The Problem With Birkenstocks


Birkenstocks are the Chipotle of footwear. Like opting for a burrito bowl and a side order of guac at the end of a long workday, you wear them when you’re in no mood to try. And you don’t feel too bad about it either, because they reek of integrity and liberalism and therefore don’t invite the same harsh criticism as things like foam flip-flops or Arby's. But still, too much Chipotle is never a good thing.

"Your foot might splay a little bit," said NYC podiatrist Dr. Hillary Brenner in response to a rumor my coworker's friend, this girl Alison, heard from her shoe sales guy at Jeffrey that all the Birkenstocks and locker room slides women are wearing nowadays are making their feet bigger—thus forcing them to size up on their Fall '14 footwear purchases. 38? Guess again, now you're probably a 38.5.

"Splay" is a great word, and by that Dr. Brenner simply means that the muscles and bones inside of your feet are getting a nice little stretch and they don't want that feeling to end. So it's not like they're gaining weight—they're just not as toned. "Your foot gets comfortable in these types of shoes and only certain muscles are working. Then when you go into a high heel that's more narrow and stiff, your foot can’t splay as much. Different pressure points are being loaded, and you're having to use muscles you haven't used in a while."

But there are abs somewhere under the mushy softness of your lazy Birkenstock feet, and they can be un-splayed and ready for the heel-loving city life. Dr. Brenner suggests training your feet back into a pair of your old heels rather than buying new ones, "You still have the same foot as you've always had, it’s not growing wider, it's just getting put into a different device. You'll feel it at first, in the same way that your body will feel sore after the first time of doing a workout tape. But after a while your body gets used to that workout and new muscles are being stimulated. Eventually you won’t feel as sore. It's a good idea to wear a variety of shoes overall, so that your entire foot is being worked on a regular basis."

So, and correct me if I'm wrong, the takeaway here is that you can eat as many burritos as you like, just do it while wearing heels?

—Annie Kreighbaum

Photo via Getty.

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  • emily

    In my opinion, this is a bit misleading. While I am not refuting medical claims, I feel as though the article should be balanced by an explanation of what high heels can do to our feet (including bones, muscles, tendons, skin) - it's far less than ideal! I was stunned that women (myself included) don't think twice about squeezing our feet into unnatural load-bearing positions for hours and ITG has published an article about the pitfalls of Birkenstocks.

    Taken out of context, I would think this was written about heels..."Different pressure points are being loaded, and you're having to use muscles you haven't used in a while."

    It reminds me of "barefoot runners" who only go barefoot when they're running...of course your feet aren't strong enough to run barefoot if they are otherwise continually supported by orthotics or shoes. I do appreciate the advice to wear a variety of footwear (or none at all) to strengthen the foot muscles, this is advice we should all follow to both challenge our feet and give them a break!

    • ITG Annie

      Hi Emily, thanks for your comment. Nobody's suggesting wearing uncomfortable stilettos for hours on end—Dr. Brenner says the best heels have a wide, chunky heel and to look for shoes with thick arch support. Check that flats do not have flimsy soles, they shouldn't be able to bend back so that the toe touches the heel part of the shoe.

      But if you've noticed a difference in the fit/feel of heels (especially the close-toed variety) after an entire summer of wearing shoes like Birkenstocks, this is why!

      • emily

        Definitely! I know I get so uncomfortable when I wear flimsy sandals for hours, sometimes worse than with heels! She is right on.

  • Allison

    Lol forever at "workout tape."

    • ITG Annie

      no internet, no problem

    • Clever Girl Reviews

      My thought exactly!

  • kamo12

    I can sort of vouch for this effect. After a summer of wearing my Birks, I slipped on my workhorse pointy-toe d'orsay heels for a wedding and made it about three steps before calling it quits. They felt so stiff and so constricting I couldn't deal with it, even though they were always my comfortable, dance-the-night-away heels. Turns out I would have been way overdressed in them for the venue anyway - that's the benefit of living in the Pacific Northwest!

  • Divya

    I knew it! "Ugly looking" was not the only problem with Birks! :P


  • Haiku Jew

    I wore beat-up Birks
    old overalls and plaid shirts
    my mom kinda kvetched.

  • Emma Hager

    I am really not a heels girl, at all. I love the look, but when it comes down to actually wearing them, I find they have little use. I'd much rather spend the $$ on a pair of weird sneakers.

    That being said, I was trying to fit into some of my 40's heels that have crazily narrow footbeds, and it wasn't working. I try them on once and a while to make sure all pairs are still potentially wearable, even if I never wear them. Usually I can force my feet into them with some effort, but they just wouldn't budge. Now it makes total sense. My feet #splay, thanks 2 Birks.

    Thanks for the science, Annie!

