Barefoot in the city? Yes, by all means!

Kyle Boshoff sounds a dire warning about going barefoot in the city. Sorry to be a pebble in your shoe, but there is another side to the story.

Since I have now been going barefoot for the past two decades (winter and summer), I consider myself a bit of an expert. For Casual Day back in 1990 or 1991 a girl at the office and I decided we would go to work barefoot. All day I felt relaxed and at ease. And that’s not all: while I was used to developing lower back pain during the day, on that day nothing of the kind happened.

Hence, shoes are not only uncomfortable, but they are quite unnecessary and possibly even dangerous. Thinking about it, I realised I wore shoes only because I thought others expected me to. So I asked myself: Just who gives other people authority over my feet?

Then and there I put my foot down and ever since I’ve worn shoes only on a very few occasions.

Over the years my feet have enjoyed a wide variety of conditions, from long, delightful walks in the veld to shopping expeditions in town. And let me assure Kyle: It is as possible to walk barefoot in the city as in your garden or the veld.

I know, because unlike him I speak from experience. Years of experience right down there at grassroots level.

Points the article raises

City surfaces are filthy: True, but covered in spit and faeces? Pavements do blacken soles, but that’s what soap and water are for. As for the claim that TB is a danger to bare footers: this disease is spread mainly through floating sputum droplets, which have to be inhaled. Another consideration is that the sun is a highly efficient disinfectant.

Viruses and ‘dreadful’ infections: If you’re looking for the ideal germ incubator, you’d have to go a long way to beat a warm, moist shoe. Seriously, though, the skin is a marvellous covering that offers extremely efficient protection. In summer in my city, Klerksdorp, most of the primary school kids attend school barefoot. Two of these schools are in the city centre. No child has ever contracted some dread disease from walking barefoot on the pavements – if even a single case had occurred, the schools would have put a stop to the practice years ago.

Dangerous diseases like gangrene: Please! Such blatant scare-mongering has no place in a responsible magazine – It creates the impression that you receive commission from shoe companies. In the good old days grown-ups also used all kinds of scare tactics, like the fearsome Toe Cutter (an ant-lion reputed to cut off children’s toes), to discourage children from going barefoot. The body is a highly sophisticated machine that evolved over countless millennia to ensure its survival. The sole of the foot is amply supplied with nerve endings, more per square centimetre than on any other area of the body. As a result, one immediately senses when something penetrates the foot and pulls it away before the wound becomes deep enough to result in gangrene. Of the appalling ‘foot ulcers’ I’ve never heard in my life, but I can’t imagine stuffing the foot into a tight, sweaty shoe could be beneficial.

Nails, glass shards, etc: No, before a nail can penetrate the sole, it has to be in the upright position. The chances of a nail (or needle) sticking up after falling on the ground are about equal to flipping a coin and having it stand on its edge. The same applies to glass: only a shard of broken bottle poses a credible threat. However, we are equipped with the best protection a foot can enjoy: eyes. As for thumb tacks, in all my years of going barefoot I stepped on one only once – inside the house. And that was a non-event, since the shaft is too short to penetrate deeply enough into a healthy, tough sole to cause damage.

Loose tiles, etc: Even a few short weeks of going barefoot will toughen up your soles to a surprising extent, allowing them to cope with far and away most surfaces. Remember, feet were never designed for shoes

The sun and tar form a ‘frightening’ combination: For a short while at midday in high summer tar does get rather hot, but again, a regular barefooter’s hardy soles are perfectly capable of coping.

So what are the bare facts?

Contrary to Kyle’s contention, it is shoes that are harmful, as podiatrists are increasingly, if reluctantly, conceding. Shoes cause actual, observable complaints, from corns and bunions to knee problems. Lace-up shoes, which weaken the feet like a plaster cast, are especially detrimental – not to mention high heels. Some years ago I heard an American podiatrist speaking on the radio. According to him, while 99% of all babies in the US are born with perfect feet, 75% of all adults present with some kind of foot problem, which he attributed to the wearing of shoes. He found the feet of South African children were far healthier, no doubt thanks to our kids’ habit of going barefoot.

Foot health is only part of the story

“Forget not,” Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet, “that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”

The tragedy of articles like these is that they discourage people from experiencing what going barefoot is really about rather than its joys. Even greater than its health benefits is the feather-light, fleet-footed pleasure of being barefoot. One feels cool, relaxed and quick on your feet.

On top of all this there is the interesting variation of textures underfoot, the enhanced sense of being connected to the environment, a feeling of intimacy with the world around you. Even after so many years my enjoyment of this small pleasure is undiminished.

Gandhi observed: “When you wear shoes, the whole earth feels like leather.”

Much more important, though, is how different always being in touch with the earth makes one feel about this poor, ravished planet of ours. As Johannes Loubser, who recently completed a peace pilgrimage of 1 500 km – barefoot – puts it: “There is a different level of awareness when you walk barefoot.” (The Times, 4 February 2011) When you are barefoot, you don’t onlyfeel the earth, you also feel for the earth. You want to cherish the planet, because the earth speaks to you also (if not especially) through your soles. Perhaps, if we all went barefoot, we would have been less apt to abuse the planet the way we do.  

So what does it come down to?

In my view, shoes say we are not of this world… Bare feet tell us this precious, vulnerable planet is our only safe harbour.

So please, Health24, you’ll be doing all of us – and the earth – a favour by encouraging people to go barefoot, instead of offering a spurious argument in favour of shoes.

-Health 24 reader. (Louis van Rooyen), March 2011

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