Saturday, May 14, 2011

Free Your Feet, and Your Mind Will Follow?

I was planning to post something on this next week, but since Ken Corder from posted this blog post on losing our soles yesterday, I thought I would like to reply to that blog post with comments of my own.

For several years, I've used the phrase in the title of this post "Free your feet and your mind will follow" as my internet signature. I've always agreed with the sentiment, even before I discovered that I was in fact an atheist. But it was only after becoming a freethinker that I actually understood exactly why I think that there's a deep connection between our soles and our mind. Although of course there is a physiological component that is obvious (it feels good!), I actually think it's the psychological or intellectual effect that is more important to explore.

In the blog linked above, the author talks about several points linking "naked feet and the sacred", and while I agree with many of the reasons given for these factors, I disagree with some of the author's conclusions. I want to respond to each of the points that he brought up, but from a different point of view. Since I'll be referencing the blog post, now might be a good time to read the original if you haven't already done so:

Connectedness - I have no doubt that for a believer, this is a tempting thought to subscribe to. However, it doesn't address the fact that most of us live in an artificial world, and most barefooters spend the majority of their time on manufactured surfaces - asphalt streets, concrete sidewalks, carpet, tile, engineered stone, and so on. The thing is, going barefoot still feels just as good on man-made surfaces as it does on dirt, grass, and other natural surfaces. It's my opinion that the connection you feel isn't to the earth or to a creator - it's to our NATURAL condition. It stimulates the reptilian core of our brains to hearken back to the way that we all used to live. Many people feel the same feeling of "connectedness" by being naked outdoors. Not because our skin is touching the air and soaking in the sun, but because the act of doing so reminds us that we are still animals - that clothing and footwear are an "unnatural" state for us, still. Why is that an important distinction to make? Because acknowledging that part of ourselves helps us to see that we are all the same. We might have different color skin, different body types, and different minds, but we're all one species. One tribe. One people. Connecting to that ancient past "self" can absolutely promote feelings of good will towards each other. That's a powerful feeling, and something that I think we should all take steps to remember now and then. 

Worth - I love this point, and the quote as well. The only thing I would add to this point is that this is very much a humanist argument. Most religions, including those the author cites in his article, instead begin by asserting that humans are inherently flawed and unworthy, and it is only through redemptive acts that we can be saved. The implication that this inherent worth can be derived from spiritual tradition or established religion seems flawed in most cases I can think of.

Humility - Humility and equality are normal human notions, and are not exclusive to religious or spiritual sources. But I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly that going unshod literally strips us of one of the barriers that makes us feel connected to one another (as I noted in the section above on Connectedness). I think the relevant point here is that shoes, like every other piece of clothing, have evolved from being something that once served a utilitarian purpose and instead are now objects of vanity and status. A willingness to shed one's shoes (or clothes for that matter) demonstrates a willingness to not lord over others with what you have and they don't. It is an important reminder of our equality.

Health - The claims by barefooters that it is healthier for our feet to be bare are, in almost every case, backed up by the medical community. Corns? Bunions? Althete's Foot? Back and knee pain? Almost all shoe-based ailments (back and knee pain are probably because we never really evolved a perfect anatomical solution for standing upright, but shoes certainly don't help the problem). Shoes cause innumerable conditions that going barefoot does not. And the conditions that one can get going barefoot are minor for most of us. There are countries where going barefoot does represent genuine dangers, but in those instances, generally there are larger public health concerns than just going barefoot. We were not born with shoes on. We did not evolve hard, inflexible feet. Those two facts alone tell us everything we need to know, in my opinion, about whether our feet are healthier bare or shod.

