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Toe Shoes: The Ups and Downs of ‘Barefoot’ Footwear

Ila Bonczek
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: October 30, 2021
Toe shoes have become an alternative footwear among runners and other athletes for their comfort and flexibility. (Image: Regan Walsh via Flickr CC BY-SA)

For most of our existence, humans have made due with minimal footwear. Early protection from sharp and jagged surfaces were made from woven twine or animal skins. These shoes were soft and flexible, yet helped keep the feet clean and free from injury. While today’s chances of encountering any unpleasant surface are remote, we have become accustomed to wearing thick-soled, sturdy footwear almost everywhere. 

Placing such a boundary between our feet and the earth, there is naturally a resulting disconnect. We have, in a way, separated ourselves from our planet. Those who long to reconnect might ditch their shoes whenever possible. Many have found going barefoot to be an almost spiritual communication with the earth and promote it as healthy and liberating. 

Although in most cases perfectly safe, barefooting isn’t necessarily socially acceptable. Italian design student Robert Fliri came up with a compromise in his attempt to “figure out a way to move around in nature better.” In the early 2000s, he introduced a new shoe with toes that would allow the foot to move naturally, exercising more muscles and offering a more sensual experience. 

Barefoot enthusiasts find that going shoeless in nature adds another sensory dimension to the experience. (Image: marcostetter via Flickr Public Domain)

The naked foot is not as vulnerable as one might think

While some feel a bit naked with nothing on their feet, a good number of people around the world are perfectly happy going shoeless.

According to the Society of Barefoot Living (SBL), “Feet were made for walking – and that’s just what they do.” They’ll take you just about anywhere you need to go, and you don’t need fancy footwear to get there.

Most barefoot enthusiasts find the practice brings them closer to nature. A naked foot can fully engage with the dense, springy grass or warm, gritty sand beneath us. Our soles experience the texture of rough wooden steps, cool, flat stone, and damp, mossy gardens. Surfaces like gravel and pine needles serve to temper our feet and build up endurance, with the added benefit of natural reflexology

SBL emphasizes the benefits of exercising barefoot. Many sports, including gymnastics, football, skateboarding, bicycling and volleyball, do not require shoes; and running without footwear has become increasingly popular in recent years. One instructor of barefoot running in the United States has run over 400 races barefoot, including 79 marathons and one ultra-marathon.

Since our feet have the same sensory capacity as our hands, barefoot hiking or nature walks gain an added dimension of sensations and textures to take in. Minimal footwear also means minimal footprint, reducing the risk of erosion. Yet like our hands, feet sometimes need protection from the elements. 

After the original Vibram FiveFingers caught on, many brands began offering a line of toe shoes, for greater comfort and flexibility. (Image: Caius Chance via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Foot gloves

The original toe shoes, Vibram FiveFingers, were designed to give good grip to sail boaters maneuvering on slippery decks. Giving each toe a separate compartment, they act like gloves for the feet. The product was quickly embraced as a minimalist running shoe and later marketed for other athletic activities.

The Fila Skele-toes are designed for those who like to traverse rough terrains, getting their exercise out in nature. Sized for men, women and children, these stretchy nylon shoes stimulate the senses, and utilize the whole foot; without the spatial confines, lace pressure and stress to the ankles one finds in a hiking boot.

Toe shoes are also said to promote proprioception, an unconscious, but natural perception of movement and orientation that enhances our awareness. Some liken it to a sixth sense.

To be sure, toe shoes are not for everyone. Aside from the many people who find them fashionably offensive, some studies question the comfort and efficiency that many claim to have experienced in wearing these shoes.

Dr. James Christina, in a 2011 interview on NPR, suggested that some people need additional support to wear such shoes. He also stated that toe shoes’ ability to achieve one’s intended proprioception is yet to be firmly proven, and that minimalist shoes could cause shorter strides in running, since you cannot heel strike in them. 

Whether you are willing to walk around in weird shoes or not, giving the feet a break from being stuffed in shoes seems like a healthy plan. Let your feet feel the earth, the grass, and the sidewalk and see how they respond. You may find that, from heel to toe, and everything in between, each foot will thank you from the bottom of its sole.

Darren Maung contributed to this report.