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Female feet with flip-flops

Women have beautiful feet.  I am not talking about beautiful in a sexual sense, though many women do have attractive feet and later, I will discuss those, but for now “beautiful” refers to their design.

Unique from the male foot, the woman’s foot is a remarkable symphony of engineering, the result of millions of years of tiny evolutionary adjustments—that are still occurring.

A true work in progress, the female foot is entering its most exciting era.

As a practicing podiatrist, I am amazed at how many of my female patients believe their foot problems are their fault—due to wearing high heels.  Doctors, the public, pop magazine articles, have all sold women on the idea that their foot problems are their fault.  I bought into it, too.  But, over the years I began to realize high heels were only part of the story.

Many of my young female patients who had terrible feet, with such problems as large, ugly bumps on the inside of their feet (bunions), and bent and contracted toes (hammertoes), just to name a few, told me they had never worn high heels.

How could this be?

There are several reasons, and number one is the female foot’s unique shape.  Compared with males, the female’s foot is generally shorter, narrower, and the length of instep is not as long.  The average woman wears a size 8.5 (her foot is approximately twenty-four centimeters or 9.5 inches in length, about an inch shorter than the foot of the average male).

Further, the woman’s heel is narrower when compared to the ball of foot, which is wider and has a larger girth relative to the rest of the foot.

Evidence supporting that the woman’s unique foot is the result of genetics, comes from a study of toddlers.  Even at this young age, the study found boys and girls walked differently, and their feet differed in size and shape.  Girls have a narrower foot than boys and when walking, put more weight on the ball of their foot and their toes.

Clearly, the woman’s foot is uniquely different from the male foot.  Scientists have long pondered how this “female foot” came to exist.  The answer lies in the forces of evolution, but it isn’t what scientists would have expected.

When the human foot is looked at over hundreds of thousands of years and the effect of pregnancy on the foot is considered, modern woman should have a foot longer and wider than males.  This expectation stems from the fact that the feet of nearly all pregnant females widen to support the increased load, and because women carry this load in front, their center of gravity moves anteriorly and therefore the feet lengthen to maintain balance.  Helping with this process is the pregnancy chemical relaxin, which causes ligaments to weaken and go lax.

How Did Evolution Give Us a Smaller Female Foot?

Some scientists believe that human males, over the ages, preferred youthful females who had never given birth (for males, it was especially important their mate never delivered a baby fathered by a rival male).  A small foot implied youth.  Clearly, children have small feet, and in general, foot size increases with age.  Further, since pregnancy makes feet larger, a small foot signaled that there was a reduced the chance that the woman ever bore children.  As a result, male’s selected females with smaller feet, and over time, surviving females’ feet became smaller.

Even today, support for this theory exists.  In one study, all other factors being equal, scientists proved that the smaller a woman’s feet, the more attractive she was to both men and women.  With respect to men, foot size has no bearing on attractiveness (this, despite a myth that foot size relates to the size of something else. In case you’re wondering, scientists have disproved this theory).

The Female Foot Never Had a Chance

The shape of the female foot—a slender heel, short instep length and wide ball—makes it more likely to develop problems.

One of the most amazing things about the foot—male or female—is its ability to rapidly “lock” or become rigid and “unlock” or become flexible.  With every step, the foot becomes a rigid lever to propel us off the ground and rapidly loosens as our heel strikes the ground and the foot must flatten and adapt to the surface.

The locking and unlocking of the foot is incredibly complex and unless you are planning to become a podiatrist, you don’t need to understand all the intricacies but a few things are important.

The rear third of the foot is comprised of two bones, the calcaneus or heel bone and the bone above it, called the talus.  These bones cross and uncross to lock and unlock the rest of the foot.  A foot that is neither locked nor unlocked is in the neutral position.  The term for the foot unlocking is pronation and locking is supination.  These two words—pronation and supination—are the most important terms to podiatrists.  If you want to understand the foot, especially the female foot, it is important you have a basic understanding of pronation and supination.

Pronation and supination are a complex series of muscle, bone, joint, and ligament motions that result in the locking and unlocking of the foot.  A certain amount of this locking and unlocking is normal, however, if a foot unlocks (or pronates) excessively or locks (or supinates) excessively problems can develop.

When the heel strikes the ground, the foot rapidly unlocks (pronates) so it can adapt to the ground. Then it quickly locks (supinates) as it pushes off the ground.

An example of an extremely pronated foot is the flat foot and an example of an extremely supinated foot is the foot with a high arch.  These are the extremes.  A foot that is neither supinated nor pronated when weight is borne is in neutral position.  This is a “normal foot.”

