Physical therapist says almost all of us have been practicing a less extreme version of Chinese foot binding
Americans are horrified when they learn about the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding — tightly wrapping the feet of young girls to drastically change the shape and size of their feet.
The practice resulted in infection, rotting flesh, toenail or toe removal, soft bones, broken bones, paralysis, muscular atrophy and death. If the girls survived to be women, they struggled to walk and suffered from hip and back problems. Older women were prone to falls from lack of balance.
Luckily Chinese foot binding died out in the 20th century, but a less extreme version is alive and well in America and much of the civilized world, as a result of fashion that dictates shoes with tapered toes.
After studying the highly-functional wide feet of African runners who grew up barefoot, author of Anatomy for Runners Jay Dicharry came to the conclusion that the feet of “civilized” peoples were unnaturally narrow and deformed.
“Your foot is basically a lever and compared to your height a very short one,” Dicharry writes. “A wider foot has more leverage and therefore more stability.”
Because the big toe is responsible for more than 80 percent of foot support, a slightly wider big toe dramatically improves leverage, he says.
“Unfortunately, almost everyone reading this book has been practicing the ancient art of Chinese foot binding.”
Dicharry argues it’s not just high heels with long pointed toes that are damaging our feet, but pretty much every shoe on the market except for a few recent designs with wider fronts than heels.
“Take a look at a newborn’s foot,” he writes. “You’ll notice the widest part of their foot is their toes.”
As a physical therapist, Dicharry worked with African runners who “ran, played, hunted and harvested crops” without shoes on and was “blown away by their straight big toe alignment, incredible foot strength and stability.”
“Compare x-rays of feet in typical running shoes and in wide-toe-box minimal shoes,” he says. “You’ll see the toes are squeezed.”
Since birth, we’ve been wearing shoes that have caused our toes to move inward, Dicharry says. “It’s really hard to activate muscles if a joint is pushed in one direction over the years.”
“Infants are born with excellent foot alignment,” he adds. “Soft tissues and bones remodel based on the way they are loaded.”
Because the African runners went barefoot throughout their rapid growth periods, in the first two decades of life, they placed far greater “mechanical load on their feet than the typical American kid wearing blinking light-ups.”
If we could drive our big toe down and spread it, we could experience “true zen in foot control,” he says. “But it’s tough to learn with a foot that’s had a vice grip on the toes since you put on your first pair of shoes.”
The first step toward healing our feet, Dicharry says, is to buy a pair of shoes with a very wide toe box, so the foot can splay. “Simply standing on the foot in an unconstricted shoe widens it.” And eventually work your way down to thin, flat, flexible soles with wide toe boxes, or bare feet, terrain permitting.
The more we can allow our children to go barefoot — or with thin, flexible protective coverings — the less damage they will have to correct later in life.
Dicharry says his children will never be forced into narrow shoes or shoes that don’t pass his flex test: “hold the shoe between the thumb and forefinger — if you have to try to bend the shoe it’s too stiff.”
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80 responses to “American Foot Binding”
Spot on! I have two sons (1yr and 2.5yrs) and their feet are perfect- widest at the toes with the big toe coming straight out. My big toe is deformed and has moved toward the 2nd toe from wearing typical athletic and cadual shoes for the past 30 yrs…
This is exactly why we don’t wear shoes. Even my minimalist shoes influence my gait and foot shape. Thank you for covering an important topic.
I completely agree, we should have natural feet not what a society dictaminates; shoes are beautiful, yes, but they are harmful, they not just deform our feet, they ruin our skeleton too.
I agree. Barefoot is best especially for littles.
Excellent article! Modern shod people don’t really know what natural human feet are supposed to look like. After ditching shoes for 5 year my feet are becoming more conditioned, more functional and less deformed (toes are spreading). I am involved with “The Society for Barefoot Living” and Barefoot is Legal who are trying to make walking barefoot a choice not a social requirement. Thanks for writing this article!
I was told by several foot doctors that going barefoot was bad. They said that there is no support for the foot.l
Know that when I do go barefoot my knees and back hurt. Why is that?
When you’re used to shoes with arch support, you lack the muscles that hold the feet up properly. They won’t stop hurting until things go back into place and you build the muscles you need.