Freedom - Ahh, now we get to my favorite point, and why I find myself so enamored of the phrase "Free your feet and your mind will follow". Because to me, although it is "freeing" to lose my shoes, and let my skin breathe, and my toes wiggle, what we are really talking about here is freedom of thought. Barefooters are fledgling freethinkers. Freethinkers are those who do not simply accept the word of whoever they happen to be around. Freethinkers are people who want to know that the things that they believe are actually true. And the notion "shoes are good for you" is one that NEEDS to be challenged. Even something as simple as considering whether we need shoes or not can have long-term repercussions for your thought processes. Because after all, if in challenging such an idea you find out that this is untrue, what ELSE do you think or believe that can stand up to that same level of scrutiny? If you've taken the steps to challenge society's outlook on footwear, which is in many ways a trivial idea, why stop there? Many believers criticize atheists for appearing "strident" or "shrill" in our challenges to their beliefs. Are barefooters that much different when challenging the claims that shoes are both necessary and beneficial? Barefooters and atheists are both practicing a form of freethought. In the former case, I have confidence barefooters will win because that seems to be where the evidence lies. So for me, going barefoot is healthy skepticism put into practice, not subversiveness. 

In closing, I think it's important to point out that the words "Free your feet and your mind will follow" is not a direct causal argument, but rather a  metaphor for opening your mind. Thinking for ourselves is the greatest thing that we human animals have evolved, and I encourage people of all walks of life to practice it more in every way, barefoot or not. 

Foot Care for Barefooters

So today I'd like to talk about foot care. It's a subject that I don't see brought up a whole lot on other barefooter's blogs or websites. But why not? We barefooters expose our feet to extremes of temperatures, a wide variety of environments and even potential dangers. It's true that most critics of our preference for being barefoot greatly exaggerate the dangers of taking off our shoes, but that doesn't mean that going barefoot will  make our feet feel good all the time. On the contrary, I think it's even more important for barefooters to pay careful attention to the care and maintenance of their feet, and should practice a regular regimen of foot care so that we can enjoy being barefoot as often as we can.

Barefooters have to watch out for a number of hazards in the field, but very few barefooters resources talk about the hazards of just ordinary wear and tear - cracked heels, dry skin, skin infections, and so on.

To that end, I've put together this list of ideas that I think barefooters of all stripes can use to keep their feet healthy and hygienic. Some of these may elicit a negative reaction from more hardcore barefooters, but I hope that you'll give me the benefit of reading through my whole post before making judgments. These are my opinions, based on my almost 20 years of going barefoot as often as possible (I'm able to be barefoot between 80-100% of each day). So without further ado:

1. The Deep Clean - Let's face it...when you go barefoot, you get dirty feet. It's inevitable, and typically it's nothing we need to worry about. If we are practicing regular hygiene (showering, wiping your feet, etc.) dirt shouldn't get to the point where it can impact your health or hygiene. But for every speck of dirt we can see, there are many more that we can't. It's this dirt that I think we should be taking care to address now and then. Many barefooters wear their "black soles" as a badge of office, and I can appreciate that fact. However, even if you relish the idea of your dirty soles clearly demonstrating to everyone around you that you proudly go barefoot, it also doesn't hurt to, every once in a while, break out the soap, the loofah and maybe even a nice gritty foot scrubbing cream, and scrub those tootsies. The truth is, if you're a barefooter 24/7 or close to it, chances are that you won't be able to get them completely clean anyway - some residue of dirt sinks below the epidermis or clings to the crevices of your sole pads, making it difficult to ever eliminate every trace or stain of dirt from your soles. The idea here is not to chase after perfectly clean soles - the object of the Deep Clean is to help your body slough off some of the dead skin cells and keep dirt buildup to a reasonable level. This step is particularly relevant to those of us who do not or cannot go barefoot 24/7, as transferring dirt, mold and bacteria from your soles to a sandal or shoe, even for a few minutes, can actually result in infections like plantar warts.

