The Barefoot Book

Anyone who knows me well will know that I avoid shoes whenever possible – my normal casual footwear of choice is the flip flop (Teva Mush – they’re extremely light and easy to wear). Whenever possible I’m barefoot. So “The Barefoot Book”, by Dr Daniel Howell, sounded like an ideal read.


The Barefoot Book, by Dr Daniel Howell


For anyone who hasn’t noticed, we’re obsessed with shoes. For men it’s shiny ones for the office, for women it’s strappy or conservative toe-constrictors. For sports it’s something springy with a prominent badge. OK, so not everyone succumbs but we’re not exactly a nation of shoe-haters.

Why the love affair with shoes? It’s always puzzled me, and despite obvious objections (classically voiced in the comments in response to this article in the Daily Mail), it simply isn’t necessary to wear shoes all the time.

There are some very good reasons to wear shoes. Like when it’s cold; when the ground is not nice to walk on; when you want to dress up; if you hate your feet. Frankly, I can’t think of any other reasons. Many of the good readers of the Daily Mail, forgetting to consider facts, railed against the disgusting idea of bare feet in a Tesco. Some didn’t want to see bare feet while shopping (fair enough if that’s how they feel, though I’m not sure why – social conditioning?); some were concerned, with just a tinge of outrage, at the lack of hygiene; others pointed out that people dressed as hippies shouldn’t be allowed into Tesco anyway. Hmm.

There are a few simple facts about shoes, and a few simple facts about bare feet. Unsurprisingly to me, but apparently it comes as a huge surprise to some others, shoes are often not necessary.

Now, before I go any further I’d like to make the obvious statement about bare feet. That they have been around for a long time, and have been created through the rather clever process of evolution which ensures that important things – like eyes, teeth, hands and feet – work as well as they need to. Human beings walked on bare feet for thousands of years, and in many parts of the world continue to do so. “But it’s just not practical!” seems to be a standard response, which doesn’t take into account the actual evidence – people do walk around barefoot in many different, and often challenging, situations without too much problem. This includes sub-zero winter temperatures, and punishing rocky surfaces.

A member of the Society for Barefoot Living commented that after spending a while walking the streets of a major city with a friend who wore strong boots, his bare feet showed no ill effects whilst his friend’s boots were worn out.

I’m not religious about bare feet – a few people are, but like Daniel Howell I like to stick to facts and avoid the muddy thinking which sadly characterises those Daily Mail commenters. Shoes are tools, like gloves and hats are. If my hands are cold, I wear gloves. If my feet are cold I put on socks (indoors) and/or shoes (outdoors). If I’m gardening and there are thorns, I put on appropriate gloves – if I want to walk somewhere where the ground is not or might not be comfortable then I’ll put on appropriate shoes. If I want to “fit in” in a business situation, I’ll wear appropriate clothes which includes appropriate shoes. As the view of what is appropriate ebbs and flows, my choice of clothing and footwear will change.

My issue then is with people who judge the world from a closed perspective. They wear shoes when they go to Tesco, for instance, so others should. Because to not do so is not normal. To show off their bare feet is gross. They wear shoes because they were told to as a child. They wear shoes because everyone else wears shoes. They wear shoes because they think they have to, and even if they don’t particularly like it they conform – and insist that others do the same. I doubt it is just this sampling of Daily Mail readers who fall into this bag (I call such people “other people” – you know, people who aren’t me, aren’t you… others).

Most people think it’s unhygienic to go around barefoot. It’s OK in the home, maybe on the lawn or at the park, or at the beach, but not in the street, a shop, or a restaurant.

But why?

Nobody eats with their feet (well, I think actually a very few do due to disabilities – probably they’re barefoot most of the time, and wash before eating!). Most of hygiene is about eating, so there’s no problem there, but a few infections can happen just through skin. Like hookworm – which you can only get from contaminated ground, in other words ground that has human faeces in it which has hookworm larvae in it. Not many places like that around here, and if there were I’d be unlikely to walk there barefoot or shod.

Feet will remain visually clean if you wear shoes – through mud, dog mess, town dirt, whatever – but shoes are great breeding grounds for bacteria, which bare feet will pick up in bed, around the house, in the garden, in the park, on the beach, around the pool… Hygiene being about bacteria, and not about dirt, focussing on the visual evidence of cleanliness is actually pretty bizarre if you consider it. Bare feet pick up bacteria and shed bacteria. But they don’t encourage them to grow any more than our hands do (yes, we regularly wash our hands – but nobody is advocating not washing feet). Which is why bare feet don’t generally pick up infections. And they don’t transmit them any more than a pair of shoes does.

Feet which aren’t cooped up in shoes get strong quickly, building up the tissue on the sole to form a much thicker layer of protection. They can handle rough ground. They can handle high and low temperatures. They support themselves by strengthening the arches and are not prone to a sprain of the ankle because there is so much less of a turning action onto the foot (shoes provide a lever which allows the foot to turn much more easily). Feet which are cooped up in shoes are very sensitive – the brain is listening out very carefully for any stimulation at all. So anyone who normally wears shoes will feel a lot more when barefoot – which outside of the comfort areas generally means pain. The brain tones down these impulses with barefoot practice. In other words folks, the pain is all in your head.

The flip side of all this is that shoes can do a lot of damage to your feet – ingrowing toenails, reduced mobility leading to fallen arches, constrained toes resulting in malformed feet and posture changes. This all affects the way we walk, and the muscles and joints of our legs and back. Dr Howell discusses this much more convincingly than I ever could: read the book.

The Barefoot Book gives loads of information, plenty of references, and is a compelling read for those of us who already believe that shoes are tools and not full-time necessities. It isn’t very comprehensive on the downsides, and I do think it’s important to consider them. Go barefoot at your own risk – understand that if you tread on a big thorn, it will really hurt. Understand that although you can walk barefoot across glass, if you get a piece of glass in your foot it will really hurt. If you drop something heavy on your foot (and here even shoes may not help – certainly not flip flops) it will really hurt.

But being barefoot will make you think more about how and where you’re walking, will stimulate you, will add a new dimension to a walk. When you walk through a grassy field it will feel really nice. If you get mud on your feet, you will not die and may even enjoy it. Even a gravel track can feel pleasant, and you will get free physiotherapy with every step. You can experience all of this in socially-acceptable style at Trentham Gardens and Conkers, but if you recognise that you don’t need someone to create a place where it’s “allowed” then you can do it anywhere.

So go on, make me happy and do two little things.

1) Read The Barefoot Book.
2) Open your mind, and those of “other people”, and take a little walk. Somewhere. Anywhere. Barefoot.


About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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