It matters what surface you are walking on. My feet feel great walking barefoot on the actual earth, but cement is not fun.
Maybe partly because you’re still attached to the belief that shoes are good? The foot doesn’t need support, the foot is support in itself…
Maybe also because you’re just not used to walking barefoot?
Getting in touch with a proper chiropodist could help…
Because your gait has already been effected due to wearing shoes all your life. The changing of your foot alignment didn’t happen over night. It won t be corrected over night either. It will take time walking bare foot along with (in my opinion) chiropractic adjustments to help along the way.
You can’t walk barefoot the way you used to in stiff boots.
A good way how to place your foot while walking is, when you take 3 steps backward and walk back to the front the same way. Also you feel less stomp in your bones, because now your using the muscles of your leg and foot more. Your stride will become shorter and once you master it, you will walk,run and sprint faster. Your steps also will become more silent and conscious, A good thing is watching “how to fox walk” tutorials on YT.
Same thing happened to me but with high heels. I had to wear a heel or else my feet would hurt and pop a lot. I was forced to stop wearing heels because I was in an accident and heels made my hips hurt. It took several months but my feet adjusted to being barefoot and wearing soft soles. It’s been 8 years now and my feet feel great. I go barefoot now and so do my kids. I have more stability when I walk and my ankles feel stronger than ever.
So what kind of shoes do people where in the winter that comfort to this and keep feet warm?
I have the same problem! We live in central BC and have snowy cold winters. I’ve been wearing barefoot shoes for many years, but all winter my feet hurt and I feel the pain of snow boots. Soft Star Shoes makes a good mild winter sheepskin boot, but they aren’t warm enough for our winters here (I wore them in victoria), and the aren’t constructed for hard winter play…. I’d love to hear if people have for a good solid warm barefoot winter boot.
Me too. Quebec winters. I’ve never found boots warm enough in any type to start with.
Try mens boots, they are built wider.
skeletoes they are shoes with individual toes. they are very comfortable and feel just like you are barefoot. allow your feet to be in perfect body alignment
Try steger Mukluks. They are warm (hot) and very soft soled. Amazing winter boots!
Vivobarefoot has good minimal shoes that are winter worthy. Expensive, but worth every penny. Handmade and they will do repairs.
I wear UGGS in snow country. They were fine for me at 15 degrees in the Rockies.
Vivo barefoot have a wonderful winter range. Wide toe area, flexible, zero drop and warm. I use their shoes in snow. Our UK wi terms are not as cold as yours but it has passed the Scottish test :-).
Russellmoccasin.com I’ve a pair of boots that had lasted 22 winters.
Personally,I like uggs, they are very flexible.
I wear Ugg boots which are wide and lined with sheepskin. They are good winter thru summer. If you are into fashion though, this might not work for you. I’m 74 yo and need a wide foot to help with balance but I think anyone would benefit.
We have been making them for almost 40 years. “Love gloves” for any for size or shape….
I am 61 and have been a barefoot gal all my life….much to the confusion and surprise of others. This article explains to me why l have always hated to wear shoes! My feet will feel so tired when I have had them on for awhile. As soon as I can I will take my shoes off! I can’t afford the expensive name brands but I also won’t wear the cheap-o ones either. My favorite thing to wear around the house are my Minnetonka double sole moccasins. They perform as your article suggests….so no wonder I Love them. I now have my daughters hooked on them as well. Thank you for writing this! From someone who will stay barefoot forever!
I wear cheap canvas shoes we used to call tennis shoes, they do not crowd my toes. I have always been a barefoot person, but at the age of 70 , I have less fat in the sole of my feet, so that my bones hurt when I walk on a non carpet floor. I can not find a comfortable shoe, even sandals I have problems with , and cannot wear the flip flops
Love the idea of wider shoes where our toes need to spread out and going barefoot as long as possible for children, but we who have high arches or have plantar fachaetis need arch support and should not go barefoot right?
