Saturday, May 15, 2010

Going Barefoot

I’m on State Street, in downtown Ann Arbor, walking behind a tall young man with a green mohawk dressed all in black leather, but everyone is staring at me. I have on new jeans and a dress shirt, with my computer carrying case. It’s sunny, early summer, most people are dressed in less clothing than I, except I’m the only one with no shoes.

Two years ago I ‘acquired’ a running injury called plantar fasciitus, in which the fascia, kind of a sheath, or layer, of tissue running along the bottom of the foot, which aids in arch support, gets inflamed. I ended up seeing four different doctors and spending lots of money that my uninsured self couldn’t really afford, only to be told that I would never get ‘better,’ that since I was getting older, plantar fasciitus was something I’d have to learn to live with, so that every time I ran I would have to use super arch support shoes, with an extra added arch support insole, and tape my feet, every time. At the time, I was grateful. I just wanted to run again. After a while though, and after lots of tape, when I still couldn’t ever run more than twenty-five minutes at a time without feeling a throbbing pain in my heels, I started to re-think my problem: If a bone breaks, in general it heals. If a tendon gets torn, it heals. Why not a fascia?

Then a friend recommended barefoot running. Initially skeptical, after doing some informal research on the Internet, I became curious with the personal testimonies by folks on a barefoot running Yahoo! Group, who claimed their running injuries stopped after starting to run barefoot. Around the same time I came across Men’s Health and Fitness writer Chris McDougall’s book Born To Run, in part a great reflection/investigation about how we humans literally evolved as long-distance runner-hunters. McDougall also takes the running shoe companies, especially Nike, to task for pushing a product that is actually bad for the human foot. The argument goes: we humans went two million years barefoot, our feet are built for it. It’s not, like I believed for years, that we’re getting foot injuries like plantar fasciitus because we walk on paved surfaces now. To use Spike Lee out of context: “It’s the shoes!”
So I tried it, alternating running barefoot with these things made by the Vibram company called Five Fingers, basically gloves for the feet, just a rubber-like protective covering on the bottom, with no arch support or cushion. And, suddenly, immediately, I was running again, with no plantar fasciitus problems. In fact, the more I ran, the better my feet started to feel.

In order to toughen up the bottoms of my feet, I started going barefoot in my apartment, which may not seem radical, but the doctors had said I’d never be able to go barefoot again, ever. Then I moved outside, going barefoot around town. And, it felt good. Kind of naked, kind of taboo, kind of non-conformist. Sure, stepping on a pokey rock hurt, at little, and still does, but I liked the odd sensation of having sensation down there. I’d never realized how cut off my feet were in shoes. At first, especially after runs, my feet felt raw walking across cement sidewalks, and some sidewalks were rougher than others, but pretty soon my feet toughened up, and actually changed shape and size: when I had to wear shoes for whatever reason, rarely, they felt strange, small and constrictive. That was the worst part about going barefoot. The best part? Splashing through puddles and squishing mulberries.

And yes, one time after about four months with no incidents, I did cut myself on glass. I’d just walked out my front door and wasn’t paying attention, probably looking at an attractive woman across the street, so it was her fault, and I stepped on a piece of glass three houses down. I had even seen glass there before, because the kids that live there tended to have parties sometimes, so I should’ve been checking. It hurt, kinda. It bled, kinda. I put on my moccasins for the rest of the day and wore my VFFs on runs for the next two days and I was fine. I will take that kind of pain though over the plantar fasciitus kind, the kind where I can’t run for two years, any day.

The contrast between people’s reactions to me running barefoot and walking barefoot is huge. That is, everyone looks at me like I’m crazy, but when I’m running barefoot, some people actually smile, or say, “That’s so cool!” or a “Dude, that’s hardcore!” Hardcore crazy is more acceptable. Normal life? Not so. For example, I walk into my favorite cafe: The place is full, and as soon as I step in, everyone, everyone, immediately stares at my feet. It’s only for about one second, maybe two, and just as quickly they look away, though as I walk up to the counter, they look again out of the corners of their eyes.

Or, on another day, walking barefoot to the Post Office, a young couple stared at me across the street while we all waited for a light to change. The woman managed to wait until we were all crossing, and I was closer to them, to say to her husband, “That’s disgusting!” I’m not sure if the majority of people in America would agree with this woman, but I realized she meant two different things. First, by going barefoot, I am walking on disgusting things, because everybody knows the streets of Ann Arbor are strewn with dogshit, and you can die from dirty feet. Second, she wasn’t just saying that going barefoot was ‘disgusting,’ nor were the people in the café worried for my well-being. No, I was forcing my disgustingness on them, spreading dogshit anthrax spores with every step.

