So many wonderful articles have been written on the bio-mechanics of the human foot and the benefit of walking and running in Vibram Five Fingers and other "barefoot" style shoes, that I will not, here, tread such familiar ground. Rather, this article is an exploration of our cultures depraved foot fetish, its bio-mechanical perversions, and the divestment of the uni-toed serf shoes that have crippled wo/mankind for far too long!
I have a little joke I make about my Vibram Five Fingers... I like to say, "They are mankind's greatest invention since the wheel." This is, of course, a bit of a joke, as some truly innovative cultures - I'm thinking of the Inca/Quechua of Peru - Didn't really even utilize the wheel (evidently it was too hilly in the Andes). What I mean to say here is that this may be the biggest footwear breakthrough since the moccasin. This is difficult to say publicly (please go easy on me, die-hard primitive-skills fundamentalists), I think they may even surpass the moccasin. I don't say this lightly... Read on.
"What are those?"
Before I begin, allow me to issue this WARNING: If you choose to embrace this podiatry pentad please be prepared. Expect the flummoxed stares of the uninitiated and the probing questions of the uninformed.
I have generated some pre-fabricated responses, because - and those of you who wear them know - people constantly stop to ask about your shoes. There are a few typical comments and questions that people ask, almost as if on queue. Next follows a small sampling of the usual suspects:
1. "Are those things supposed to be comfortable?"
2. "Those look really comfortable but I just can't stand having anything between my toes. Doesn't that bother you?"
3. "How can you wear those, they are just so weird looking!"
4. (Maybe my favorite) "Those are cool, but how is the arch support?"
In fairness, I would like to be clear about this upfront. If I suspect that someone is asking me these question with a genuine interest and an open mind, I am happy to share. If, however, I feel I am simply providing amusement for a dull and unpolished mind, I have a script. I will share it in a moment, but first, lets explore some perversion.
Since I first awoke to the startling conclusion that I was a highly domesticated and crudely shod primate, I have wrestled with the following puzzling enigma. Why does nearly every shoemaker design shoes that angle acutely towards a terminal point at the toe? Here is what I mean: Do me a favor and take off your shoes. Follow this with the removal of your socks. Now, gazing with a soft focus at your foot do you notice an overall shape more like a divers flipper, or is your foot shaped like a stiletto? If your foot looks like the one below you are exempt from this conversation:
This image is of the foot that the shoes I grew up with were designed for. If you think that I am being dramatic, please go through your closet, gather together a sampling of the shoes in your collection and compare them to the feet that are just left of this text. I have shown this image a few times to some rather large crowds as part of my projected slideshow presentations. It has been an interesting psychological experiment to watch the reaction of the crowd as it goes from one that says "business as usual" to a kind of light revulsion. This is usually followed by laughter of a strange and somewhat uncomfortable nature. It takes a moment for a person to awaken to the full meaning of the image. Yes, this photograph is a fabricated deformity. Stranger still, it is the imagined deformity that shoemakers build shoes for. Nearly all shoemakers, from those who manufacture athletic shoes to those who build dress shoes, from fashion to function, there is a perverse foot fetish in full effect. It pervades the minds of cobblers and podiatrists alike.
I suppose you can force a foot into a sort of blunted point. I guess the proper term would be "brace" the foot. I say this because of the way the side walls of the shoe's toe-box presses the metatarsals together. It reminds me of the way dental braces bind together the teeth. I guess there is more similarity between orthotics and orthodontics than just the sound of the word. I digress.
Let's conduct the following thought-experiment: If we were to put a person with fully functional legs into a pair of leg braces, and required that they don them for most of their waking hours, year after year, what would be the outcome? I suspect we could anticipate some muscular and skeletal atrophy after a time. If you attempted to walk around in leg braces each day and only took them off to shower and sleep how weak would your legs eventually become? What if you implemented this regimen from the early days of walking? How comfortable would you be without them after a few decades of living in your leg braces? How safe would you feel without them?
All Bound Up
In fairness, we wouldn't be the first culture with a foot-deformity fetish. The Chinese practiced foot binding - which is to say, that it was practiced on Chinese women - right up until 1912. It is thought that no small part of the allure was the way these broken, crippled, and deformed feet caused these women to walk. You can imagine with a child-sized foot there might be a certain, um... Sway to the hips. This was, evidently, seen as rather sexy in its day.
And yes, this is a real image of a bound foot. If this seems hideous, oppressive, or like a frightening perversion, I ask you to consider the many well accepted body augmentations that people undertake today to meet the beauty fetishes of our culture. Then, after this reflection, I ask you to take a closer look at this image of the bound foot. Notice the shape, the long, extended heel, the toes bent at a sharp angle to the ball of the foot. The deep, exaggerated arch. Is this familiar?