High arches come with musculature to support themselves, they just need to be excercised. Concious walking/standing in bare feet or a good barefoot style shoe can help you build that musculature back up. Even just going through winter in non-barefoot supporting (ie – arch supporting) footwear takes its toll and every spring there is an adjustment period where my feet recondition to support themselves. I live in central SK and barefoot shoes are not warm enough here, and mukluks suffer the salt and melting and so on, so I tend to wear a much stiffer boot than I would prefer through much of the winter.
Ps it was in a yoga class led by a woman who had healed her flat footedness by concioualy lifting her arches in her yoga practice, breathing energy up the inside of the leg and down the outside. She had beautiful arches when I met her and her insight changed my life and foot/knee Heath, too!
I’m wondering the same as I have plantar fasciitis and don’t know what to wear. I’ve always been a barefoot person but started taking up long walks last summer (with shoes) and devolved plantar fasciitis and can’t seem to find the right simulation for it to heal up.
I had plantar as well and believe it or not Crocs helped me heal. Yes they are ugly but they are soft and subtlety supportive. Only thing I could walk in for any length of time. Go to a Croc store there are hundreds of styles.
I too have recurrent plantar fasciitis and I also have high arches. I have always found that many styles of Keen shoes and Teva have a nice wide toe box without sacrificing stability and arch support. I also had some Montrail flip flops that you bake at a low temp in the oven so that you at and on them and they form to the bottom of your foot. Expensive but One of the best shoe investments I ever made. I always had this shape of a foot and now I find out it is a good thing!
I go barefoot or in minimal shoes as often as possible and have noticed that my arches get higher and have no pain when barefoot, but as soon as I start wearing full-coverage shoes they drop and I get plantar fasciitis. I’m starting to believe that it’s the pressure from the top of the shoe that creates the requirement for arch support and causes plantar fasciitis more than any external factors.
Connie, that’s my question, too. My husband was advised by his podiatrist to *never* go barefoot due to plantar fasciitis. What to do?
Be nice if they made the shoe for a 6 EEE
Seriously. Try a 5.5 with high instep. So lame.
Wearing no shoes is fine, until you hit something. Jamming your pinky toe hurts and damages the foot. We started wearing footwear to protect our feet. Enough said
I agree. I can’t get a thing done if I’m barefoot. I love a good pair of solid lace up shoes. They Empower me. Children, also, should have well-fitting lace up shoes, never Crocs or flip-flops or the like, so they can run and play to their best ability. Yes, avoid narrow, stiff shoes, but shoes, unless one is at the beach, are a wonderful invention.
I was a huge sandal fan for my kids until one day my son was standing outside the ladies room at a store and someone opened the door and it hit his big toe and literally ripped the entire nail off! So I would not recommend open-toe shoes and this is coming from a shoe minimalist. My kids wear nice, wide shoes with stretchy materials to allow the least restriction.
Keens are great. They are not open in the front as a someone mentioned earlier have a wide toe box but are still sandals.
I am very impressed with this article and very happy the word is getting out. My husband’s feet look similar to one of those pictures. He lives in work boots. I have noticed my feet have changed since I became a stay at home mother almost 3 years ago. I rarely wear shoes. This also explains why I prefer flexible shoes. This information is very useful in making future decisions for my children. I hope more people will speak it and that manufacturers will listen. Thank you.
So interesting. Completely agree. Any recommendations for toddler shoes?
Check out soft star, Robert or vivobarefoot
Robeez soft leather shoes for littles.
Where do thongs factor into all of this? Also have you seen the brand attipas for children & what do you think?
This is an awesome read!! As a chiropractor I’ve been preaching this for years!!! I’ve been lucky on my last child to stumble upon a Work at home momma company that has made and perfected Soft Sole Moccasins!!! Go check out http://www.sarahbethco.com for some awesome shoes and protection for your littles!!! And they make adult moccs as well!!!
I have a very wide foot for a female.
I wear crocks mostly and am on my feet from the time get up…till i go to bed.
I cant go bare foot because ofcitis oo planter facicitis (sp)?!
So why is it good to go bare foot? Arch support???
I was told I had plantar faciiitis, turned out I had really bad posture and my arches have since risen and I can go barefoot all the time again.
I have plantar fasciitis and my PT said to go barefoot often and to buy shoes with different arch support, high,mid,low arch, flat soles etc so my feet are always being challenged rather than getting comfortable and no longer engaging all of the foot muscles.
