“The more our bodies are strangers to us the more we remain strangers to life.” – Carol Bernstein and Therese Bertherat (The Body Has Its Reasons: Self-Awareness Through Conscious Movement)
WTF Is On Your Feet?
When people see me wearing my Vibram Five Fingers, they stop and stare and some say, “Oh they’re so weird”. I reply “they just look like feet, are feet so weird?” Apparently so, but maybe it’s because feet don’t look like feet anymore, they look like shoes.
Leonardo Da Vinci said the human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and work of art. He was right, but somehow we’ve gotten lost along the way by the influence of fashion and marketing, thinking we can improve on what Mother Nature gave us.
Why are we so embarrassed about a foot shaped shoe, one that allows freedom to move naturally, maintaining a strong but mobile foundation (the feet) without compromising the entire structure (the body) allowing it to move well, with balance, stability and confidence, as it should… and without pain?
Vibram Five Fingers are the closest thing to being barefoot I can find. They are a perfect compromise to being completely barefoot. A shoe that will not manipulate or influence the form and function of the foot, and will not change the biomechanics.
From an early age our feet are shoved into regular shaped shoes, and some into even weirder shapes and they are gradual, over time, moulded into what we recognise as a shoe shaped foot.
Not only that, but most shoes have a heel, shortening the muscles and tendons of the back of the leg, a toe lift (i.e. sports shoes) disconnecting your big toe, the anchor and pivot point crucial for balance and skilful movement, and an arch support, making the muscles that would be creating the arch weak and useless.
Add these together and you have a foot with a completely overstretched sole, the muscles and joints unable to move, and the foot becoming pointed, rigid and narrow, rather than staying wide, i.e. the same shape as when you were born. Imagine it’s like any body part, being held in a cast, unable to move or feel for a very long time.
Strong and Mobile
With 33 bones 26 muscles, the human foot has evolved be a strong and mobile part of our body. Our feet should be as dexterous as our hands. Our body created more joints where it needs more movement, enabling us to move optimally and distribute load and forces to muscles and soft tissues instead of directly to bone.
Their purpose is not only to hold you up and help you navigate terrain, but they are also a sensory organ, like your nose and your eyes, transmitting the subtlest of information to the brain about how to move the rest of your body.
And when they have the freedom to move naturally, adapting to every texture and shape of the ground, moving through many micro-movements each step, your body above can articulate with fluidity and ease.
Transitioning: Regress to Progress
People ask what it’s like to run in a minimal shoe, thinking it’s dangerous to run on tarmac or hard ground (because their doctor told them… seriously, I hear this ALL the time).
The feet, as sensory organs, will adapt and respond appropriately to the surface they feel; so naturally, when your feet can actually ‘feel’ a hard surface, they will respond appropriately and give the correct messages to the brain of how to move and with how much load.
But we also have to be aware of what mindset we take when we go out for a run in our nice new minimal shoes. Transitioning to minimal shoes is not ‘No pain no gain!’
It must be done with a regressive mindset; learn to walk before you run. Let the feet rebuild their strength; awakening the muscles and strengthening the bones through appropriate, progressive loads, bringing back elasticity and strength to natures perfect engineering. Slowly building this way, the senses start to balance as the foot knows the terrain.
The body is intelligent, so feeling your way into this is key. Everyone is starting in a different place, there is no one set formula, just intuitive intelligence.
Once transitioned back to natural how we evolved to be, feeling the ground only gives more confidence to move freely, without fear of falling, twisting, slipping or sliding. Never do I encounter the thought that I might be doing damage to any part of my body, or that it is dangerous.
Smart and Agile Kids
There are 200,000+ neurotransmitters in the feet. The more they can feel the ground, the more the foot-brain connection stays sparking and active. Thick, cushioned and supportive shoes cut off this all-important feeling, dulling the sensory feedback our brains receive from our feet.
Vivobarefoot, a barefoot shoe brand that champions the importance of allowing kids feet to grow naturally, to let their bodies move freely and their brains to develop greater potential.
A major study from the University of Bournemouth concluded that keeping shoes off kids’ feet in the classroom helped them concentrate more, behave better and perform better academically.
According to a new study from the German University of Jena and Stellenbosch University in Africa, kids who are regularly barefoot have better-developed motor skills than those who regularly wear shoes.
And there’s much more to be said on the importance of children being able to go outside, be barefoot and play in nature. Doctor Peter Gray, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Boston College writes, “Without play, children fail to acquire the social and emotional skills that are essential for healthy psychological development. “
And paediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom writes, “The more we restrict children’s movement from nature, the more sensory disorganisation we see. It’s time to rethink what we put on our kid’s feet. Traditional school shoes are stiff, narrow, and rigid – wrecking the foot’s form and function as it grows, as well as restricting all the awesome sensory feedback our brains get when our feet can feel.”
