After nearly 20 years of leading a predominantly barefoot lifestyle, I keep being amazed by the amount of common assumptions "shoddies" (people who don't like going barefoot and prefer to be in shoes most of the time) make about us barefooters. What I find most interesting is that all shoddies seem to make the same assumptions over and over; even the ones that claim "Oh, I used to spend entire summers barefoot as a kid".
This, sadly, goes to show how misinformed we are as a society and how generalized these misconceptions are – even among health professionals and other "experts" such as sports trainers and traditional footwear designers; as well as individuals in positions of authority like police officers, security guards, establishment managers and corporation executives, just to mention a few. Additionally and unfortunately, here in North America, the association of bare feet with lack of education, destitution, and the hippie sub-culture is still very predominant. Therefore, we barefooters face a series of social challenges on a daily basis which make our desire to lead a "normal" barefoot lifestyle rather frustrating at times.
Often times, I take the chance to respond to these assumptions in an effort to share a bit of the knowledge and personal experience I have acquired over the last two decades about the benefits of a barefoot lifestyle and to help debunk some of these social myths.
Here is a list (in no particular order) of some of the most popular assumptions I encounter on a regular basis, along with my respective responses:
If you go barefoot, feet loose sensitivity
Quite the opposite! Feet "awake" when they are set free and allowed to get back to a more natural state. Human feet, like our hands, have many nerve endings that provide a lot of sensory feedback to help us determine the kind of environment we're in. Barefooting helps to fine tune the sense of touch in our feet and to bring it back to "normal" after being in confinement for such a long time in shoes.
You will get a sick if you go barefoot
The assumption is that one's feet will get cold and this will cause us to get sick with a cold or a flu. However, viral infections such as the common cold and the influenza are transmitted from person to person (and in some cases from animals to humans) via direct contact, most often via people's hands after being in contact with an infected individual or surface and then brought in contact with one's mouth, nose or eyes. Sometimes, the transmission can also occur via airborne virus from someone's sneezing or coughing. Therefore it's much easy to catch a cold or flu after shaking someone's hands or touching an infected surface, like a doorknob or a grab bar, than from walking around barefoot.
A smaller group of people assume you will contract other diseases like hepatitis or parasites by going barefoot. Consulting with my Physician, he told me that this is very unlikely, especially in the Western world, where proper sanitation is prevalent everywhere. Moreover, he mentioned that by going barefoot regularly, I'm also helping my immune system as I'm continuously exposing my feet to the environment. The only precaution he mentioned was to have my tetanus shot up to speed in case of a cut.
You will get infected with athlete's foot if you go barefoot
Let's see, the last time I suffered from athlete's foot was some 25 years ago… some 5 or 7 years before I started even thinking about going barefoot in public! Hmmm, why would that be? Well, it turns out that athlete's foot (disturbingly similar and closely related to "jock itch") is caused by a microscopic fungus called Epidermophyton floccosum . This organism, like any other fungus (including the mushrooms you eat on your pizza), thrive in moist, dark places.
Now, let's put 2 and 2 together: You walk barefoot or in flip-flops around the gym showers or the pool deck – the places where it's assumed most athlete's foot infections initiate and spread – the tiny mushrooms stick to your skin between your toes and, even if you wash and dry your feet thoroughly, there are a few of these microorganisms that stay stuck to your toes as you quickly put your shoes and socks back on to leave the gym. After only a few minutes, your feet start sweating in those warm shoes of yours – this, in addition to the nearly total absence of light inside your footwear, gives the tiny fungi the perfect environment to thrive and multiply into an "infection".
On the other hand – or foot, if you will – if you happened to stay barefooted after the visit to the gym, your feet would get the proper ventilation and light they need to help your skin get rid of the pesky fungi that happened to sneak between your toes and, thus abort the infection altogether.
Barefooters help spreading disease
Let me ask you: What disease do you think I will be spreading by going barefoot? If you're thinking about something like athlete's foot, please read above… Otherwise, I'm very pleased to tell you, my feet have been the healthiest over the last 18 years – so I think I don't have any "foot disease" that I can spread around.
You will step on something sharp and hurt yourself!