Sexy In Heels
This issue reminds me of the cultural bias/blindness that we all, conscious as we may seek to be, suffer from at times. People will campaign in the streets to stop the female circumcision that is practiced in some African countries, and those same people will have their newborn boys circumcised later that week. Similarly, we are repulsed by the concept of foot binding, and we will openly and emphatically criticize the way that it de-humanizes women, reduces them to mere sex-objects, and the way it feeds the dominator paradigm, and we will say it all while wearing these:
I guess there's still nothing sexier than a helpless woman that can't walk properly. I think male dominators have always liked a woman that can't run away.
Seriously though, who has been perpetuating the mythos that this is attractive, desirable, or stranger still, is somehow sexually empowering for women? Watching a woman attempt to walk in these body distorting foot-traps calls back to the foot binding of China, and is the very image of the foot fetish that pervades the civilized mind. I won't get distracted by the discussion of the anterior pelvic tilt that this footwear causes and what kind of affect this might have on the body-mind/physiognomy of the woman who wears it.
Who's the brains of this operation?
So admittedly, I have been rhetorical in this blog, asking questions who's answers are at best obvious, and at worst provocative.
So here is another. "Is there a part of your brain that controls your feet?" And yet another still. "What happens to that part of the brain when the feet are splinted-off in shoes?" Do these neurons eventually go to sleep, or atrophy from lack of use? While our feet may not be adapted for text book prehensility, they certainly do come pre-packaged with five intact toes, each with its own role (this little piggy went to market). Shoes on the feet remind me a bit of mittens on the hand.
Mittens or Gloves?
Each year I take a significant amout of tactical workshops. This means I end up training with a fair bit of military, police, and private contractors. They often ask about my Vibram Five Fingers, and usually this begins with the typical insecure male jesting. I prefer to quickly turn the table, and will usually ask these professional tactical operators the following question: " If you had to conduct an important operation, would you prefer to do so wearing a snug fitting and kinesthetically responsive tactical glove or a sensory dulling, over-padded, finger constricting mitten?" This usually puts any further jesting to rest.
My point? The shoes most of us grew up wearing - I say most of us, but really mean all of us, since I don't personally know any exceptions to this - were more of a mitten than a glove. But, at least a mitten is shaped a bit like a hand. The shoes that I grew up in were shaped very differently than my foot, or the feet of those around me. What's worse, they lead to the progressive weakening and atrophy of the musculature of the foot, which strangely and even perversely, seems to be the very fetish that our culture obsesses over.
This brings me to the scripted answers for the above mentioned common questions the Vibram Five Finger wearer hears:
Q: "Are those things supposed to be comfortable?"
A: "More comfortable than any shoe that I have ever worn. That is, if you think having your body parts in their normal, healthy anatomical shape and alignment is comfortable."
Q:"Those look really comfortable but I just can't stand having anything between my toes. Doesn't that bother you?"
A: "Really? You can feel your toes? Thats a start!"
Q:"How can you wear those, they are just so weird looking!"
A:"Your foot mittens look weird to me. Aren't you embarrassed to wear such archaic footwear?"
Q: (Maybe my favorite) "Those are cool, but do they have any arch support?"
A: "Please take a moment to consider this. Arch support causes the lower leg muscles that support your arches to atrophy and so contributes to the collapse of your foot's arch. Arch support is like crutches for your feet."
In conclusion, are Vibram Five Fingers the official shoe of the ReWilding movement?
I believe they are, however, and this is the more poignant observation, most of the shoes we have worn throughout the course of our lives are symbols of, and part and parcel to, our human domestication.
Most of us who are ReWilding are seeking a shoe that minimizes the impact it has on the free functioning of our biomechanics, and works with, rather than against, our anatomy. What is most amazing is that it has taken this long for shoes like this to become a reality!
I love to go barefoot, however this is something I prefer in natural and clean landscapes. When I am in a town or city, in public buildings or worse, public bathrooms, I prefer good footwear. When I am on a landscape that risks injury to my bare-feet (I am thinking of the cacti dappled desert we call the Sonoran) I prefer, like the indigenous peoples who developed the first tanned leather moccasins, to have foot protection. I will gladly take the physically responsive, bio-mechanically and anatomically accurate, ergonomic foot-glove over the sensory dulling, over insulated, prima donna padded foot-mitten any day!
Viva la Vibram!
In part 2 of this blog, I will explore the pros and cons of a life lived in Vibram Five Fingers (or at least in the pairs that I have personally tried and tested). I will also share the tips I have uncovered for getting the most out of them, for keeping them clean and smelling good (or not bad at least!) and I will venture to make some rather forward requests to the people at Vibram for a special edition shoe that I think many of us would love to have!
Oh, I almost forgot, my friend at BornToRun.com wanted me to extend to you the 10% off coupon code SURTHRIVAL for any purchase at their store. They have an outstanding selection of Vibram Five Fingers as well as everything else "barefoot". Enjoy!
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog. Please share it, and share your comments below.
ReWild Yourself, ReWild Your Feet!