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Tuesday
Apr102012

TOMS' 'One Day Without Shoes': Our Position

Today, countless people around the world will go barefoot to participate in TOMS' "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)

Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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References (3)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
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    TOMS' 'One Day Without Shoes': Our Position - blog - The Barefoot Alliance - Barefoot Activity Advocates
  • Response
    Response: www.rockara.com
    TOMS' 'One Day Without Shoes': Our Position - blog - The Barefoot Alliance - Barefoot Activity Advocates
  • Response
    Response: Kate Dircksen
    TOMS' 'One Day Without Shoes': Our Position - blog - The Barefoot Alliance - Barefoot Activity Advocates

Reader Comments (1)

In response to The Primalfoot Alliance's TOMS' 'One Day Without Shoes': Our Position blog post:

As an avid barefooter and minimalist shoer (although never having owned a pair of TOMS), I appreciate The Primalfoot Alliance's (PA) willingness to share their position on TOMS 'One Day Without Shoes' (ODWS) event. Unfortunately too many others involved in the movement toward living a more natural, paleo, evolutionary, primal lifestyle have sidestepped addressing such issues in favor of perpetuating myths that sell through the use of glittering generalities. While most lack the education, even more lack the experience to provide credible and meaningful insight. With that said, I still have some reservations about the concerns and remedies that PA has shared about the ODWS event.

First, I will respond to your first concern that donated shoes like the ones through the ODWS event may do more harm than good, as well as the inference to be made that if people would go shoeless that their feet shape would not be negatively altered and that they would then benefit from proper foot function.

In the case of whether the shoes do more harm than good, the TOMS company points out that the donated shoes are intended to protect against injury and prevent disease which they base on such hazards as podoconosis, jiggers and hookworm. Additionally, one should note that there are even greater potential disease hazards when exposing bare skin to the elements such as Leisamniasis, the second leading cause of death in these communities after Malaria. If the Leishmaniasis doesn't get you, then there's the Streptococcus, Staphylococcus and Pneumonia which you are much more susceptible to once you have Leishmaniasis. And of course, it's possible to get each of those on their own as well. Then there is Trypanosmiasis and Chagas which can also kill you. And in these cases inadequate or no treatments exist at all, not to mention the lack of inadequate Western medical care that may be useful in exigent circumstances. I know this because I have personally experienced it.

And while it may be true that donated shoes can do more harm than good when we base our evidence on Western studies that use typical Western-style shoes, it is not necessarily the case when we look at indigenous communities. Having spent years living among indigenous people throughout Central and South America from the coast to the mountains, to the deserts and the jungles, I have seen first-hand how their use of minimalist shoes do not cause such problems. In fact, I have seen shoes that look quite similar to the TOMS minimalist shoe design. Whether that was influenced by Western culture or vice-versa has yet to be proven as far as I know. Arguably, the real problem with the TOMS shoes is the lack of a more natural toe-box that allows the feet to take what may be a more natural form. Although, I have also seen how those who are still living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle have feet that more closely resemble a primate rather than a human. One of the best examples of this is where this foot shape seems endemic to the Huaorani in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

And while TOMS donations may not be the ideal primal footwear due in large part to the narrow toe-box design, I am not convinced that the shoes are inadequate protective footwear. With that said adequate primal footwear is also lacking for all the environments I have encountered. I know because I have tested the best primal footwear on the market in these environments and there is a lot left to be needed, let alone desired. The closest is the Barefoot Ted's Tarahumara inspired Luna Sandals or tres puntas as they are called throughout Latin America. Even then, while they would provide a barrier from sharp object including rocks, unsafe soil and leave the foot open to the air and to keep its' natural shape intact, they do not provide protection from all environmental threats. Still, I consider them essential gear for anyone looking to travel in multiple environments. And let's state the obvious here which seems to be continually sidestepped. That somehow the book Born to Run which is based in large part on the Tarahumara Indians who wear tire sandals somehow has served as main catalyst for a barefoot lifestyle. Even sadder are those who lack both the education and experience, especially with these communities that have co-opted the connection to sell a natural, paleo, evolutionary, and primal lifestyle while giving little to nothing in return.

Second, I want to respond to your second concern that campaigns to put shoes on the feet of those who do not have shoes often inappropriately demonize barefoot living, and that TOMS and other similar organizations could emphasize that having footwear available when needed is important.

Campaigns to put shoes on the feet of those who do not have shoes do not inappropriately demonize barefoot living because it is already stigma of the poor in undeveloped countries including many in the indigenous communities that many in the movement are seeking to emulate and in some cases exploit. But it is far from the biggest problem. This is best stated by Oswaldo Guayasamin, a world-renowned artist from Ecuador, whose UNESCO celebrated work depicts the strife that indigenous and mixed-race people have endured.

"Yo llore porque no tenia zapatos hasta que vi un nino que no tenia pies."
Which translates as, "I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a child who had no feet."

But I would agree that those of us who live in developed countries -- and who often wear shoes -- can especially safely live barefoot most of the time. We have developed a civilized society so influenced by litigation that we have managed to create the closest thing to living in a safety bubble. But those who are living in less civilized, less evolved, even paleo-esque, primal, natural lifestyle environments do not have such a luxury. They do not have such smooth, paved surfaces, well-groomed grassy areas, carpeted floors and other harmless ground coverings that lend themselves well to bare feet. So to be clear, I can tell you first-hand that poor people of the undeveloped world can not live most of their lives barefoot under conditions much harsher than we have in developed countries. While it may be true that their feet are conditioned for the rougher, undeveloped environments in which they live, they mostly go barefoot because they so not have a choice. And it is yet to be proven that they are somehow healthier than we are do to their circumstances. The TOMS campaign in fact seems to shed light on a dark place that too many misunderstand such that they engage in sharing ill-conceived and misguided thoughts on the the issues they do not face rather than addressing them.

I agree that TOMS and similar organizations could emphasize that having footwear available when needed is important. I believe as TOMS adequately states on their ODWS main page the 'Why' or purpose of the event is to address the following problem: 'Millions of children live without proper footwear, exposing them to injury and disease every day.'

In summary, I believe that PA could do a better job of looking at the bigger picture by better understanding the culture, socioeconomic factors, even geopolitical factors that play a large role in children without shoes in 'underdeveloped' countries. While I agree that the design of the TOMS shoes are potentially harmful to the poor they seek to help in term of foot function, I am not so sure they do more harm than good. And while I do not believe as a Westerner that shoes are necessary for quality of life in our bubble, the insinuation that shoes are necessary for quality of life in developing countries spreads ignorance because it fails to address the complex nature of the problem. While I appreciate PA's evidence-based mission of advocating for people to go barefoot and finding prudent ways to let feet be feet first, I believe in this case they are ignorant of all the issues at hand.

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Garcia

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