Now, for the first time, we can say that this “normal foot” applies to the typical male foot.  The typical female foot is mildly pronated (or mildly unlocked).  In the podiatry world, too much supination can be problematic but excessive pronation is the root of evil.

Over pronation, beyond the normal amount needed to walk, creates an inherently unstable foot and promotes the formation of bunions, hammertoes, ankle weakness, heel pain and other foot problems, and even leads to leg, knee, hip and back pain, and just plain tired feet. A foot that pronates excessively is predisposed to more pronation, creating a vicious cycle, leading to even more problems.

The Sway Of Her Hips

Women walk differently than men. From a distance too far away to see the details of a person’s face, hair or style of dress, people can tell quite quickly (in less than three seconds), with incredible accuracy, the gender of the person walking.

This ability appears to “hard wired” into our brain.  Researchers believe we have special neurons that only fire when we see males and special neurons that fire when we see females.

Indirect evidence of this exists in other species where during mating animals will walk or strut in a unique manner as a sexual signal.  With humans, by watching someone of the opposite sex walk most people can guess, usually correctly, if the person is gay or straight.  Video analysis of homosexuals and lesbians walking on a treadmill showed that the gay men had a walk that was similar to most women and the gay women walked like most men.

For women who want to display their sexuality to the maximum they may accentuate their “wiggle” by alternately forcing their weight onto one hip and then the other.  Marilyn Monroe found an easy way to achieve this: she simply shortened one the heel of her high heel shoes.

Florenz Ziegfeld who produced some of the most extravagant and successful musicals of the early 1900s, choose many of his showgirls solely based on the way they walked.  Women auditioned by walking, in high heels, behind a backlit screen.  By the women’s walk, without ever seeing their faces, he would choose his showgirls.

Though most women can accentuate their “wiggle,” to avoid doing it at all would be difficult, if not impossible.  The “wiggle” is technically a lateral sway of the hips and buttocks combined with a semicircular swing motion and it is necessary to maintain balance.

Maintaining balance is specific to the person’s shape and proportions.  Women have a proportionately wider pelvis, narrower waist and shoulders, a shorter torso, and longer legs (in relation to their height).  As a result, the sway occurs in the hips and buttocks, whereas men have greater lateral movement in their chest and arms.

Another factor affecting how men and women walk is their genitals. Male genitals are outside the body and thus, men walk more open-legged.  The cliché male walk being that of the cowboy.  Since female genitals are in a sense inside, women have a close-legged stride, placing their feet within three to five inches of each other.

What does the sway of the woman’s hips have to do with her feet?  Plenty.  Her wide hips tend to make her knock-kneed, which in turn tends to make her feet pronate or unlock.  Recall, an excessively pronated foot can lead to a host of foot problems, including more pronation.  This chain reaction can work in reverse: that is an excessively pronated foot can lead to knock knees, which can lead to wider hips and pain in the ankles, knees, hips and back.

Other Pieces of the Female Foot Puzzle

The main building blocks of the foot are bones.  At first glance, the bones of the female foot look like those of the male.  Yet, from any of these bones forensic scientists can determine the person’s sex—so they must be different.

Doctors now agree the bones of the female foot are unique from the male foot, and further, these differences contribute to women developing foot problems. The particular shape of a bone in the female’s big toe joint—the metatarsal bone—increases the likelihood she will form a bunion.  At the ankle the main bone of the leg, the tibia, is narrower in women and its outer shell (or cortex) is thinner.  Both these factors contribute to ankle fractures.

Beyond shape, the joints of the foot differ in the female.

There are 33 joints in the foot.  A joint is a fluid-filled capsule that connects two bones and allows movement.  Within the joint, cartilage (the shiny white gristle that you see on the ends of chicken bones) covers the edges of the bones that are touching each other.

The joints of the female foot have less fluid, less surface and the cartilage is thinner.  As a result, the joints are more likely to breakdown and become arthritic.

Ligaments—strong, thin bands of tissue—hold joints together.  In women, ligaments are more lax or looser than in men.  A looser ligament creates a weaker joint, which in turn, contributes to women experiencing more ankle sprains, dislocations of the foot bones, and misalignment problems, such as bunions, flat feet and crooked toes.

These looser ligaments are due to the hormones’ estrogen and progesterone.  The levels of these hormones fluctuate with the woman’s menstrual cycle.  Some scientists believe that during ovulation (day 10-14) when the amount of estrogen in the body is the highest, the woman is most at risk for a ligament injury.  One study that looked at knee problems that found women tended to injure one of their main knee ligaments on days 10 to 14 of their menstrual cycle.

