A new county campaign has encouraged dozens of El Paso workers to ditch their high heels and take better care of their health.

El Paso County doesn’t require its employees to wear heels, but many women chose to wear heels on a daily basis – until the COVID-19 pandemic sent workers home in 2020.

“Before the pandemic, we were used to wearing heels,” El Paso County Chief Administrator Betsy Keller said. “We would not wear heels at home during the pandemic, so people got (unaccustomed) to wearing them. When it came time to come back (to the office), my feet screamed at me.”

Keller said the idea to switch to tennis shoes sprung up after she had lunch with a co-worker who had injured her ankle on a family hike. The conversation moved onto shoes in general and the times they didn’t want to walk to other buildings Downtown because their feet hurt and they didn’t bring a change of shoes.

In cities like New York, where people walk more often, Keller noticed women wearing professional suits with athletic shoes. At one out-of-town conference, Keller saw an attendee wear bright red tennis shoes with her business attire.

Let’s try the same in El Paso, she thought, and worked to start a campaign in the summer.

In early August, Keller and a few county employees received the hot pink Sketchers tennis shoes they ordered. Since then, county spokesperson Laura Gallegos estimated, up to 200 city and county employees have swapped out their heels and dress shoes to participate in the campaign.

About 200 city and county employees have swapped out their heels and dress shoes for tennis shoes and other more comfortable footwear in a campaign that encourages workers to walk more. (Courtesy El Paso County)

Keller asks people to commit to a year of wearing athletic shoes, but there are no strict rules. While the hot pink sneakers send a visible message, participants can wear whatever shoes feel more comfortable – and people still wear heels some days.

The campaign also isn’t limited to women – men have also told Keller about how they’re ditching their dress shoes for more comfortable footwear.

Changing shoes has already made a difference for some county employees. People are now more likely to take the stairs to go to lunch, walk to talk to a coworker instead of sending a message electronically, and walk to meetings Downtown instead of driving, Keller said. She also tracks her physical activity on a fitness watch and wants to compare her steps in one year to the last.

Wearing high heels on a regular basis also takes a toll on the body, but regular stretching can help prevent injury and pain, Dr. Sajid Surve told the American Osteopathic Association

Surve specializes in osteopathic medicine and is the co-director of the Texas Center for Performing Arts Health in Denton, where he sees dancers and other performers who wear heels.

“High heels put the foot at an angle and pull muscles and joints out of alignment, so the effects aren’t limited to the feet,” Surve said. “It’s not unusual for people who spend lots of time in high heels to have low back, neck and shoulder pain because the shoes disrupt the natural form of the body.”

A person wearing heels walks on the ball of the feet, which shifts the center of gravity forward, forcing the person to arch their back when they stand and further contribute to back pain, according to the American Osteopathic Association.

Spending a lot of time in high heels can also worsen foot conditions, such as bunions – a bony bump that forms on the joint at the base of the big toe and plantar fasciitis – inflammation of the band of tissue that runs on the bottom of the feet.

Surve recommends people do calf and plantar fascia stretches after wearing heels for a long period of time.

Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states dress policy must be applied and enforced evenly among sexes. But women choose to wear heels, even if it’s not required, because it’s the cultural norm, Keller said.

High heels are a symbol of power, professionalism, femininity and sexuality, with numerous studies indicating how people treat women differently based on their footwear. While women may feel pressured to wear high heels to appear more professional and climb the corporate ladder, one study found people took women who wore flats more seriously than women who wore heels in various work scenarios.

“We all kinda do what others are doing,” Keller said. “Kind of like how all of us used to wear pantyhose, now we aren’t. That’s one reason why we continued to wear heels… and they’re beautiful.”

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...