Measure Your Feet, Learn Your Shoe Size

I will show you how to use that odd foot-measuring contraption. More importantly, I will explain why you want to use it on a regular basis.

According to a study by the College of Podiatry, 88% of American women wear the wrong shoe size. Women also have the lion’s share of bunions, among other fun consequences. This kind of information gets tossed around all the time, usually with an implication that women wear the wrong size knowingly. I think for many women, it’s because they don’t know their size. Most of us have been fitted for a bra at least once in our lives, but with shoes we are on our own once our feet stop growing. About half the women I’ve measured were surprised when I told them their sizes. How can anyone wear (or at least look for) the right size if they don’t know what it is? Granted, fit varies from brand to brand (and style to style…and sometimes season to season), and it might turn out that your shoe is one of the “extended sizes” and nearly impossible to find, but at the very least you should have a general idea of what it is.

So how does one go about it? Googling “how to measure feet” returns lots of images of feet being traced on a piece of paper. You know, like this:

measure feet
WikiHow suggests tracing your foot on a piece of paper and measuring the width and length of the tracing.

That will get you a pretty good measurement of the overall length of your foot and an idea of the width, but it’s missing some critical information. The overall length is helpful, but you also really want to know your foot’s length at the pivot point. The pivot point of the foot is the spot where your big toe connects to the rest of your foot. This is the spot that lets you propel yourself forward with every step.

Pivot point
The pivot point – along with the ankle, this is one of your foot’s most mobile points.

Toes can be long or short regardless of shoe size. The overall foot length can be exactly the same, but depending on the toe length, the pivot point length could vary by as much as a full size.

Most shoes also have a defined pivot point where they flex when your foot does. If the shoe’s pivot point is not aligned to your foot’s, it will make walking difficult and feel uncomfortable, even if the overall length is right. In a flat or a lower heel shoe, you get that vague “it’s not quite right, but I can’t tell you exactly why” sensation. In a higher heel, you will find yourself constantly pushing your foot back in the shoe to get it to feel “right”. If you’ve ever had that experience, go find one of these right now:

Brannock foot measuring device
The Brannock device for measuring length and width of the foot is a usually-ignored fixture at better shoe stores.

This is a Brannock device. You can find them in the shoe sections of better department stores, although you might have to meander around for a while before you find it. They’re usually shoved under one of the chairs – and given the study I just quoted, probably by someone about to buy something in the wrong size. You could get a sales associate to help you measure your feet, but it’s really not difficult to do it yourself.

Measuring Your Feet

  • Go at the end of the day because most people’s feet swell up a bit during the day. Before you go, make sure your toenails are trimmed to the length you normally wear them so they don’t throw off your overall length measurement. You will want to see your foot clearly so wear socks you can easily take off or sheer hosiery, not opaque tights.
  • Put your foot into the device, stand up and distribute your weight evenly between your feet. Putting weight on the foot before measuring it is important because that flattens the arch a little bit and lengthens your foot. I see people getting their feet measured while sitting down sometimes and it really confuses me. Your foot measurement will be smaller sitting down than standing up, and it’s the size of your foot when you’re actually using it that matters for shoe comfort.
  • Make sure the back of your heel is snug against the back cup of the Brannock and your pivot point is aligned with the little cup on the side.
Foot measured in the Brannock device
I measured my feet at a department store for this article. Taking pictures of your bare feet in public gets you a lot of weird looks. It’s an interesting experience.
  • Relax your toes. Tensing them can throw off the reading. If your toes are permanently bent (probably from wearing poorly fitting shoes), gently press them down with your fingers to get the overall length reading.
  • Slide the width bar to rest against the outer edge of your foot. There are directions on the bar that say “FIRMLY for thin foot LIGHTLY for wide foot”
    If you are not sure whether your foot is “thin” or “wide”, look at the letters. B is medium. C and above is wide and A and below is narrow, or thin.
  • Note the overall length at the longest toe. The longest one, not necessarily the big toe.
  • Note the pivot length, indicated at the little side slider.
  • Note the width at the length number that corresponds to your pivot length.

You can see in the picture above that my right foot’s overall length is about 5.5, but the pivot length is closer to 6, so that is the size I need to wear in order to get shoes that will align with my foot’s natural pivot point. Because my pivot length is size 6, I look at 6 on the width bar to find my width – B toward the C end of the range. By the way, there is a range for each width, so your 6B is not necessarily the same as my 6B.

Write down all your numbers (or take pictures if you want the weird looks experience) and measure your other foot. Remember to stand up, distribute your weight evenly, push the heel all the way into the heel cup and relax your toes. Always measure both feet. The vast majority of people have differently sized feet, at least slightly. Perfectly symmetrical feet have been pretty rare in my experience.

Sure enough, my left foot’s overall length is 6, but the pivot point is the same as my right foot’s, so I don’t have to worry about accommodating two different sizes. It is also a bit wider, almost a C width and I very much notice the difference in new shoes. When I go shoe shopping, I always try the left shoe on first – if it doesn’t fit, I don’t even bother with the other one.

Fitting Tips

  • When choosing shoes, always fit the bigger foot.
  • If you have long toes and your overall length is longer than your pivot length, fit the overall length. A misaligned pivot point is uncomfortable, but scrunching up your toes for hours is worse. Ideally there should be a little bit of space between your toes and the front of the shoe.
  • Try a variety of brands. Different brands allow for different amount of fitting ease.
    Even though you now know your size(s), you may still have to go up or down half a size when you go shoe shopping, depending on the brand and the style. Even though I’m definitely a 6, I am often more comfortable in a 6.5 because of my slightly-wide left foot and high arches. Pointy toe styles and boots are especially prone to running small for me.

The Brannock measurement is a very good start, and you will most likely learn something new about your feet. Still, it does not account for the fact that our feet exist in three dimensions, not two, so there is more to consider for proper shoe fit – shoe fit nerdiness I promise to get into in a future entry.