I explained my running goals and habits, my problems with my current shoes, and the shoes I’d just tried that had not worked for me and to suggest shoes in accordance with my functional needs. It was still kind of a lengthy trial and error, but at least it was a trial and error in good faith.

And in the end, I purchased a pair of men’s minimalist runners. They fail to color-coordinate with any other clothing I own and in fact look a little bit like giant bees took twin dumps on my feet. In the end, though, they felt so good when I was trying them out that I can’t wait until they’re broken in so I can start taking them on real runs.

Photo of black and yellow running shoe. In this photo, the shoe is just over 6 months old.

My New Balance MT10s, minimalist trail shoes.

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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15 comments on “The Problem with Pretty
  1. bayouyogis says:

    You won’t get your running shoes, but go to a dance store or school that has its own store and get fitted for pointe shoes. Try 20 pairs- they will wait on you! And they will tell you 30 things about your feet and their strength you never knew before. There can be a lot more then over supination going on. From the feel of the pointe shoes that you find comfortable enough to roll up in a parallel position(since your problem in supination not pronation) you may be able to get a better feel for what your looking for. When you go to fit your running shoes go through the same excercises your pointe fitter put you through and see if you can feel the same relationship between the running shoe and the pointe shoe that fit you best in the fitting. Pointe shoes and running sneakers serve a lot of the same principals-strengthening of the foot while allowing the natural structure of the foot to thrive for efficiency. Plus all the pointe shoes are pink…they where meant to look pretty so no one will be pushing you on that sale pointe!!

  2. whollyword says:

    Basically my feet are like yours: high arches, prone to oversupinating. And I can’t count the number of times that someone’s tried to put me in a stability shoe. I can, however, remember the one guy at the Nike outlet who told me back in 1993, “Don’t buy that pair of racing spikes. Your instep is high enough you’d rip out the tops within a couple of months.” I should not remember the time that someone trying to sell shoes took how my feet behave into account, doggone it, because that should be all times I go shoe shopping.

    I hope your minimalist runners will serve you well! I’m eager to know what you think of them once you get them broken in.

    • Tori says:

      I’m not ready to call them fully broken in yet, since I’ve only run in them twice. (I have, however, worn them for all-day walking — 5 miles a day is probably a safe or under- estimate — for 4 days now, so that is not nothing.) There is still a spot on my left heel that rubs, but that is par for the course for me with all shoes.

      I have noticed, however:

      1. I feel no pain while running. (I was getting plantar fascitis plus front of ankle and shin pain in my right leg, which is the foot that supinates more.)
      2. I feel no pain while walking all day, which I didn’t actually manage in my stability shoes (though it was not so acute as running pain).
      3. I don’t get as much foot cramping in my yoga practices, either. I used to have to pedal my feet or come out of one-legged poses early sometimes because the discomfort was so intense. I still feel some discomfort in a longer practice full of standing postures, but not to the point that I want to exit any pose early.

      I am told that one should acclimate to the minimalist runners gradually — which I did not do — because of the extra stress they can put on the muscles in the feet, ankles, and calves. This worked out fine for me, but I don’t expect that my experience is necessarily the norm.

      That said, I have been wearing my runners so often that my partner asked me if it would be wise to invest in a second pair of the shoes, and I said yes. ;)

  3. G says:

    Hmm. I also have high arches but I’m not sure what my feet do– I’m guessing I have a fairly neutral gait due to the wear patten on my shoe, but hard to tell. (I’ve always worn neutral shoes.) Some day I should go in and be fitted but I’m scared of running stores.

    Most of the “shoe fitting literature” says that heavier folks need a stability shoe. You know, since they all have flat feet like me… wait a minute…

    Your plantar fasciitis and front-of-calf pain sounds awfully familiar though. Keep me in the loop about how these shoes work for you (I hope they do!) For me, the first sign of needing new shoes is calf pain– if it’s hurting it means it’s time for a new pair. :)

    • Tori says:

      I won’t say these shoes are totally broken in yet — I’ve run in them twice and walked all day in them 4 times. But I will say that the only problem I’ve had so far is that the heel rubs against my left Achilles, which is par for the course when it comes to me and shoes (and is almost certainly a sign of the breaking in process, rather than a sign that these shoes aren’t right for me). The rest of my issues — foot, ankle, and shin pain — have largely abated while wearing these shoes.