2. The Sole Scrub - This point is sure to raise some controversy among barefooters. I know I've argued this point with a few of my fellow 'footers and I might very well be alone in my thinking on this. But I am going to stand by my views on this: Every few weeks, we should be using a foot file or a pumice stone, and taking down some of the thickened skin that builds up on our heels, balls of our feet and toes. I know, barefooter blasphemy right? Well hear me out for just a second. There's a distinct difference between thick barefooter's pads and callus. One feels smooth and tough, like polished, supple leather. The other feels rough and gritty, almost like sandpaper. Being a barefooter only requires thickened skin, but not to the degree that the skin forms a callus. I've been going barefoot for almost twenty years, and in that time, I routinely do this myself, or go to get a pedicure and get the worst of the callus removed. Contrary to what most barefooters may think, I have never experienced a decrease in my tolerance level without calluses - in fact I personally find that keeping my soles thick, but callus free results in increased sensitivity, not less. The reason that I believe it's unnecessary to carry calluses around is that eventually, calluses can start to dry out, crack and cause pain and open sores. This is not good for people who walk through dirty streets, as you are at increased risk of infection. Again, as in point 1, if you go barefoot with regularity, you should have a nice thick, but smooth, build-up of skin, and then a layer of callus on top of that. Keeping your skin from thickening to the point of drying and cracking is the aim here, so feel free to use this step to whatever level you feel comfortable with. I know that many barefooters will simply flat out disagree with my way of thinking on this point, and I understand their reticence somewhat, so take it or leave it. But it's my opinion, and is backed up by my own experience, that even a little bit of this is better than nothing at all.

3. Water Please - Perhaps it's a fair bit of irony that exposing our bare feet to more moisture can actually result in our feet drying out more than most, but it's something that I've taken note of, living up here in the Pacific Northwest where my feet routinely splash through puddles and rainstorms, and the winter air and the cold can sap moisture from my skin. But no matter where you live, the climate and the environment we walk in can have an adverse affect on your feet. So it helps to apply some moisturizing lotion or creme to your feet on a somewhat regular basis (every day or every week). Because of the climate where I live and how much water my feet are exposed to, I actually do this once a day. I can see and feel a dramatic difference in the quality of the skin on my feet when I don't. The benefit to moisturizing is that you maintain your suppleness and skin elasticity much more when your feet aren't starving for moisture. However, I suppose some people will look at this step and counter by asking how our primitive ancestors got by without moisturizing lotion. It's true, that this is not a requirement for living barefoot. But as a barefooter living in the modern era, with all the pros and cons that that brings, I prefer to have healthy looking feet, with supple, elastic skin instead of flaky, dry itchy skin.

4. Toe Tips - The basics of caring for your toes are even more important for us barefooters than for most. Although not wearing shoes helps us prevent many toe conditions and ailments, we should pay careful attention to the state of our nails and cuticles. Almost all of the injuries I've sustained while barefoot have been to my toes, and could have been prevented with more careful attention to their care. Uneven or long toenails can snag, even on blacktop (and this can actually rip part or all of your nail right off - I have personal experience with this one) or tear, or gather dirt or fungus, which if left unattended could present larger problems. So keep your toenails trimmed, which will help keep dirt from gathering underneath the nail bed, and take care of any ragged cuticles that could peel back to an open sore, which could cause you discomfort or get infected. There are some good products out there (nail oils, etc.) that can help keep your cuticles in good shape, as well as give your toenails an extra does of Vitamin E, which helps them stay strong and prevent chipping and breaking.One note on nail trimming - unlike shod people who are counseled to trim their toenails straight across to prevent ingrown toenails, barefooters can, and should, follow the natural curve of their toes. Without the constrictive forces of shoes to pinch the nails into the skin surrounding the nail bed, ingrown toenails are not an issue for barefooters, even with curved toenails. 

5. The Whole Enchilada - This is particularly relevant for barefoot runners, but the lessons here apply to anyone who goes barefoot frequently. As often as we can, we should be checking all the structures of our feet, and doing regular stretches and strengthening exercises to keep them in top shape. Push, pull, flex, point, and massage your feet every way possible. Do this for about 10-15 minutes a day, and make note of any pains, strains, and unusual sensations. In my own personal routine, I do daily check-ins, and every other day I do stretches and strengthening. Very often, our body can send us very subtle signals that something is wrong BEFORE we suffer a debilitating injury. Don't wait until you suffer an arch pull when running...check in with your feet on a regular basis! If something seems out of whack, play gently until if feels back to normal. This is also the easiest step, because it's a great thing to do while sitting at the computer reading an article like this one, or while watching your favorite show or reading a book before bed.

