Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Barefoot Experiment: Why?

In my last post I referred to going barefoot as an experiment, but I didn't put a lot of effort into explaining what I meant by it.

I am, generally speaking, a minimalist. I do crazy things like never wear a jacket unless it is below freezing. To me, the effort of carrying around a jacket all day and keeping track of where it is is a pain in the butt and something I'd rather not do. So instead, I condition myself to go without. Similar, I don't like being weighed down by heaving shirts and warm pants that will inevitably be too warm to wear indoors, where I spend most of my time. So I condition myself to be able to wear shorts and tshirts most of the year. No, I don't live in Florida. Yes, it does snow here in the winter. I am one of those few people who know what kind of traction sandals get on ice and in snow (actually quite decent).

Imagine my glee when I discovered that some people put shoes in the same category as I put jackets. Part of my minimalist nature is questioning things that others see as normal. If I only need a jacket if I'm cold, is there some other way I can manage the problem of being cold? If the human foot when millions of years without shoes, are they really needed? If the human foot is as well adapted to walking and running as the evidence seems to indicate, what would happen if I kicked off my shoes for a while?

The common question other barefooters and I often get is "Why go barefoot?" To me, this question is the first sign of a misunderstanding. The question, as far as I'm concerned, really ought to be "Why wear shoes?"

In my quest for answers, I determined that I actually had no reasons of my own. I hate when that happens. The main reason I wore shoes was because I always had and so had everyone else I knew. That's a pretty lame excuse, right up there with "because!"

Why else wear shoes? Safety is a pretty common one, and also hard to ignore. The modern world has a lot of hazards for bare feet. Glass, nails, discarded needles, dog crap, etc. Well that's a bummer, I already found plenty of reasons to wear shoes. Time to adjust the question. If shoes are needed, what part of the shoe's function is really needed? A quick look over my list reveals: a sole. That's not much of a shoe. Once you bind that to your food with something you've got some form of sandal. Interesting. Is that the best we can do? Sandals are kind of thick soled and numbing, though, so maybe there's something better. Leather moccasins? That'd do the trick. Surely the human race has discovered or invented something better than that though. Oh look, an Italian company did, years ago. Vibram FiveFingers are a modern solution to my problem. A thin rubberized sole with just enough covering to keep the sole on. And the sole is so minimal it does absolutely nothing but protect your feed from little sharp things and scuffing. Sweet, problem solved. As a bonus, they're also light, which goes perfectly with my shorts and t-shirt habits.

Part of wearing such minimalist shoes is watching where you are stepping and adjusting your stride based on the excellent bio-feedback from your soles. I made a couple interesting observations during my first month of wearing my Vibram FiveFingers KSOs. First, my feet were losing their sensitivity. I could no longer feel the small details that at first were almost overwhelming. In hind sight, that should've been expected. The second observation was the breakthrough, however.

I saw hardly ANY of the barefoot hazards I was afraid of! I saw some broken glass at a bus stop, and.. actually, that's it. In a whole month, I saw one single hazard, and it was trivially avoidable. Well now... this might change some things. Some of my assumptions were wrong! Time to re-evaluate my decisions on footwear.

Taking into account what I'd observed myself and what others' had described of their experiences, I decided to take the plunge.

The result: I haven't found enough reasons yet to put my shoes back on. At least not full-time. I do wear shoes, of sorts, for certain occasions and locations. Since I'm such a minimalist and pragmatist, I follow Barefoot Moe's advice on backup footwear and I now carry a pair of $2 flip flops in the lower pockets of my shorts. In my case, I use these backup shoes for places that ask me to wear shoes and in public washrooms. Surprisingly few restaurants actually ask patrons to wear shoes. Equally surprising was that local public transit seems to require shoes (even though they don't post it anywhere but claim to). I went through a rebellious phase before realizing it was just too much effort. Especially since the point was to put less effort into my footwear.

What's next? It's an ongoing experiment. As new data is collected, I am regularly re-assessing the situation. I even have my next set of questions and challenges lined up! What about winter? If freezing is my threshold for wearing a jacket, what is my threshold for wearing shoes? And if I do need shoes, what is the minimum required shoe to address ONLY the temperature problem?

Next time I'll ramble on about some of the things I've learned and questions I thought I'd never ask.


Creative Moe said...

Very interesting angle Ryan. I really like how you are seeking simplicity in your lifestyle and how baefooting is contributing in this quest. Looking forward to the next installment of findings in your experiment and hoping your barefooting will not end when your experiment ends!

Anemone said...

Translink does not require shoes. I have been barefoot since July 9 of this year and I have never had any problems with translink. No one on the bus has even said anything. I don't know whether this is because I'm female, I use a subsidized annual bus pass (= very poor), or because I ride the buses in Vancouver and the North Shore rather than in Langley. I suspect it's because I'm female - we get away with a lot more. :)

(But don't get me in any trouble - I'm not putting my boots back on for anything.)

Ryan Graham said...

I'm glad somebody can get away with it. I now just put on my flipflops when they ask me to. I only get hassled ever 2-3 weeks. Oddly, it's always a middle-aged white male attendant. A different one every time, but always the same general demographic. And never a member of the SkyTrain Police, which I find telling.

Anemone said...

I've been warned twice now by bus drivers, but only since labour day. The second one seemed a little surprised when I told him that I didn't own any shoes that fit, and that I didn't have any with me. If I get called on it again I'm going to say "shoes hurt my feet" and see what happens.

Is there anything about shoes on the fine print notice at the front of the bus? I can't read in a moving vehicle so I haven't been able to check.

Ryan Graham said...

There's no written policy, at least not posted publicly. Those signs with the fine print are more about food, animals, and loud music. They don't mention shoes, or even clothing, for that matter.

Anemone said...

That's good to know. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I've never liked shoes, but only recently have acted on it, as I lost my flipflops in some heavy currents while tubing