This one is a classic, and one that seems at the forefront of people's fears and assumptions in regards to barefooting. While this is a fairly real risk in urban areas, it's also much more remote than most would assume, and there are a few reasons why:
1. Feet are much more "intelligent" than most people give them credit for. Having many nerve endings and a fine-tuned sense of touch, our feet have a great system to alert us when we're stepping on something that might be dangerous – just like your hands alert us if we touch something sharp, hot, or otherwise hazardous. Aside from the sense of touch, our feet come naturally equipped with amazingly strong and flexible soles (even those of us who are naturally "tender- footed"); which are quite resistant to punctures. If this were not enough, once used to going barefoot, human feet shift balance amazingly quickly to diminish pressure from points where the sole is in touch with something sharp; thus further preventing the risk of skin puncture.
2. City streets are not a "war zone"! There is not nearly as much broken glass, nails or metal debris on any average street as most "shoddies" seem to want to believe.
3. Our feet have a great set of team members to help us navigate through the "danger-filled" streets: our eyes. With their peripheral vision, eyes are continuously scanning our path as we walk, spotting any visible dangers about 20 paces ahead of our body, sending signals to our brain to help us avoid them as we approach them. All this happens naturally and with no need for us to be thinking about it continuously or looking down at the sidewalk all the time. It's simply part of the way we walk.
Someone will step on your toes!
I'd be lying if said this has never happened to me; I'm sure it's happened to you too, a few times here and there. However, let me ask you: how would a pair of sandals, any open-toe shoes, or even a pair of canvas sneakers could save your toes when this happens?
One thing can assure you, people aren't in the habit of stepping on my toes often. Over the last 20 years, I think I've been stepped on maybe 3 times. Surprisingly enough, it hasn't happened in crowded places – quite the opposite! I bet you any kind of money though, it would happen much less even, if more people went barefooted as they would be much more aware of their environment as opposed to stomping around without any sensory feedback from their muffled feet, trapped in shoes.
We need arch support so they don't "fall"
No we do not. The human foot has a strong structure on its own. Foot arches, like domes in architecture, are among the strongest and sound structures there are. Aside from providing support for our body weight, our arches are also designed to play a crucial role in our walking bio-mechanics as they bounce up and down with every step we take, in a spring-like motion that help us propel our bodies forward when walking or running. By providing artificial arch support, we deter this natural function and create a dependence that is totally unnecessary to begin with; as well as putting more stress in other parts of our lower bodies to compensate for the restricted foot motion.
As a personal experience, I can tell you that I was diagnosed with very low (or "lazy) arches when I was about 12 years old and I was prescribed orthotics. Fortunately, my parents didn't buy me the orthotics at the time due to lack of funds. Later on, I was diagnosed again with the same problem when I was about 22 – right around the time when I started going barefoot on a regular basis. Again, I didn't get the prescribed orthotics because I wanted to give my arches a chance to get stronger on their own. Lo and behold! I'm very happy to report that my foot arches bounced to a "normal" level only after 2 summers of going barefoot and I have never had any arch problems ever since.
You must have a foot fetish
Yes, I do. I happen to have an admiration for well-kept, healthy, men's feet and I also think barefoot men look very smart (sorry ladies, your feet might be pretty but they do nothing for me). There, I admitted it, happy!?
I'm only including this assumption simply because I think it's utterly UNFAIR to the vast majority of barefooters out there who do not have a fetish, attraction, or as I prefer to call it, an "admiration" for the human foot. I actually happen to know a great number of barefooters who do not have any interest in feet from the aesthetic, let alone sexual, point of view. I think it's silly for people to assume anyone goes barefoot only to satisfy some sort of fetish or fantasy. Sorry people, get a life!
Your feet are smelly/nasty
I beg your pardon!? They might get dirty from being in direct contact with the ground, but "smelly" or "nasty"? I think it's easy to assume my feet smell since yours probably reek and feel all clammy, from being in those shoes all day long, don't they?
You must remember, your feet get smelly because they sweat in your shoes creating quite a bit of moisture and warmth, thus creating the perfect environment for microbes like naturally occurring bacteria, fungi, and yeast to develop and thrive, feeding on a yummy supply of dead skin cells, readily available from your feet. Unfortunately, open-toe shoes and sandals also make your feet smelly because the bacteria develop in the areas where your skin is in continuous contact with the footwear, like the insoles and straps. Man made materials only aggravate the problem since they tend to be hotter and less breathable than leather.
I'm sorry to disappoint you but my feet are neither nasty nor smelly, just bare and healthy – very much like your hands!
Barefooters are hippies, low-class, or uneducated
These seem to be the most predominant mental images people have about barefooters. On occasion, some media reporters who have interviewed me in the past have confessed they thought I was some sort of hippie before they actually met me. Often times I also get comments from others about my clean cut appearance which "doesn't go" with the barefoot "thing".