One other minor point before I conclude this post: Perhaps one of the reasons I subscribe to these things is that I see myself as a barefoot ambassador. In other words, one of the goals I have when I go out barefoot is that am presenting "the case for bare feet" in the court of public opinion. And as an ambassador trying to win acceptance from people to let us live our lives without being hassled for our lack of footwear, the image I present to them is important. Like it or not, I have seen the negative stereotypes of the "barefooter" in the eye of the public: grungy, hippy, long-haired, dirty, smelly, etc. Irregardless of how accurate or inaccurate these stereotypes are, I think that the more effort we put into showing that barefooters can and do take good care of themselves and their feet, the more chance we have of swaying others and changing their minds about what a barefooter actually is. It's easy to dismiss the guy or girl who looks like he doesn't care. I hope that by changing people's views on who they expect barefooters to be, and how well they care for themselves, that we'll be able to get others to stop and think just a bit about their preconceptions about us, rather than make a snap judgment.

So that's it for now. In closing, I acknowledge that some of these tips and suggestions may not be every barefooter's cup of tea. That's OK - each person can choose what works for them. But my philosophy about being a barefooter has always been: put your feet first. We barefooters know - they're pretty special, these feet of ours! And yes, they're amazing in so many ways, and have evolved to take tremendous amounts of punishment and come back fighting. But even with that, we should not simply expect them to handle whatever we throw at them! Treat your feet well, and your whole body will thank you. Barefooters more than any other group of people appreciate how much joy healthy, strong feet can bring. I hope that these tips can help more of my barefoot brothers and sisters keep their feet healthy longer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Welcome to the official blog for Northwest Barefooters!

Hello world!

I'm Matthew Medina, and I'm the founder of the Northwest Barefooters Meetup group here in the greater Puget Sound/Seattle area. I'm starting this blog because there seems to be a groundswell of people who are interested in learning more about the barefooting movement, whether it is taking up barefoot running, or just learning to feel the earth beneath your soles. As an active barefooter myself, I wanted to add my voice to the growing number of people who are out there promoting our cause. This blog will not only talk about our local events, but it will also feature articles on subjects that are of interest to those of us who go without shoes.

Before I start off this blog with a full-on article, I figure I should give a little background on myself, and how I arrived at becoming a barefooter.

I've never really liked shoes. I mean, when I was growing up, I wore them because that's just what you were supposed to do. I'd never thought about any other alternative. And then my cousin Nathan visited us from Australia. He stayed at our house for a time, and of course being from down under where going barefoot is slightly more acceptable than it is in the States, he was often not wearing shoes. And I remember vividly that there was one occasion when we were going to the video store to get a movie to watch one weekend, and he rode in the car barefoot with us. I can't remember if he actually went into the video store with us, but I remember my father afterwards telling him that we just didn't do that over here in this country. And it started me thinking "Why not"?

I didn't really explore that thought more until years later, when I moved up to Seattle for college, and I saw a large number of people wearing Birkenstocks around town. They looked comfortable and so I bought a pair. And quickly realized just what I was missing. Now, being that I lived in Seattle, and this seemed to be the thing to do, at first I paired my Birks with socks (yeesh, I know...don't hate me!). But it was so much more comfortable to just have shoes I could slip in and out of whenever I wanted. Eventually, I worked my way out of the socks, and then transitioned from Birks to flip flops, and then to barefoot, with flip flops as a backup. And that's the way it's been for around the past ten years or so.

It's only really been the past few years that I've taken on barefoot as a lifestyle and not just a passing interest or a preference of mine. And that's what led me to found the Northwest Barefooters Meetup Group. We've been around since April of last year (Happy Belated Birthday to us! Yay!) and we've grown to over 50 members. I hope to continue to grow the meetup membership, and to spread the word that barefooters are here to stay!

So I will use this blog to help organize the meetup, and report on our activities, but also to help others who are just starting out with barefooting. I also want to help those who want to find others who share this interest, and lastly I would like to think that this platform could allow me to raise awareness and educate people about our simple little cause, in the fondest hope that someday I will feel it's completely silly to have to write about something so trivial as going barefoot.