A frequent concern of transgender women and men is how they perceive their size relative to that of cisgender women and men. Frequent “problem areas” include height, shoulders, hips, hands, and feet, and the effect of concern over even one aspect of body morphology can be a frequent and sometimes debilitating source of stress to a transgender person.
In this article I want to address our feet, and the relative sizes of feet between men and women. The reason for this focus is that differences in foot size are stressful to both transwomen and transmen. This effect tends to be more pronounced with transwomen, as footwear is much more a fashion foundation for women than men. However, this article will hopefully provide just a little more hope to both sides of the transgender coin.
“Frankish Woman and Her Servant (1750)” by Jean-Etienne Liotard, public domain image.
A general perception in society is “women have disproportionately small feet/men have disproportionately large feet”, which means that transwomen are often embarrassed or ashamed of their own feet for being the size that they are. But is it really true that women have much smaller feet per their stature than men? To start to find an answer, I hit the University library and did some research on the subject.
The first study I found examined 293 male and 574 female soldiers in the United States Army, and found the following characteristics.
- Foot length was 15.36% of body height in men, and 15.01% of body height in women. While this was a statistically significant difference (p < 0.001) the absolute difference is very small. For a 5’6” man and woman, the difference in foot length would be less than a quarter inch. (Wunderlich)
- Foot width was 6.00% of body height in men, and 5.87% of body height in women. Again, the absolute difference is very small. For a 5’6” man and woman, the difference in foot width would be less than a tenth of an inch. (Wunderlich)
A graphical display of the results from Wunderlich shows that the women in the group studied appear to have a tighter variation in foot length.
What this study indicates is that women do not actually have smaller feet for their height; it’s just that they tend to be smaller overall.
However, relying on a single study is very dangerous so I decided to search further. Studies conducted since the 1800’s of numerous American Indian tribes, European nationalities, and African Americans reveal that only in uncommon cases do men have a shorter or equal foot length relative to their body height than women. Native Americans are more likely to have women with a larger foot length relative to their height, and African Americans appear to have somewhat equal foot length ratios. More significant dimorphism is seen in Caucasians of European origin. (Fessler) For example, a study of 569 Turkish men and women found foot length was 16.45% of body height in men, and 14.47% of height in women. (Ozden) A study of 200 Indian men and women found foot length was 15.71% of body height in men, and 14.92% of height in women. (Kanchan)
The problem I have with several of these studies is that the sample size is quite small. For example, most of the Native American studies I found examined less than 100 people overall. One study of African American foot sizes looked at only 26 men and women – barely a single classroom worth. (Fessler) So let’s throw out any study of less than, say, 100 individuals and look at the most extreme differences in foot size. This was a study done in 1990 of 136 Caucasian Americans, which showed an average foot length of 14.3% of body height in men, and 13.5% of body height in women. (Fessler) This differential of 0.8%, however, equates to about 1/2 of an inch overall for a 5’6” person.
So if a 5’6” man and woman are standing side-by-side, would one be able to pick out a 1/2-inch difference in foot length? Possibly, but I’d say given how unobservant the average person is, possibly not. Looking at a broad spectrum of studies, a typical foot length size differential on a 5’6” man and woman would be closer to 1/3 of an inch or less.
Another factor in the perception of women having much smaller feet could be that women are wearing shoes which are much too small for them overall, trying to achieve a fashion standard. A 1993 survey by the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society found 88% of women wear shoes which are smaller than their feet – on average, by about half an inch! (Wunderlich) The Turkish study previously mentioned found that men tended to wear shoes which were 10.3% longer than their feet, whereas women tended to wear shoes which were 7.3% longer than their feet. What is unclear is whether this was done by personal choice, or by shoe availability in certain designs. Whatever the root cause, women wore shoes which tended to make their feet look slightly smaller than men. (Ozden)
Shoe shopping is fun, wearing them less so – image courtesy US Department of State.
If the Shoe Fits…Or Not
Many transwomen are shocked at how uncomfortable women’s shoes are to them (and many transmen are shocked at how comfortable men’s shoes are to them.) Here the next question arises, which is “are women’s shoes just uncomfortable overall, or are there some structural differences between the feet of men and women?” Here the answer is “both” – there are very few women who find walking around in heels all day long to be comfortable – normally, even the most die-hard heel-wearers will describe their best pairs of shoes as “tolerable.”
Three styles of women’s shoes, from fashionable to sensible – image courtesy New York State Department of Education.
