The party season can be tough on your feet, says Catherine Nixey. Making them presentable may require more than just a little polish

As principal dancer with the English National Ballet, Sarah McIlroy's toes have to twinkle for a living. What the audience doesn't know is that the same feet also blister, bleed and bruise as a result of their efforts. Ballet dancers' feet can become horrifically damaged by the pressures exerted on them in their profession - Anna Pavlova was said to leave a trail of bloody footprints behind her on the stage. Sarah can boast some equally gruesome injuries: "As a ballet dancer, your big toenails are particularly prone to damage, as they are supporting all your weight when you go up on points. My worst foot injury was when I lost my big toenail completely."

Unsurprisingly, ballet dancers are notoriously reluctant to display their bare feet, which makes the Christmas party season rather a trial for those who are fond of the elegant footwear designed by Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and the like. "I hate wearing high heels," says Sarah. "When I go out to parties, I can't wear open-toed shoes, either - I'm so conscious of my toenails. For me, it's definitely a case of lots of nail polish." Among ballet dancers this is known as "ugly-sister syndrome" - a fear that the sight of their battered feet will make any Prince Charming run a mile.

However, ballerinas are not alone in their predicament. This year has seen a growing trend among women for plastic surgery - and even liposuction - on their feet, often costing thousands of pounds, in the quest for presentable heels and toes. Cosmetic treatments available for the feet are as diverse as for the rest of the body: surgeons can tweak and tone your extremities to podalic perfection simply by adding a little fat here, or whipping away a little bone there. Women are reported to have liposuction to slim down tubby toes, or unsightly misshapen bones whittled smooth by laser. One woman in America spent £7,000 having her bunions removed; and for just £300 you can get collagen injections into the ball and heel of your foot to reduce the pain caused by wearing high heels. Alternatively, if you're put off by the needle or the expense, £5.99 will get you a pair of small, gel-filled cushions to pop into your shoes right under the ball of the foot.

So with feet quickly becoming the latest focus for our neurosis, one of the nicest things about winter is that we can put them away in tights and boots and not look at them for the next few months. But just when you think you're safe, along come the Christmas cocktail parties, where sheer stockings and strappy sandals are de rigueur, and the problem reappears - only worse.

"Problems with feet tend to be exacerbated in the winter," says Gillian Michael, podiatrist to the English National Ballet. "In summer your feet get a bit of a break because you wear sandals more. This means that toes aren't being pressed or rubbed by the toe-box of the shoe."

The worst shoe culprits are, of course, fashionably high heeled, narrow, shallow and slip-on. High heels throw the weight forward on to the ball of the foot, exerting extra pressure on the toes, while toe-boxes that are too narrow can rub and can cause blisters within hours of putting them on. If blisters go untreated, they can develop into corns (concentrated areas of hard skin formed over a bony prominence) or calluses (more extended areas of hard skin caused by diffuse pressure) in just a few days.

Slip-on shoes can cause the wearer to claw her toes in order to keep them in place, and also tend to be "hyper mobile" (slipping around more) which increases friction and damage to the foot. On the other hand, over-restrictive footwear can lead to the more serious problem of bunions: abnormal enlargements of the bottom joint of the big toe. It was rumoured recently that even the legendary stiletto-wearer Victoria Beckham (pictured right) suffers from a bunion, and has considered undergoing painful surgery to have it removed.

All of which seems rather drastic, but it's worth considering that if you're wearing stilettos, the pressure exerted by the heel on every step is roughly equivalent to that exerted by an elephant's tread. "If you look at the shape of some of these ultra-fashionable shoes, you can clearly see that their shape doesn't remotely resemble the shape of the foot, and so obviously they cause damage," Dr Michael says. "I think that women who say that they're comfortable in their high heels have just got so used to the pain that they don't know anything else. And also I think it can be that, particularly for smaller women, they can't bear to get rid of their heels whatever pain or damage they cause - it's almost a psychological thing." As Sarah Jessica Parker (pictured left), the star of the Channel 4 fashion-fest Sex And The City, said of her well-documented preference for vertiginous heels: "I've destroyed my feet, but it was worth it."

Another unpleasant problem for winter feet is that fungal infections can worsen. "When people are drying themselves after a bath or shower, they often forget to dry their feet properly," says Gillian. "So when you put on your socks or tights, they're still damp, creating just the kind of moist environment in which fungal infections thrive. In the summer it's not such a problem as sandals allow the air to circulate." However, there are numerous powders and creams you can get over the counter to treat these infections, and for fungal nail infections a very effective new drug is available on prescription. But prevention is, as ever, better than cure, so Gillian advises always drying thoroughly between your toes and, where possible, wearing cotton hosiery.

The main reason our feet look worse in the winter is simply that people stop bothering. "In winter the feet are all enclosed; people don't see them and therefore don't worry about them," Dr Michael says. And as the months and the corns progress, people become less willing to deal with the problems.

If things get really bad, you should go to a state-registered chiropodist. "People with not very serious problems can often end up as emergency cases," Dr Michael adds. "They say, 'Oh, I didn't come before because I was embarrassed to show my feet,' but that's exactly when you should be coming. And we're used to looking at feet - it's what we do all day long. However bad your feet are, we'll have seen worse."

To reduce the problems of corns, calluses and hard skin, Dr Michael advises you to scrape your feet gently in the bath once a week with a pumice stone, and above all make sure your footwear fits properly: the dreaded "sensible shoe" approach. "You don't have to wear them all the time," Dr Michael points out. "Do what the office girls do in New York: walk to work in your trainers, and then keep a nice pair of shoes under your desk to wear during the day. Of course, you can get away with wearing heels every so often. Everything in moderation."

So it seems that it's never too late to engineer a "Happily Ever After" situation for your feet, no matter how much punishment you have given them over the years. And it's not worth worrying that much; after all, in spite of the bunion, Mrs Beckham has still held on to her Prince Charming.