What are the best brand shoes for toddlers and kids? I don’t know of any ultra type shoes for them
We usually buy soft star shoes for our kids. Water shoes work great too.
Just added a couple of links at the end of article. Looks like Vivo Barefoot Kids brand is good.
I don’t wear shoes. So, I not buy shoes. My bare feet are the best shoes !
I’ve worn Birkenstocks exclusively for many years. I like the wider width and the great arch support. Could never wear high heels again. I can’t stand the discomfort.
Makes complete sense and wish more people knew this.
My concern and question though. My 3 year old daughter goes mostly barefoot. But at school they told me that she has knock knees and needs to start wearing tighter shoes with bridge support to prevent problems later in life. What would you recommend?
Bit concerned here that they are focusing on her feet. If she is knock-kneed she needs to have adequate and balanced muscles in the legs and not just promoting a shoe to fix a potential future issue. She should see a PT or Kineseologist for eval in my opinion.
You are 100% correct to be concerned.
As a therapist that works with people of all ages, I can honestly say that allowing your child’s bones to develop naturally in bare feet should be the first choice.
I work with alot of people who have developed problems due to ill fitting footwear.
Knock-knees are most commonly a normal stage of growth in young children. They typically become apparent when a child is 2 to 3 years old, and they often get worse around age 4. Chances are your child’s legs will significantly straighten, without any treatment, by age 7 or 8. For more info go to: https://www.babycenter.com/0_knock-knees_1387938.bc
Growing up in Taiwan, my family don’t wear shoes in the house, we took shoes off put slippers on in the house.
It made our feet feel so comfortable, also don’t bring dirt inside the house.
I take the point, but I find the comparison to Chinese foot binding a bit problematic. Chinese foot binding is intentional and involves not just tightly wrapping feet, but specifically and purposely breaking different bones in the foot to force them to mend in a different shape. It is a sexualized and frequently fetishized practice, with female bound feet referred to as lotuses which were perfumed and seen as objects of sexual desire for men (along with the awkward gait such deformed feet caused). Bound feet were also a status symbol of wealth or aristocracy, as poor women who had to work for a living could not afford the luxury of immobility.
I don’t think wearing a traditional shoe is “a less extreme version” (or any version) of this in the least, particularly in terms of intention, status, or sexuality. I think this article would have been perfectly informative and persuasive without the comparison. If anything, calling unintentional structural changes in our feet from wearing shoes with narrow toe boxes a version of foot binding only serves to further our misunderstanding (or lack of understanding) of a controversial and complex facet of Chinese culture.
All that said, I take the point of the article and agree with it. I just wish Chinese culture had been left out of it.
Surely you are jesting
Modern shoes are not about function as they are about form. In western society, shoes are all about looks. Stilettos and wing-tips are useless except for getting attention or signaling status.
For most of my life I suffered with shoes that were too small (I wear women’s size 11, wide) because I couldn’t find anything that fit. Although at one time I couldn’t find sexy shoes in my size, I suppose I’m lucky that was the case.
what do you call high heals if not ‘fetishizing’ footwear?
If you have arches, that sounds great – the whole natural thing. I have flat feet, absolutely no arch what-so-ever. It is hereditary and I was born without them. So going barefoot cannot strengthen what I do not have. That being said – because I have a wide foot, no arches and a long foot and am female- finding any shoe that fits is an effort in futility. No arch support – my planters flairs. Arch support – too structured for my wide foot or the wide widths are too big and my foot slides around (I am an 11.5 wide – 11 is too small so I have to go with 12s, which cause my foot to slide forward and jam into the front). As a teacher I am on my feet all day. I have tried them all (Which with my foot size gets expensive) and it doesn’t matter, even in men’s shoes. My feet hurt regardless. Even going barefoot all day at home or outside can cause significant pain.
Go to a podiatrist. If you can’t afford a custom orthotic yourself and it isn’t covered by your insurance, they can pad your most-used shoes to support your foot in the way it needs. They will also be able to recommend shoe types to support your foot however it needs – sometimes to the point of knowing the brand and style.