All else being equal, differences in the foot structure of men and women may impact the fit of women’s shoes on a transwoman. When corrected for their foot length, women tend to have a greater plantar arch height, calf height, ankle circumference, and calf circumference. Men tend to have a “taller” ankle and big toe, outside ball of foot length, and instep circumference. (Wunderlich) Now keep in mind that foot shape varies considerably between us, and so these are only general metrics. But the following seems to be true for a transwoman fitting into a woman’s shoe.
- A boxy or rounded toe is better, because the big toe will fit in easier. Also, given that men have a longer outside ball of foot length, a boxy or rounded-toe shoe will help the little toes fit better too.
- A “Mary Jane” strap can help keep your foot more securely in the shoe and prevent the foot slipping into the toe box of the shoe, crushing the toes.
- Because boots have a cover on the front of the foot, they also can prevent the foot from slipping forward and crushing the toes. As a result, high-heeled boots can sometimes be much more comfortable than high-heeled shoes.
- Informal experiments have shown that in the same high-heeled shoe, men tend to shift more weight onto their toes, whereas women have slightly better weight distribution. Scooting the ball of the foot back with a pad may help shift your balance, and thus make life easier for you.
Is Size 11 Really That Large?
Both women’s and men’s shoe sizes have increased over the years, but women much moreso than men. According to Time magazine:
At the beginning of the 20 century the average woman wore a size 3.5 or size 4 shoe. This increased to a 5.5 in the forties and remained this way till the 60s. By the 1970s, the average female foot was a 7.5 and now, forty years later, the most common foot size for the American female is somewhere between an 8 ½ and a 9.” (Howard, Pollak)
Mark Denkler, chairman of the National Shoe Retailers Association, has been quoted as saying:
For women, we say 8 ½ is the new 7…the assortments, called casepacks, used to come in women’s sizes 5 to 10. Now it’s 6 to 11.” (Burger)
As a result, women’s shoes in size 11-12 are becoming much more popular, and some lines are carrying sizes up to 15. The average shoe size for supermodels is a 9 to 10, and some famous actresses sport large shoe sizes (Kate Winslet is an 11). (Howard, Pollak)
The results of my analysis are that transwomen should not be as worried about their shoe sizes as what the shoe style is, and how appropriate the style is to their overall appearance. With women’s shoes almost at size 9 on average, and growing, size 11 or 12 is not that much larger. Look at the table below, which uses information taken from The Official International Shoe Size Conversion Chart. Note that the difference between an average size 9 and a “huge” size 12 is only 3/4 inches in length. Also note that under the US system your women’s shoe size is exactly 1.5 sizes more than your men’s size. For example, I’m a size 7-7.5 men’s, and as it happens I wear an 8.5-9 women’s.
Women’s and Men’s Size Chart
|Centimeters||Inches||Women’s US/Canada||Men’s US/Canada|
* Size 11 for women appears to be close to a 10 for men, and breaks the pattern of the 1.5-size difference.
Una is a professional science researcher and part-time university professor. The reader is encouraged to perform their own follow-up and fact-checking with the references listed below. Unintentional bias may exist in this article, as the author is herself an intersex transsexual woman. No personal, commercial, or academic conflict of interest exists between the author and any authors or institutions cited as references.
Burger, Kevyn “Shoe Industry Takes Notice as Feet Get Bigger” Minneapolis Star Tribune 15 October, 2012. Online edition, accessed 28 October, 2013.
Fessler, Daniel T. et al. “Sexual dimorphism in foot length proportionate to stature” Annals of Human Biology 32.1 (January–February 2005): 44–59.
Howard, Jennifer “Bigfoot: The Relentless March Upward of the American Shoe Size” Slate 10 May, 2002. Online edition, accessed 28 October, 2013.
Kanchan, Tanuj et al. “Stature estimation from foot dimensions” Forensic Science International 179 (2008): 241.e1–241.e5.
The Official International Shoe Size Conversion Chart Undated, accessed 2 November, 2013.
Ozden, Hilmi et al. “Stature and sex estimate using foot and shoe dimensions” Forensic Science International 147 (2005): 181–184.
Pollak, Sorcha. “Size 8 Is the New 7: Why Our Feet Are Getting Bigger” Time 16 October, 2012. Online edition, accessed 29 October, 2013.
Wunderich, Roshna E. and Cavanagh, Peter R. “Gender differences in adult foot shape: implications for shoe design” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (2001): 605-611.