Well, sorry to disappoint you all. I really hate bragging but I can tell you I come from a rather conservative, middle-class family. I attended private schools from kindergarten to high school. I also have a college education and I speak both English and Spanish fluently. Beyond me, I happen to know that many of the barefooters who belong to the Internet forums, and some of the ones I have the pleasure to know in person, are also professionals, including doctors, lawyers, classic musicians, engineers, accountants, entrepreneurs, etc., etc.
So, one might say we barefooters truly come "from every walk of life".
Your heels will get hurt as you stomp them on the hard pavement
No they won't. This is a sound assumption since modern footwear is designed to promote the landing on our heels when we walk and run. Since most people walk in shoes most of their lives, they assume that's the way then are supposed to walk. When we start walking barefoot on a regular basis, our gait reverts to its natural form which shifts the body weight towards the middle and the front of the foot when walking and running.
When walking, we still land on our heels but it becomes a much softer landing as the foot's "rolling" motion quickly transfers the weight to the front of the foot. This not only saves our heels from being destroyed by the stomping on hard surfaces, but also prevents impact injuries in our knees and lower backs.
When running, we tend to land on the middle of our feet or sometimes on the ball of our feet (depending on speed and technique) and the arches, along with the calf muscles and the knees, trigger a spring-like motion that cushions the whole step and help us get propelled into the next step in a smooth motion.
Your soles must be very thick and calloused
I wish! I'm probably one of the most "soft-soled" barefooters you'll ever encounter. Both my palms and my soles are naturally very soft, thin, and I don't build callous easily. As a kid, I was always made fun of at school because of my soft hands. I still get comments from friends in this regards when they shake my hand: "what kind of lotion do you use? Your hands are so soft!" Unfortunately, I can't bottle my formula; otherwise, I'd made some money with it already!
Because of this, I'm the classic example that illustrates the old adage: "If I can do it, anyone can do it". My soles do get tough and relatively thick but they are nothing extraordinary. Recently, I was told by a female reporter who interviewed me for a paper article that my soles were not much tougher than hers – we both laughed.
Lastly, I can tell you that barefooters soles rarely get "calloused" and "rough" as they tend to thicken and develop evenly like a smooth layer of healthy leather. Callous tends to develop on spots where the skin is rubbed continuously against something, usually in spots where the foot sole is in contact with certain parts inside the shoe.
You need a long time to condition your feet to be able to go barefoot
No you don't. The average person only needs about 2 to 3 weeks of outside walks to get their feet in shape to go barefoot on a regular basis.
You come from a place where barefooting is probably commonplace
Again, I wish! I grew up in El Salvador where appearances are very important and only the poorest of the poor have the freedom to go barefoot. I wasn't even allowed to be barefoot inside the house! I also had to wear flip-flops in the shower, by the poolside and even at the beach – otherwise I'd get in trouble.
It's illegal to drive barefoot
No it is not. There are no laws against the operation of a motor vehicle in bare feet nowhere in North America. Check this link for detailed information about this in the United States.
It's against health codes to go barefoot in restaurants
There are no health codes or regulations that prevent any patrons from going barefoot at restaurants or establishments where food is served.
Just think for a second, if this were true, how would Japanese restaurants with traditional seating areas could get away with asking people to remove their footwear before entering?
Commercial Establishments are liable if your feet are hurt in their premises if you are barefooted
No they are not. As soon as you decide to enter a place in bare feet you assume all responsibility for what happens to your feet. The only way an establishment could be held liable for such thing is if they required you to remove your shoes upon entering the place.
You must hate shoes
No I don't. Actually I find a lot of shoes very interesting and I happen to own a fairly sizable collection - at some point I counted 20 pairs of different kinds of footwear in my closet (including everything from rubber flip-flops, to winter boots, to sneakers and dress shoes). I just happen to regard footwear as an "accessory" - basically the way I see gloves and hats: I only wear them if absolutely necessary due to weather or social requirements.
Unfortunately, however, a lot of people don't seem to be able to see any gray areas when it comes to a barefoot lifestyle choice: you're either a barefooter or you're a shoddie. If it were up to me, I'd prefer to be a total barefooter. Sadly, however, I live in Toronto, Canada and I need to work for a living, so I can't live barefooted all the time. I'm close though... I've estimated I've spend an average of 85 to 90% of my time completely barefooted over the last 5 years or so - regardless of the time of the year.