In order to understand how our feet would develop without shoes, we need look no further than barefoot cultures that currently exist around the world in places like Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. The feet of barefoot individuals are characterized by strong, sturdy arches, thick calluses on the underside of the foot, and perfectly straight toes that are splayed well apart. In shoe-wearing societies, we have lost the image of what a truly healthy adult foot actually looks like and what constitutes normal and natural foot and toe anatomy. For most people, seeing an example of how a natural human foot should appear can be quite shocking and revelatory.
Conventional footwear incorporates several problematic design elements (e.g., heel elevation, toe spring, tapering toe boxes, and rigid, inflexible soles) that prevent the foot from functioning in a natural way and can change the tone and function of key foot and toe tissues over time, which in turn often results in a variety of foot ailments. Foot problems such as bunions, crooked toes, neuromas, ingrown toenails, and plantar fasciosis can almost always be traced back to footwear that alters normal foot anatomy and function.
A number of impactful studies have looked at the feet of the unshod (i.e., non-shoe-wearing people) and shed light on this topic. These studies offer a unique, first-hand perspective on how our feet would develop without shoes. While most of these studies were performed in the early twentieth century, the implications for contemporary shoe-wearing individuals are still relevant.
In 1905, Philip Hoffman, after studying the feet of unshod individuals from the Philippines and Central Africa, concluded that adult shoe-wearers lose function in parts of the foot, including the arch and toes, due to the constriction placed on the foot by modern shoe design. In a study performed on the inhabitants of the Congo in 1931, Earl T. Engle and Dudley J. Morton made similar conclusions, specifically noting that these populations were free from the static foot conditions widespread in shoe-wearing cultures.
If you would like to read more about these specific studies, you can find them here:
Also, there is a list of even more natural foot-related studies here.
So, if our feet were allowed to develop without shoes, a (non-exhaustive) list of possible advantages might include the following:
- Stronger foot arches
- Improved posture and gait
- Better foot and toe circulation
- Enhanced foot and toe dexterity
- Improved balance and body weight distribution
- Reduced pain in the feet, ankles, knees, and hips
- Reduced wear and tear on the lower extremity joints
- A reduced likelihood of experiencing common foot ailments
On the other hand, some possible disadvantages that might be associated with feet that develop without shoes are:
- An increased likelihood of experiencing acute foot injuries (e.g., cuts, bruises, etc.)
- An increased likelihood of experiencing traumatic foot injuries (e.g., breaks due to blunt force trauma)
- An increased likelihood of experiencing skin issues (e.g., frostbite, sunburn, hookworm infection, etc.) that arise from exposure to environmental conditions
It’s not always culturally appropriate for those of us in contemporary shoe-wearing societies to bare our feet in public, but for most, it is possible to emulate barefoot cultures by adopting men's and women's minimalist shoes that let the foot function like a healthy barefoot inside the shoe.