Fashion or Function?
Early records show the trend for a heeled shoe with the riding shoes worn by noblemen of the Persian Empire. Even though very decorative, it was merely a functional aspect to keep the foot in the stirrup.
And even though a pointed, narrow toe-box had been around on and off since the 1300’s, the heeled shoe with narrow toe box, really became popular as a fashion statement by King Louis XIV of France in the 1700’s as an important status symbol of nobility.
Since then, this fashion has remained, whether it be a small heel on a man’s shoe, or a woman’s stiletto, the heel and narrow toe box are a non-functional extra to the shoe. Their only purpose was for power, status, sex and fashion… definitely not for comfort.
According to Doctor William A Rossi, a pioneering podiatrist who emphasised natural approaches to foot and ankle problems, in his article “Why Shoes Make ‘Normal’ Gait Impossible” he writes, with a heel “the body is tilted forward, pressure and load is pushed to the front of the foot for the body to maintain an erect position.
A whole series of joint adjustments (ankle, knee, hip, spine, head) are required to regain and retain the erect stance. Under these conditions, the pelvis tilts, and the pelvic and abdominal organs shift and adapt to new and unnatural positions. In this new adjusted stance, scores of body parts – bones, ligaments, muscles and tendons head to foot must instantly change position. If these adjustments are sustained over prolonged periods, or by habitual use of heels, the strains and stresses become chronic, causing or contributing to aches of legs, back and shoulders, fatigue etc.”
My Mother Has Them
It saddens me to hear and see people go in for foot surgery. They only see their feet becoming misshapen, ugly and painful. My mother had terrible bunions, had the surgery, and has bunions again now. Lots of people (especially women) tell me the same story. But it’s not hereditary, as is the conventionally held belief; it’s the wearing of conventional, shoe shaped shoes that has been inherited.
In a nutshell, according to Barefoot Podiatrist, Dr. Ray McClanahan, a former foot surgeon and creator of Correct Toes, the ‘bunion’ is the metatarsal head that has become exposed. Over time, in conventional shoes, the big toe (your natural anchor for balance of the foot and pivot point for walking) has gradually been pushed aside. Bunion surgery is just shaving off part of your foot, when what we really need to do is bring the big toe back into alignment with the metatarsals of the feet.
Fortunately my feet have now adapted back to natural, since I threw away all my ‘normal’ shoes. Otherwise, I too, would have the ‘hereditary’ bunions forming. Most foot problems can be corrected by restoring natural foot function.
The body is an adaption organism. You can adapt it to wear shoes and it’ll adapt and do it’s best to keep you in balance, until it can adapt no more, then comes pain. Or you can adapt it to ‘regress’ back to its previous natural balance, before the influence of the ‘cast’ of the conventional shoe. As Katy Bowman says, “Adaption is adaption. It’s either helping or hindering.”
Respect and Protect your Feet
We forsake the strength and balance of the foot and the entire body in the name of fashion, to conform to convention. Isn’t it about time we stopped contorting our feet into restrictive and unnatural footwear just for the sake of external appearance? Isn’t a well functioning and happy body a more sexy body?
Sometimes we acknowledge that part of the body is ugly, but we don’t take it seriously if we can hide it and if it isn’t a source of persistent pain. The foot is an excellent example. Francoise Mézieres said “You can’t preserve the foot’s perfect morphology when you wear shoes that constrain it instead of protecting it. Shoes should respect the contour of the foot and let the toes have freedom of their movements, modern aesthetics doesn’t accept this, but can you imagine a Greek statue with pointed feet?!”
From: The Body Has Its Reasons: Self-Awareness Through Conscious Movement by Carol Bernstein and Therese Bertherat
Other Resources: Daniel Vitalis, Rewild Yourself Podcast #140, The Barefoot Podiatrist Dr. Ray McClanahan, Vivobarefoot.com, Kids Science, Katy Bowman, Move Your DNA, Whole Body Barefoot
Written by Rebecca Lewis
About the author
After travelling the world for 12 years as a successful photographer, Rebecca found her health and energy levels depleted. Inspired by a sailing trip, she embarked on a complete change of career and lifestyle that brought her back to nature. Finding herself thriving rather than surviving, she decided to forego her career in London for a life wealthier in health.
Seven years later she is working in Mallorca as a running technique coach and dedicated yoga instructor, with a passion for healthy living and the outdoors that she loves to share with others.