On Tuesday, April 5, countless people around the world will go barefoot to participate in shoe-giver TOMS Shoes' "One Day Without Shoes" (ODWS). The event is meant to bring awareness to the plight of people throughout the world who are negatively affected because they must live barefoot. TOMS donates a pair of shoes to children in need with every pair the company sells. While The Primalfoot Alliance is in favor of charitable efforts meant to improve the quality of life of the world's poor, we have some serious reservations about the messages and end results behind ODWS.
Because The Primalfoot Alliance "advocates for people to go barefoot and find prudent ways to let feet be feet first" -- our mission -- we tend to take a skeptical, but objective, glance at any activities that intend to put shoes onto the feet of people who regularly go barefoot. Our supporters have found great benefit from going without footwear, so it's important that any efforts to shoe the feet of people who have never worn them be scrutinized.
We have two concerns with TOMS' ODWS, and are sharing them here with potential remedies for each:
First, even if shoe donations are made in a spirit of charity, those shoes may end up doing more harm than good. Feet that have never worn shoes have different biomechanical structures than those that have. The feet are wider, more triangular shaped and have noticeable separation between the toes. Feet that have worn shoes have an altered shape, often taking on the shape of the shoes. The problem with putting shoes on the feet of those who've never worn them is that those shoes quickly begin to alter the shape of the feet and, therefore, their function. A 1905 study discovered that children who've never worn shoes begin to have altered bone alignment in their feet after only a few weeks of shoe use.1 What's more, shoes provide an enclosed environment that act as incubators for the growth of bacteria that cause athlete's foot and toe fungus.2 They also can contribute to corns and blistering with long-term use of the same pair of shoes.3 On a related note, we wonder if access to proper medical care is available in these same impoverished areas in case the gifted shoes cause foot problems like footwear so often does in developed areas of the world.
If TOMS or any other organization wants to provide some kind of protective footwear to the world's poor who have always gone barefoot, we recommend primal footwear that is capable of sustaining the foot's natural shape and function while providing the needed protection. There are various brands of this footwear available, but even huarache sandal kits could make a huge difference. They would provide an adequate barrier from rocks and unsafe soils, but leave the foot open to the air and keep its natural shape intact.
Second, campaigns to put shoes on the feet of those who do not have shoes often inappropriately demonize barefoot living. While there are conditions and locations in which it is advisable wear shoes, we humans can generally lead reasonable lives while barefoot. Those of us who live in developed countries -- and who often wear shoes -- can especially safely live barefoot most of the time. Our society's smooth, paved surfaces, well-groomed grassy areas, carpeted floors and other harmless ground coverings lend themselves well to bare feet. Those of us who go barefoot on a regular basis can tell you that living without shoes helps our feet to become more conditioned for such activity. Our soles are thicker, feet are better at temperature self regulation, the skin on our feet is healthier and the sensations from our feet are more pleasurable because of a barefoot lifestyle. What's more, our feet become more flexible and strong the more we go barefoot. Those who are served by organizations like TOMS have feet that are conditioned for the rougher, undeveloped environments in which they live. Quite frankly, they function well for most of their daily activities while barefoot because that's the only way they've lived. If poor people of the undeveloped world can live most of their lives barefoot under conditions much harsher than we have in developed countries, we can certainly successfully live more barefoot for greater health benefits. Campaigns that cast barefoot activity in a negative light come across as ill-conceived and misguided.
TOMS and other similar organizations could emphasize that having footwear available when needed is important. Though footwear may not always be necessary, the poor should have the option to wear protection from dangerous ground coverings. Adjusting TOMS' charitable footwear messages from stressing shoes as a necessity to an option could work wonders for striking a good balance between the benefits of barefoot activity and the prudence of having footwear available if necessary.
In summary, we're not opposed to charity. Looking at the bigger picture, however, we argue that providing potentially harmful shoes to the poor in the name of charity is short sighted. Furthermore, insinuating that shoes are necessary for a quality life spreads ignorance, something that The Primalfoot Alliance is attempting to eliminate.
1. Hoffman et al. (1905). Conclusions drawn from a comparative study of the feet of barefooted and shoe-wearing peoples. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 105-136. (Link)
2. Howell (2010). The barefoot book. 13-15.
3. Blisters, Callouses and Corns; KidsHealth.org (Link)