To Shoe or Not to Shoe

US customs, trends and other cultural observations from a westerners third world perspective.

So I don’t normally research my posts.  But in this case I decided to google “Barefoot Running” and “Barefoot” because I just wanted to see what else was out there.  I searched for fans and foes and read through at least 16 different websites and this was only just scratching the surface.  Was I surprised?  Yes.  Should I have been? No.  Do I still think I have a unique viewpoint?  Yes.  So read on.

The Trend: Running barefoot and even living barefoot in a society that still says “No Shoe, No Shirt, No Service.”  Or if barefoot isn’t working for you, there are now many different varieties of almost barefoot footwear.

The Good: Running and other outdoor activities are great for healthy living.  These websites claim that running barefoot or even just switching to more minimal footwear helps return the body to its natural state.  This natural state can be seen in runners gaits and the impact their feet and joints receive and some websites even claim that certain cases of flat feet can be dealt with by just going barefoot.  They even claim that runners receive less injuries when running barefoot.  When the feet are engaged with the ground instead of shrouded in shoes, all the senses engage and this makes the running experience even better.  Our ancestors did it, why can’t we?

The Bad: Not everyone agrees with these claims.  Some claim that injuries increase without shoes and that barefoot runners are twisting the facts for their own agendas. Being barefoot is obviously not healthy for people with diabetes or with other foot problems that are more painful without supportive shoes.  It also depends on where you walk and run.  True barefooters claim that walking over rocks or hot cement isn’t a big deal but it might bother some people.  It is one thing to be barefoot on clay, grass or other surfaces that give.  From my own experience different surfaces really do make an impact on your joints.

The Reality: In my mind the jury is still out on being barefoot.  It seems, like with most things, that it is great for some people and it doesn’t work for other people.  That’s life.  Shoes are here to stay but they will continue adapting.  Running shoes no longer means only heavily padded, heavy shoes.  Now you can buy everything from thick socks, strappy sandals, vibram toe shoes to lightweight but still traditional running shoes, all the way to the very traditional heavily padded shoes that companies are not going to stop making anytime soon.  The more minimal shoes are great for many reasons.  I have a friend who uses them because they are lightweight and easy to just throw in her purse when she walks to and from work.  Minimalist shoes do change the way you run and depending on your body, this may help your gait and make your running experience more enjoyable.  But in the end it is an individual decision.

A PNG Perspective: PNG was traditionally barefoot and still is very barefoot.  Maybe it isn’t related to the barefootedness but the majority of people in PNG are flatfooted.  Being flatfooted in the US causes problems and trips to a podiatrist.  But in PNG, it is just the way it is. In cities or other larger towns most people wore flipflops, many wore a certain type of shoe (sorry I can’t remember the name right now) and some even wore work boots or rubber boots.  However, it wasn’t uncommon to see people with bare feet in stores, restaurants and around town.  In the villages the majority of people were barefoot or wore flipflops.  Footwear choices were based on lots of factors but mostly cost, availability and need.  Being barefoot wasn’t normally a problem but shoes were cherished and worn until they literally fell apart.  In Madang (on the coast) people preferred to wear shoes when walking on the roads because their feet were cut up less.  And in the Southern Highlands (in the mountains) I saw many barefoot people with thorns in their feet and other injuries.  This includes kids living with splinters in their soles.  They have super thick soles but that doesn’t completely protect the feet.  Papua New Guineans generally have no trouble running over rocky ground but that doesn’t mean they are impervious to injury.  A thorn can still go through the thickest sole and then (from experience) the thick sole makes it much harder to remove and it also takes longer for it to grow out on its own.  In general Papua New Guineans live with a barefooted reality but are thankful when they did have shoes to wear.

This Westerner’s Words:  When I finally settled into life in the village I was barefoot most of the time.  Every once in awhile I thought that I would do better with shoes for hiking but the mud always proved more powerful.  Shoes just stood as another slippery layer between my feet that the log bridges and clay hills.  However, when I developed a foot fungus brought on by the constant dampness and when the weather was constantly cold and wet, I found myself wishing I had shoes that would keep my feet warm and dry.  In Ukarumpa I wore shoes most of the time because the rocky roads weren’t foot friendly for me.  But lots of other expats and of course Papua New Guineans walked on the roads just fine.   However, in a heavy rain when things were wet and slippery or on wet grass bare feet still were best.  Now that I am back in California I am enjoying wearing the shoes that sat unused for three years.  My feet really aren’t soft but they aren’t tough and leathery either because although I did spend many months in bare feet I chose to walk on grass and clay and other softer surfaces.  I still enjoy being footwear free but shoes are a part of life in California and I am going to enjoy them while I can.

Some Websites with Various Perspectives:


More Shoes

And More Shoes

In Favor of Barefoot Living

Against Barefoot Running

In Favor of Barefoot Running

Want more information?  Just google it.