But the first place I got busted in, of all places, was the library. I admit to disappointment: I expected a confrontation at some point, perhaps with an irate restaurant manager, but not in one of my favorite bastions of democracy. I somehow thought the librarians would be on my side, since they’re supposedly rational, and open to new ideas, open to finding out stuff, finding out facts, the truth, that they instantly know what is right and wrong. Plus they don’t serve food in libraries. They wouldn’t have anything to freak out about, right?

I had actually been zipping in barefoot all summer to drop off books or pick up inter-library loans, definitely getting some weird looks from both the patrons and employees, but no one had ever said anything. On that particular day though, I walked up to the third floor to do some browsing and after a while an employee approached me. I actually felt sorry for him, he was very apologetic, and seemed like he really would have preferred to be doing anything else but stating to me that library policy required everyone to wear shoes. I couldn’t resist making him squirm a little by saying I hadn’t seen any signs saying I couldn’t, but he said that the library rules were posted around the building, and online. And I could’ve kept going and asked him to explain why there was a policy against bare feet, but I knew he didn’t know, and even more importantly didn’t care, so I put on my moccasins I’d had stashed in my bag for just such an emergency. But I did end up feeling a little humiliated somehow, and therefore actually somewhat angry, like I had been accused of being a criminal, and by a wimpy nerd librarian!

I couldn’t let it go without a least a small fight, and emailed the library director, asking her if there was indeed a shoe policy, and where I could find it, and to her credit she did write back the next day, informing me the that rules were posted around the building, and she gave me a link to them on the library website. I followed the link and yep, there it was, Rule #4:

Requires patrons to wear shirts and shoes, or other footwear, at all times in the Library for hygiene and safety purposes. (

Also in her email, the director politely addressed my feelings, saying she was sorry that I had felt singled out, but she did add (and I paraphrase here because I unfortunately didn’t save the email) that she was sure I would understand why there had to be a rule about footwear. I know she wasn’t talking about the safety issue, because what exactly would sandals save me from in a library that my bare feet wouldn’t? Instead, she meant that I would understand that going barefoot was unhygienic, and she was politely chastising me for doing something she thought I obviously knew to be wrong. So yes, I did understand something better: People think that someone going barefoot will spread disease to them.

To which I reply: Really?

How can a bare foot spread a disease, and/or make a public place unhygienic? How can it be that the bare foot is any more unhygienic than the sole of a shoe? Have you looked at the bottom of your shoes lately? I had plenty of recent sources demonstrating the benefits of going barefoot, starting with McDougall’s Born To Run, which cites some leading sports medicine experts, and after the book came out, articles in papers and on news websites popped up talking about the benefits of barefoot running, all of which also mentioned the benefits of going barefoot in general. But to be fair, I wanted to find something, somewhere, that would explain why/how going barefoot was unhygienic. Put another way: What was Library Rule #4 based on? Surely the librarians would base their rules on facts?

So where would I go to try to find the answers to these questions? The library! Oh, the irony. I made two separate visits to reference librarians to help point me in the right direction. First they helped me find the Ann City codes as a possible source, there’s actually a link to them from the library website, but you know what? There’s nothing about bare feet in public places. They also helped me navigate the available databases, both for popular magazines and newspapers, and peer-reviewed medical journals. They helped me get the right search words (like “hygiene” “foot care”) but neither with their help, nor on my own, could I for the life of me find anything that said going barefoot was unhygienic, though one really short article in Shape magazine articulated what most people probably feel is bad about going barefoot: "Your [____] pick up particles that contain lead from paint, pesticides from lawns, allergens from plants, and bacteria from animal feces.” That’s from John Roberts, an environmental engineer quoted in the article, who tested fifteen different houses for chemical exposures. Except, that blank space I’ve made in the text? It actually has the word “shoes,” not feet. Everything that people think bad about bare feet seems just as true for shoes, more so even, since feet get washed regularly.

The second reference librarian I talked with pointed me to an obvious source, one that I should have thought of on my own, since it’s the first place all my composition students head to: Wikipedia. The “Barefoot” entry on Wikipedia was obviously put together by pro-barefoot folks, and therefore a wee bit biased, but one important thing it does mention is a possible reason why going barefoot has become so taboo, something that I’d been wondering/suspecting myself: that various myths about, and regulations against, going barefoot “were perpetuated during the counterculture movement of the 1960s, as a way to keep hippies out of conventional business establishments.” I was born in 1968, and this fits with what I remember from the seventies: both seeing people going barefoot, and NO SHIRT NO SHOES NO SERVICE signs, which nowadays are rare.