  • District Style

    Ultimately, I think it's about finding a balance between what looks best and what feels best. I personally don't like Birckenstocks, but I also can't wear super high-heels or pointed toe shoes. It forces me to be creative, but as far as I'm concerned, there's no point in sacrificing your feet for a a couple seasons' worth of looks.

  • Jane T.

    This is definitely something that's been a problem for me lately and I was freaking out that I magically gained weight in my feet, but I guess not! Thanks for reading my mind Annie -- guess I'm wearing heels to cook dinner tonight...

  • Nae

    My favorite sandals are a pair of flannel-print Doc Martens. The insides are super-dirty from 3 years of wear, but the outside--including the soles--looks brand new. People always think they're Birkenstocks, and I'm like, "Nonono, they're Docs--see the sole?!"


    I've actually noticed a difference when trying on new shoes for the Fall after wearing my Birks for just a few months!

  • Averill B

    Haven't purchased Birks since '02, but all I remember is their stank after much use. Is this still an issue?

  • Nutmeg

    The problem with birkenstocks is that they don't destroy your feet!!! lol jesus christ

  • starryhye

    I have a sorority sister who now lives in Panama. She has complained on more than one occasion that her feet have gotten wider after years of wearing nothing but sandals and flip flops. Like, she has to shop for extra wide shoes on the interwebs b/c nothing fits. Having recently relocated to AZ, this scared me straight into my Louboutins. And the other problem with Birkenstocks? They're fugly as sin. Sorry. Wait no I'm not ;P

    • mar

      The humidity in Panama can make your feet (and hands) swell, which could be contributing to your sorority sister's problems.

  • DY

    Haters gonna hate.

  • Madison Hardt

    The problem with Birkenstocks is that I can't stop wearing them... :O *welp*

  • Minko

    UGH @ THIS! Obviously any shoe could do this to your feet but you guys have decided to choose Birkenstocks... Podiatrists trust these shoes because they're genuinely good for your feet! Maybe our feet SHOULD be 'splay'-ing? Maybe all the other narrow shoes that people wear aren't good? You guys simply needed to say: "Don't wear any type of shoe too often otherwise your feet won't be able to fit into other pairs as easily. You need to use all of the different muscles in your feet so you can wear different shoes all the time..."

    • sara

      They probably chose Birks because it (and the pool slide type things) are the fashion-y shoe of the season. If, God forbid it happened to be Crocs, then they'd talk about Crocs. That's really all it is, lol.

    • sabe

      Right?! I don't know if Annie inaccurately quoted the podiatrist, or if this podiatrist is nuts, but every physical therapist I've talked to says to not wear high heels. Shoes like Birks and minimalist shoes let your feet splay, which lets foot muscles work and tendons stretch correctly. Yes, your muscles might be underdeveloped because you're used to wearing high heels, but that's not a reason to keep harming your feet.

  • ModernGrace

    I wore them in HS. They fly off your feet at the worst time, you can't walk down stairs in them, and they do cause weird toe marks.

  • Restless Blonde

    Very interesting, however, we should avaerage the issue as high heels are much worse for our feet ;) so I think it is, nevertheless, better to wear Birkenstocks than Manolos.

  • Sara

    Exactly! Plus, those stilettos from 2009-2012 are so ugly!

    Comfy shoes forever!

  • Sara

    The problem with Birks and comfortable shoes is that there is no problem!

  • liz

    THIS IS ABSURD. Heels are horrific for your feet. Healthy feet = "splayed feet".

  • Carlene Vitale

    You call them "splayed", I call them "yoga feet". Counting on that splay to hold my ass upright until I'm 100.

  • Joanne Newton

    I wore birks while pregnant and my feet have totally splayed, and I can't wear my shoes anymore. This article has given hope.....thank you!!

  • BoCaPhi

    Putting on heels is likened to working out, as though heels are good for you. No thanks. You can keep your unnatural heels that squeeze toes and make us walk unnaturally on tippy toes all day, risking a turned heel or worse, and for what? So your butt sits higher because of the forced angle? Nah, gimme those Birkenstocks any day of the week! Or sneakers, or cute leather flats, or ballet flats, or Tom's. Nope, heels make zero sense to me at all, and I'd liken them more to Anorexia (something we do that's bad for us but about which some unnatural, unealthy praise-seeking part of us says "It'll make you prettier," and it may, in the short run, but not health wise) than I'd liken them to a workout. I felt that way when I was 20 and I feel that way now in my 50s. It's not an age thing. It's a health thing.

  • Helen O.

    Love the article. I owned a pair of Birkenstocks and loved them (At most Birkenstock stores you can have your Birks restored) There was a couple that came in with Birks they have worn for 12 years!! but I am not the heel wearing type, unless I have to, so I am good.

  • Hmmm..

    The model already has deformed toes from pointy shoes. You can see the outermost toes contorting and her big toe is starting to curve inward. In a few more years her big toes will start to rotate and she could get bunions on both sides of her feet. bummer. Hope she gets some winter Birks too!