You’re about to head out for a long day at the office. You’re rocking your favorite sky-heel heels. Your huge designer handbag is ready to go. And behind the scenes, your shapewear is hugging it all in. You look like a million bucks. But your back is already feeling the pressure of those heels, and your neck is begging you to keep your bag at home.
For many women, beauty is pain. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be fashion-forward and health-conscious—you just need to know how to navigate the emerging concept of fashion ergonomics.
That’s why SpineUniverse asked Karen Erickson, DC, FACC, founder of Erickson Healing Arts in New York City, to explain how fashion ergonomics impacts the spine—and how you can use it to help you look good and feel even better.
Fashion ergonomics is the intersection of fashion and health, says Dr. Erickson.
“There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests women can make fashion choices that support their health and proper ergonomics of their body,” Dr. Erickson says. “We’re talking shoes, handbags, fit of clothing, and shapewear. Nowadays, how we carry our cell phone also fits into fashion ergonomics.”
If it feels like most fashion health concerns are geared toward women and not men, it’s because that’s the case, says Dr. Erickson. From flatter, roomier shoes to thicker bag straps, men’s accessories are more ergonomically sound than women’s.
“As a broad generalization, men don’t have as many fashion concerns,” Dr. Erickson says. “Even the style of men’s accessories—wider straps or a crossbody strap—are more ergonomic.”
Enemy of the Spine: The Top 4 Fashion Offenders
Dr. Erickson says 4 groups of accessories can do the most damage to your spine:
The problem: High heels put extra weight on your forefoot (the top of your foot, from the middle of the foot up to the toes), which can up your risk for developing arthritis from the wear and tear it puts on your joints. “High heels also exaggerate the lumbar curve, causing pain and spasms,” Dr. Erickson says.
Also, wearing shoes without good shock absorbance, like ballet flats or flip-flops, interferes with your ability to walk with a normal gait. This puts more pressure on your low back joints and discs.
The solution: While high heels are a notorious spine health offender, you can still wear high shoes without compromising your back. Dr. Erickson is a fan of platforms where the foot base is level, so you get the height without deforming or putting pressure on your foot. However, she says people with weak ankles or those at risk of spinal fractures (such as people with osteoporosis) should avoid platforms because they can pose a fall risk. She also suggests wearing platforms indoors and avoiding unlevel surfaces (like cobblestone or brick).
“Another trend I like is high heels with ankle straps,” she says. “The shoe is secure on your foot, so you have a normal gait.”
Read more about how shoes affect your spine.
The problem: The problem with giant handbags, Dr. Erickson says, is they invite lots of stuff. As the bags get heavier and heavier, they put stress on your shoulder, which causes shoulder pain, neck pain, and headaches.
“The combination of hours at a computer and on a cell phone texting, and then hauling a heavy handbag has really contributed to cervical spine problems,” she says. “People have lost the normal curve of their spine. We used to only see that in people with car wrecks who endured whiplash, but now we see it in people routinely.”
The solution: If you have to carry a shoulder bag, lighten it every day. An easy way reduce weight is to leave copies of items (like makeup, a water bottle, or shoes) in your office or car so you don’t feel obligated to carry those items in your bag.
Other healthy handbag tips include:
Shapewear and fit of clothes
The problem: In the pursuit of the perfect silhouette, you could be sacrificing your spine. Too-tight shapewear and improperly fitting clothes can cause pain, decrease your ability to move properly, and restrict circulation.
The solution: Dr. Erickson says shapewear can remain in your wardrobe as long as it’s not interfering with your ability to breathe. And, watch styles that wrap around your abdomen, as they can affect healthy, free movement.
“Your body will tell you when your clothes don’t fit—when they don’t, you’ll feel pain,” she says.
Poorly fitting bras are another common fashion mistake that could lead to back pain. Bras should feel snug, not tight.
“I’m a big fan of getting bra extenders that widen your bras,” Dr. Erickson says. “Very often, women get wider around torso but don’t change bras size, which restricts the ribs.”
Dr. Erickson recommends women get a professional bra fitting every two or three years, unless you’ve had a major weight change.
The problem: Think about how much time you spend on your cell phone. Your neck is likely craned down, and that position puts a lot of stress on your neck and decreases your natural cervical curve.
The solution: It all comes down to posture. Dr. Erickson says it may not look discreet, but holding your phone up in front of your eyes is the best cell phone posture.
Fashion Ergonomics: It’s More than How You Look
Ultimately, Dr. Erickson says women should feel healthy and empowered in their attire. A huge part of that is posture, which not only helps you look good—it’s essential to spine health.
“I want women to feel empowered and walk with perfect posture,” she says. “Women who are empowered walk with an open chest and erect posture, and their eyes are looking out in front of them—not down or slumped forward.”