Wading Through the Minefield of International Shoe Sizes

One thing I absolutely hate about international moves is the lack of standardization. Yes, it can be quaint that each country has its own idiosyncracies. Much of the charm of travelling arises from the fact that not everything is the same around the world. How boring that would be.

But in matters of sizes and technical specifications the world would be a better place if everyone could just agree on one system. I don’t even care which one, with the possible exception of the metric system – sorry America, but it is by far superior to feet and pounds and a freezing temperature of 32.

Different standards result in a whole lot of extra work for those of us moving to a new country. I could do without two different voltages, as I’ve described before.  I could definitely live without travel outlet adapters. I resent having to own hole punchers for three-ring as well as two-ring binders. I have bought more ill-fitting duvet covers than you can shake a stick at. I once thought I would fail a statistics exam in business school because I couldn’t get past a question where you needed to know how many ounces are in a pound. The whole PAL vs NTSC TV standard debate still confuses the hell out of me and my kids will never understand why a European xBox game won’t work on our American system. I’ve destroyed scores of bolts by using a wrench from the U.S. on a European screw, and vice versa. And I have absolutely no idea which size shoes I should be buying here in South Africa.

I’ve studied online conversion charts in the past but they’re inconsistent. U.S. shoe sizes have the added complication that there are women’s and men’s sizes, two digits off from each other, but kids’ sizes follow the men’s system, even girls. So you expectantly turn towards the European system and think it must make more sense, until you realize that their shoe sizes can’t possibly be based on centimeters – that would make for some rather huge feet. I did come across a brilliant system called Mondopoint that tries to standardize it all, not just length but also width, but unfortunately it is only used for ski boots. Wikipedia tries to make good sense of it all here, but I still find it very confusing.

I was forced to buy new shoes and therefore wade into this minefield of shoe size conversion last week, for the first time since living in South Africa. Until now, we’ve been able to dodge this bullet by loading up on our home leave trips, stocking the kids’ shelves several sizes up, with the advantage that shoes are also cheaper overseas than here. But a huge hole had appeared in my running shoes, because I had been playing tennis in them, and what was needed ASAP was some real tennis shoes.

When you buy shoes in South Africa, you go by your UK shoe size. That is the size you tell the guy going into the back to retrieve the correct box from the shelf. I thought I was smart and looked into my old shoes to see what UK size they are. This is what it looked like:

Size label in a Nike tennis shoe bought in the U.S.

Great, I thought, I’m a size 5.5 or 39 in the rest of Europe (never mind the fact that when I left Germany, many years and four kids ago, my shoe size was 37, I swear it). But when I tried on the new tennis shoes I had set my eyes on, they felt tight. So I kept trying on bigger shoes, until this one fit:

Label in an Adidas tennis shoe bought in South Africa

And wouldn’t you know, that one was a U.S. size 8, the very thing I had wanted in the first place. I went back to the 5.5 UK ones, and they said they were only a U.S. size 7. Meaning a U.S. size 8 is either a UK size 5.5 or a UK size 6.5, depending on the brand. When I checked more shoes at home, I found yet another combination: 8.5 US and still 5.5 UK but only 38.5 European. Have I thoroughly confused you? I wonder if it has to do with the women/men thing, but whatever it is, it’s very irritating. I often have to buy shoes for my kids without my kids actually there, and it would be nice to know what size they are, at least temporarily until they grow out of it again. I admit I actually have a spreadsheet somewhere to keep track of such stuff. Very anal, I know. I will spare you from summarizing all my findings in a chart.

In the end, I settled right in the middle for a UK size 6, since the 6.5 one looked very long. We’ll see how it goes. They do look pretty.  Actually, they better fit well, since these are by far the most expensive tennis shoes I’ve ever bought in my life and I’ll be very upset if so much as a hint of a blister shows up anywhere in the vicinity of my foot with these babies on.

Maybe I should have tried playing tennis in my ski boots.

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