Is The Female Foot Really Prettier?

At the start of this article, I said women have beautiful feet, and many do.  Few people can explain what makes a foot is beautiful, though most can spot an ugly one.  This ability seems hardwired into our brains—we just know it.  Clearly, when people think of attractive feet, few think of the male foot, and society’s number one fetish, is the foot—and usually, the female foot.

When we talk about Beauty, whether with regard to feet or faces, it is difficult to define and it varies with culture.  Some criteria recur.  For one, beauty implies youth.  As discussed above, in evolutionary terms, youth has equaled a small foot.  Beyond size, other youth or beauty triggering signals in the foot are its shape, color, skin texture, amount of hair, condition of the toenails and even its softness.

The amount of fat in the foot determines its softness.  When compared to men, women have more fat under their skin throughout the entire body.  As a result, women’s feet are generally softer.  Two things work against this extra fat: aging and tight fitting shoes.  As women age, fat tends to pool in the hips, buttocks and stomach, but in the foot, it gradually disintegrates.  Accelerating the foot’s loss of fat is pressure from tight fitting shoes.

Look at a newborn’s feet and you will quickly see they are mostly fat.  The loss of fat starts almost from the time we take our first steps.  Ironically, the feet are the one place we need fat; not for appearance (though, for some that is important), but to cushion our bones and joints.  Foot specialists have tried doing fat transplants but they have never been successful.  Perhaps someday, though, we’ll go in for a tummy tuck and leave with our feet feeling better.

The strength and development of our muscles also helps determine the softness of the foot.  Generally, males have more developed foot muscles, giving their feet a heavier appearance; women’s feet are softer and more contoured.  Our feet have large muscles originating from our leg and many small muscles that start and stop within our feet.  These small muscles will wither away with enough exposure to a tight-fitting shoe.  While one would at first think that would make the foot slimmer and appear less heavier, what happens is, without these tiny muscles working at full capacity or in some cases not at all, the position of the bones and joints changes and foot deformities develop.  Common problems seen are bunions and other bent, contracted toes called hammertoes.

The female’s foot has less hair than the male foot.  Lack of hair implies youth and thus, beauty, and it makes the woman’s foot look cleaner.

Regardless of ethnic population, skin of the female is always thinner and lighter than the male.  Again, lighter, thinner skin makes the women’s foot appear more youthful.  Historically, women were considered more refined if their skin was light.  Women went to great lengths to cover up their skin, wearing gloves in the summer sun and using umbrellas to shield their faces.  It is only in relatively recent times that dark, tanned skin became fashionable.

When we talk about the female foot, we are really talking about both of the woman’s feet. One of our standards of beauty of symmetry and an interesting finding emerges when you consider pairs of feet of men and women: female pairs of feet are more symmetric.  That is, the right and left foot are closer to being identical in females than males.

Few female feet have all of the above beauty characteristics, though most have one or two.  Over eons of evolution, the generality of woman having prettier feet than men emerges.

As today’s male places more emphasis on other parts of the female anatomy when searching for a mate, the foot will take a less prominent role and in the distant future, could become as large, and perhaps even similar to, the male foot. Size aside, differences will always remain.

If you are woman, make sure your podiatrist understands the specifics of women’s foot problems, and you should keep in mind: what is good for a man’s foot may not be good for your feet.

Image CreditFemale feet with flip-flops Photos by Pond5

Resources for Women’s Health:

Healthy Women

Women’s Health Magazine

World Health Organization

Mayo Clinic Women’s Health

Women’s Health Issues

Harvard Medical School Women’s Health

Women’s Fitness

Free Women’s Fitness

Running for Women

Women’s Running

Running for Women

Women’s Healthcare Topics

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  • jeanfor

    I believe that the human foot is a beauty of engineering. It is true to say that women's feet are different from men's feet, but this does not stop there. The definition of beauty is very subjective. I have met both men and women with beautiful feet and with ugly feet. One of the point you may forget to mention is men tend to not take good care of their feet when considering grooming (nails , skin….). It is a fact that our western society has removed man's beauty from our current daily language, and when talking about men use term as handsome: this is very different from some other civilizations or cultures who did acclaimed the beauty of the man's body. As far as foot attraction it has to do more with the way the man's brain functions when wanting to find a mate. The man is very physical. Women, on the other hand are more attracted by the ability for man to support them. So the foot attraction by men toward women and not the other way around has not stand on the intrinsic beauty of man or woman feet.