I never used to have much time for them until I was dealing with the aftermath of a broken foot – my podiatrist was able to get me wearing work-appropriate shoes that didn’t leave me hobbling by the end of a shift.
I hear you loud and clear. I too have hereditary flat feet. The left one has posterior tibial dysfunction, ie a frayed/torn tendon, the main tendon holding foot together and attached to leg. I now wear only wide-toed trainers, I have significant orthotics–the left one is at max–otherwise my foot would Lean too far to the left for my ankle to hold up. At this point I wear shoes all the time-I need the padding. I practice iyengar yoga and ‘intend’ for an arch to form. I can still form an arch on the right but not hold it. The right tendon is not damaged.
I wore Vibrams, the toe shoes for a while with orthotics but then feet started to hurt.
It’s a quandary. I’m doing foot strengthening exercises to stave off worsening the tendon which would lead to tendon surgery that has a daunting recovery. The body is amazing so I’m doing what I can to help natural forces keep things in balance best they can.
Check out Medievalmoccasins.com
Very flexible soles, conform to your feet rather than your feet having to conform to a shoe. Fun, stylish, can accommodate an orthotic support of you wear one now. What are you waiting for? Go!
Not everybody is born with healthy feet. Clubfoot is an example. Myself, I struggle with the same foot problems of my maternal grandmother. Our feet were shortening and widening which meant she hobbled in old age as there were no answers for her back then. I started having bones break from the pressure of the changes, so I was put in corrective orthotics. I CANNOT go barefoot as it becomes very painful very quickly and affects my overall posture. I wear a wider men’s athletic shoe all the time with my orthotics, and only wear boots outside in snow with orthotics in them. I have a slipper with a very aggressive sole for when I first get out of bed. Also wide. There are many other foot problems where the right orthotics and shoe combo make walking possible. People with clubfoot and my problem and other issues didn’t walk well through time. This article doesn’t address what to do with malformed feet. Barefoot is bad for us. Good shoes help.
I used to have this argument with people in Australia years ago (95’ish) … and my argument to: “if you can’t go barefoot then wear sandles or lite flexible shoes”…. ya, but I’m from Canada and winters don’t allow most of these rules to be followed….can I put my 3 year old in thin soled shoes and send him outside in January? …. I go barefoot or wear sanders all summer… but the argument doesn’t hold well for 6-8 months of the year here… except to but non-existent or hard to find expensive shoes that my son will grow out of in 3 months!… love the idea…not sure how practical it is most of NA
I don’t believe it. Assume everything which touches your barefoot through out the day of your barefoot walking, will eventually end up between your sheets where you sleep each night. Come on, do you really wash your feet before you go to bed?
Of course! I wash my hands, face and brush my teeth before bed too.
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I need shoes for work, slip and water resistant any good brands that fit for these kinds of shoes?
My daughter is 20 months old and I informed her pedi that she keeps tripping on herself when she’s walking. I told her, that’s she’s been wearing a soft sole shoes. She told me to stop using them and to buy more sturdy shoes to help keep her feet to the ground . Now I’m confused. I just bought ikiki shoes (squeaky shoes to help with heel to toes walking) and tsukihoshi ( this one is more agreeable to this article – big toe box & flexible sole) She loves the ikiki because of the sound. But should I keep letting her wear her soft sole shoes?
At that age she hasn’t fully developed her proprioceptive awareness. It’s important to be barefoot at that age to prevent other issues. You may want to look into sensory processing disorder which is a neurological condition that can be improved with therapy. Therapy usually involves body and joint stimulation through exercise and play.
renny. don’t put flipping boots on your baby! that is why she keeps tripping! SHE NEEDS to feel the ground under her. then she wont trip so much.
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when I started running I found my flat feet improved. Just had not had enough training. Then I found there is great difference between running on asphalt and concrete on one hand and normal soil ( in the woods, and in the meadows on the other hand. Our feet are made for our earth and it is much better to walk the earth. For your feet, your joints, your body. This said one has to be careful as the earth is not flat and well kept always. Nor is our environment free of broken glass, stubs,needles and pins, splintering wood etc.
Keeping your garden path wel maintained might give you a good start in touching mother Earth, very benificial.