The most useful parts of the “Barefoot” entry were, like many Wikipedia entries, the References and Links sections. Most are recent magazine/newspaper articles, though none of them, of course, talk about any negative aspects of going barefoot. One of them, from The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, profiles three locals who choose to go barefoot, and this is the source the Wikipedia entry uses for the barefoot taboo coming from the anti-hippie movement in the 60s and 70s. The staff writer, Joe Miller, does a good job of giving some historical perspective on going barefoot, reminding his readers that “4 million years ago, going barefoot was all the rage,” and he has a couple claims that he presents as facts, and which sound correct, though I’m not sure where he’s getting them. The first is that we humans developed footwear as we moved to cooler areas of the globe. As a resident of Michigan, I can attest that this is probably basically true, though having walked over rocks myself, even with my new calloused feet, I’m betting protection was still a factor too.
The barefoot Wikipedia page also has a link to The Society for Barefoot Living website, and they’re the folks who I suspect wrote it. They’re a group of people in American and elsewhere, who, through the power of ‘teh Internet’ have banded together to offer support and advice to each other. Their website has even more sources about the benefits of going barefoot, and testimonials and some funny stories from members, but the most interesting and useful thing the group did was write letters to the Departments of Agriculture (which are responsible for healthy and safety codes for public businesses like restaurants) in each state asking specifically whether going barefoot was illegal or not. In every case (except for Utah, which didn’t write back, and somehow that doesn’t surprise me) the reply letters state that there are no regulations against going barefoot in public spaces. The ‘SBL’ has posted pdfs of the letters on their website. They also point out that there are no federal laws against going barefoot in public places, and only one, through The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), states that only employees of restaurants must wear footwear, for safety purposes.

I know, though, that proving logically that bare feet aren’t unhygienic, and that in fact going barefoot is good for feet, just isn’t good enough. I can present the evidence, and people still would not only not want to try it, but have an almost emotional reaction against anybody doing it, coming from some kind of currently accepted standard of cleanliness. I can’t expect everyone to lower their standard of cleanliness down to mine, not that mine are that different: I agree with washing hands as a way to stop the spread of germs and don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t. Thing is, we touch each other with our hands, we touch our noses and mouths with our hands, we touch silverware and doorknobs with our hands. With our feet? Not so much. They tend to stay on the ground, at least in the parts of the world I’ve visited. And if the counter argument is that someone going bare feet into a public place causes diseased germs to drift around and land on people’s food, why would that happen with feet and not shoes, or even sandals?

Other people having different standards of cleanliness would be fine, except that those standards affect me. That is, people’s personal tastes, and not facts, are forming policy that prevents me from doing some I want to do, when it’s not hurting anybody. So I’m left a little stumped: I wish the burden of proof were on the business to prove that I was being unhygienic, but that’s not how it works. Once someone at a restaurant asks you to do something, that’s it. Even arguing to prove one’s innocence is trouble, and nobody likes a troublemaker. I even understand that—I worked at a restaurant and I didn’t like the weirdoes that expected us to bend over backwards for their demands. And having an argument with a restaurant manager is a no-win situation for everybody:

“Excuse me sir, you need to have shoes on to be in the restaurant.”

“Really? According to what I know, there are neither federal, state, nor city laws against me being barefoot. What are you basing your statement on?”

“Listen pal, you want me to call the cops?”

Or something like that. Not fun for them, not fun for me. Both of our nights are ruined. I don’t want that. So, in order to just be treated like everyone else, if I just want to have a good dinner, without getting into a discussion about what is or is not legal to wear or not to wear in a restaurant, I have to be non-confrontational and put on shoes before I go in. Is this a big deal? I guess not. There’s bigger problems in the world. Does it make it fair? No, but a lot of things in this world aren’t fair. I’ll just have to consider my love of going barefoot as yet another in a long list of subversive things I have done in my life, like having long hair, playing heavy metal music, writing poetry, being a vegetarian, reading poetry, not owning a television, and voting my conscience.

Fortunately, living in Michigan makes getting too righteous about going barefoot hard, since it’s freezing-ass cold here six months of the year. As I wrote and revised this, the days got shorter and the air colder, and slipping on my moccasins has become necessary every time I go out. Which is not so unpleasant: they at least don’t have any arch support or padding, which feels good, and at home I still pleasantly pad around my apartment’s oak floors, waiting for Spring.