      That said, I also know that front-of-limb (top of foot, top of ankle, shin) pain is generally my first sign that something ain’t working anymore. So the shoes that are right for me might not be the shoes that are right for you.

      All that said, the shoe store that worked best for me was one that let me walk/jog/run the shoes on the sidewalk in front of the store for 50 feet or so. And of the shoes I rejected? About half the time I could verbalize something specific — not enough room in the toe box, forcing me to overpronate, etc. — there was an additional time when I could say they “just didn’t feel right,” and the fitter was willing to work with that.

  4. So glad your feet are happy! My head exploded more than a little as I read this, since you know darn skippy well that no guy shopping for shoes got the “pretty pitch.” Thanks for speaking up!

    • Tori says:

      i don’t know for sure, of course, but I expect that you’re right. I think that if a man had been shopping for shoes at these same stores, the “stylish/attractiveness component” may have played some role, but I certainly don’t think it would have played the predominant role.

  5. Vanessa M says:

    Glad that the shoes are working for you :)… I’m thankful that my mom shops for me, ’cause I really don’t want to hear more about “pretty”, “cute” and “adorable” shoes that won’t even let me jog in them.

  6. Nicole A. Murray says:

    The sale associates are probably used to, and trained to deal with,fair-weather exercising types and girls who wear makeup to the gym. If you were to stand in the store and just observe the clientele, I’m willing to bet that most of them would be looking for style over function.

    • Tori says:

      This wasn’t actually the case with any of the other customers who were in the stores at the time I visited, though it’s admittedly a small and biased sample. (Folks looking for new running shoes in southern Arizona in August are actually probably not fair weather runners.) Either way, if there are folks in a specialty running store recommending running shoes that are counterproductive to the runner’s gait, that’s unprofessional and potentially injurious.

  7. Alexa says:

    When I got to the end and read that you bought men’s shoes, I wasn’t surprised. I have GINORMOUS feet, and when I went to buy running shoes, they didn’t carry my size in women’s. I was with another friend shopping for running shoes, and she got the “pretty” shoes. I had one choice, based on my actual running shoe needs (red Asics). At the time I was annoyed as they didn’t match any of my running gear, though I don’t know why I should be surprised — New Balance is one of the only sneaker brands that makes women’s shoes in my size, so these are not my first men’s shoes (and this store didn’t carry New Balance). Now, I’m kind of pleased that it wasn’t about which shoes were “prettiest,” but that I got the one shoe (out of three) that suited my needs and felt comfortable on. When you’re buying/being presented with men’s shoes, how “pretty” they are simply doesn’t factor in. I’d be annoyed at the associates, too, though I think shoe companies are to blame, too — there were NO women’s shoes in red. They only came in blue, purple and pink. The men’s shoes came in variations on black, yellow, orange, red and neon green.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this comment, other than to say, I feel your pain, and I would be annoyed too. And, re: comfortable work shoes. This is why I don’t go to “normal” shoe stores. I go to Clarks or Aerosoles because I know they a) carry my size (ah, size 11-12!) b) have wide sizes and c) are RIDIC comfortable. Why anyone thinks heels are appropriate comfortable work shoes is beyond me.

    • Tori says:

      Re: work shoes — I have worn actual dress shoes for 2 days in a row now. For tomorrow, I am busy putting together a skirted outfit that will look adorable and/or quirky with my sneakers. Because my feet are not having any more “dress” business at this point.

  8. R. H. Ward says:

    I’m glad you wrote emails expressing your disappointment with their services, because the fact that the associates would listen to your concerns and then offer you something “pretty” is just crazy. Mostly, though, I’m just glad you found the right shoes!

    I feel you on “work shoes” too. I have been wearing heels a little more often lately (trying to look a little more professional at the office, since, like you in your other recent post, I’m suddenly realizing I’m a leader in my workplace too). But I have a 15-20 minute walk to the train station twice a day, and heels ain’t cutting it for that. I love Clarks and Borns, I think Naturalizer too, and a few other brands, and I know their sizing well enough that I can order from Zappos or PlanetShoes pretty confidently–and returns are free if they don’t fit right. I’m definitely to the point where I can’t shop at Payless anymore; I’d rather buy one pair of shoes that fit properly that I can walk in, instead of buying four pairs of cheap “pretty” shoes.

    • Tori says:

      I’m less confident about sizing, so I’m torn between going out shopping and ordering online and hoping. We will see. First I’ll budget for the shoes, then I’ll decide how to get them. ;)

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