Why are you barefoot?
I was asked this question while balancing barefoot along an abandoned tram track in a park in Leipzig, by an adorable five-year-old, asking the way children do, with a genuine curiosity rather than the I-already-think-you’re-an-idiot tone that adults can take. But speaking German, I scrambled for translations I didn’t know for words I needed, and in the end managed nothing but a kein-Deutsch apology and a smile. It got me thinking, though. It’s the same question I’ve been asked a million times in English, and one I’ve come to answer on auto-pilot in my Muttersprache. Those answers, though, they’re not the whole story.
I walk around barefoot a lot, and people ask me why I’m not wearing shoes a lot. When answering, I tend to rattle through a stock list of reasons. It’s better for you. It strengthens stabilising muscles in the lower leg, which are under-used by shoe wearers. It improves balance and landing, as any small mistakes and sloppy techniques won’t be covered up by a wedge of foam, but will be communicated instantly in the form of discomfort or pain, meaning you stop doing that pretty quick-smart. It increases the input of information, about surface, conditions, force, and so increases precision. Shoes change the way a human walks, encouraging longer steps and heel-striking with each step, which causes shock to travel up the straight leg and into the knee and hip, rather than being absorbed by a forefoot-striking leg, bent to take shock like a spring. Blah blah blah.
These are reasons why I should go barefoot, but not really reasons why I do. Similarly, I can list a bazillion reasons why I should eat a lot of fruit and veg. That’s all fine, sure, but I eat a lot of fruit and veg because it’s delicious and I like it. People are unlikely to continue doing something they should do simply because it’s the right thing to do; there are usually other reasons, tangible reasons. On some level, it’s gotta make you feel good.
So, why am I barefoot?
My question is, why is this question always framed as though naked feet are wrong, weird, or silly? Barefeet shouldn’t be weird, and looking at it globally and across the history of the species, shoe-wearing is the weird activity. It is true that shoe-wearing leads to atrophy of the muscles in the lower leg – you can feel them growing and flexing as you walk. Bare feet make you stronger.
It’s a real shame more people don’t go barefoot, at least once in a while, because there are things you’ll never know unless you do. The way wet grass tickles the sides of your feet on a cold morning. The way certain materials they use to repair roads can turn spongy-soft in the hot sun. The way your toes grip around the irregularities of a rock with surprising intuition. The tiny moment of chaos with each step on rain-slick cement, that miraculously turns into balance and control. Barefoot, you’ll get to know the upper and lower limits of what your body can handle, temperature wise, and I promise, it’s more than you think. You’ll figure out how to distribute weight evenly across the soles of your feet, so you can skip across gravel and rocks that you previously wouldn’t even look at without lacing up. I feel like I learn something about the world, about the peculiar material qualities of the world, every time I forego shoes. Bare feet increase knowledge.
One of the reasons that people think walking barefoot is inappropriate seems to be a form of Mean World Syndrome. This is a belief that the world is an inherently dangerous place that’s out to get them, and it’s the same thing you face when you’re out training and someone yells at you to get-the-hell-down-off-that-rail-you’re-going-to-hurt-yourself. People can overestimate risk. In this particular case, shoe-wearing sufferers of the syndrome tend to think that the world is composed almost entirely of dog shit, used syringes and broken glass, and that walking barefoot is an almost-suicidal undertaking. There are risks involved in walking barefoot, and there are certainly places where I wouldn’t do it. But the risks are small, the consequences largely reversible and they are far outweighed by the benefits. Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat – broken glass is not really a problem. Pieces large enough to be a real menace, you’ll spot instantly and avoid. Smaller shards will get into your feet, I’m not denying that, but they pop out as easily as they go in and rarely get infected. Furthermore, feet toughen up fast. Barefeet can seem scary at first, just like parkour training, but sticking with it will give you a much better idea of what actually poses a risk, and what you can take in your stride.
Shoes seem to offer protection and insulation from the world. And, as someone who’s spent more time than I’d like with the black dog, I know the temptations of shutting everything out. It can feel like sanctuary to stomp around oblivious, collar turned up and headphones in, a way to disengage from the world. And true, that’s exactly what it is, but it doesn’t help. This just shuts you up inside your own head, with your problems and fears bouncing about inside there, getting louder and louder. Going barefoot can help you to feel centered and grounded – every step returns your mind to physical experience of the world, and any mental attempts to shut yourself in get that much more difficult. An integrated part of the world, not an interruption into it. The Cartesian conceit of a mind located in but distinct from the body is almost impossible to maintain when you’re not wearing kicks. It’s easier to notice the sun on your face when you can feel the ground under your feet.
It takes a little bravery to lower the defenses, and you do it every time you go training. Then you see the world isn’t big and scary and out to get you, but actually (if you’ll forgive me a moment of unrelenting optimism) a place full of wonders. And that you, your body, isn’t under threat from all sides and in constant need of protection, but actually strong and capable of more than you thought.
Why am I barefoot? Truthfully, because it’s harder to be unhappy that way.
Photos by Grant Webster