It’s a memory that Polish blogger and content creator Eva zu Beck returns to often, from a time she describes as another life - when she cared about pedicured feet, high heels that clacked on glass floors, embroidered moccasins that marked her gait, and leather boots that mirrored the rigidity of the corporate world.
Earlier this year, however, zu Beck swore off shoes altogether, travelling the world barefoot. “When I quit everything and adopted a nomadic way of life, I felt more connected to nature,” said the 31-year-old. “This was when I came across the barefoot lifestyle and decided to check if there were any studies done to prove that going barefoot has actual benefits.”
Humans have been walking or running without shoes for millions of years but recently, there has been a surge of interest in barefoot walking and running, or even doing away with shoes altogether without a socioeconomic reason attached to it. Motivations range from a desire to reconnect with nature and to seek a spiritual connection to needing to ease physical pain.
Among the people we spoke to for this piece, a few choose to be barefoot at all times, while others wear shoes during winters or when stepping into establishments that mandate footwear.
One aspect of the barefoot movement is “grounding” – touching the earth with bare skin – which is billed as a radical healthcare breakthrough to ease pain. Grounding can mean activities like walking barefoot on grass, the idea being that the Earth's surface contains free electrons that can be transferred to human bodies via direct contact. A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that earthing helped in better sleep and reduced pain, due to the “transfer of electrons from the earth to the human body.”
Zu Beck remembers “getting chills” when she first encountered people who had embraced the barefoot lifestyle – from the volcanic landforms in Scotora to the highlands of Mongolia. Didn’t it hurt their feet, she’d wondered. How could they cover valleys and peaks with such ease? Soon, she realised, it was only natural to experience the world this way.
“I’m not making a statement by going barefoot. It’s about how it makes me feel, and if walking barefoot on concrete doesn’t make me feel better, I will simply not do it.”
Zu Beck claims that ditching footwear has also helped her run better. She said that her running gait has become more even, preventing her from losing stability on jagged peaks during treks as her feet now fall on their centre rather than the sides. “A lot of money goes into the running shoe lobby. So, it is in their interest to convince us that expensive, padded shoes are what we need. I couldn’t come across any scientific evidence that wearing them is good for you.”
According to a 2010 review by evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University that compared barefoot runners with those wearing shoes to understand barefoot running in the context of human evolution, runners wearing shoes hit the ground with a sudden collision force when they abruptly stopped, but the barefoot runner experienced no such impact.
It sampled five different groups of people both indoors and outdoors across the United States and Kenya: habitually barefoot runners; those who grew up barefoot but now run in cushioned shoes; runners who grew up in shoes but now run primarily barefoot or in minimalist footwear; two adolescent groups – the first who have never worn shoes and the second who have worn shoes their entire lives.
The study further concluded that there was no evidence showing that being barefoot necessarily prevents injury but added that modern running shoes may be dangerous because they promote a “heel foot strike” – which produces far greater impact than running barefoot.
For Aparna, a 28-year-old graphic designer who prefers being addressed by just her first name, the decision to go barefoot was a form of rebellion against the way she was raised.
“It’s almost as if my parents had given birth to a project,” she told VICE. “It was helicopter parenting at its worst. Even though I was raised in a metropolitan city like Mumbai, my life was dictated by the patriarchal customs of my ancestral village in Karnataka.”
Apart from being vocal about the ridiculousness of her parents’ ways, Aparna needed a symbol for her resistance. This came in the form of adopting a permanent barefoot lifestyle – from going to college to travelling in local trains.
“It certainly helped my parents realise that I had no plans to do their bidding,” she said. “When I finally got a job and moved out of their house, I had to pass a restraining order against them.”
Aparna continues to follow the barefoot lifestyle, as she believes that it has allowed her to make independent decisions and to live her life freely.
But isn’t she worried about what she might be stepping on, we ask. India has a serious garbage issue. There is no processing of waste in most Indian cities, according to the Central Pollution Board, and in some cases, trash is simply burned in open dump yards on the main highway. Waking on the roads often means having to consistently dodge trash, avoiding being splattered by red betel-nut juice being spat out by passersby, as well as being careful about not stepping on broken glass or animal excreta. In such a scenario, aren’t barefoot walkers worried about injuries or infections?
“Just because you are barefoot doesn’t mean you have given up on your feet,” clarified Aparna. “I clean my feet every day with a brush and a pumice stone and ensure I don’t step on moss, garbage, or glass. The barefoot lifestyle also teaches you how to walk more consciously because you are acutely aware of where you are stepping and what you are stepping on. You step out only when necessary.”
She claims that she has never been hurt because she usually has a rough map of the route she is going to take and what it is going to look like. “This doesn’t mean I rely on cabs for shorter distances, as I wouldn’t want to mindlessly guzzle fossil fuel for my barefoot lifestyle. The whole idea is to walk, and walk barefoot, and find as many natural surfaces as possible.”
Isabelle Brough, a 52-year-old movement therapist and restorative lifestyle specialist based in Reading, England, said going barefoot helped resolve her hip and back pain, as well as her ankle pain.
“I found that wearing shoes creates imbalances in your body,” she told VICE. “Wearing shoes prevents your nervous system from working optimally. When you are barefoot, you actually get information from the ground and you also hit the ground more softly.”
Brough said that initially her family wasn’t too supportive when she embraced the barefoot lifestyle. She’d also get funny looks when walking into a shop or a hotel. “Once, I saw people wearing shoes at a beach in Devon. And I suppose they felt liberated watching me barefoot because a few joined me.”
For another barefoot lifestyle adopter, Mitali – a 24-year-old social justice worker – this choice was a way to have richer memories about a place, about people. It helped her become mindful and experience the world around her in newer ways.
“My feet had no memory of their own,” she said. “After going barefoot, I had a new bank of memories. It integrates you with any space or city in a fascinating way. Is it a newly built road? How clayey is it? I learned to walk slowly because cities in India are not necessarily pedestrian-friendly, as they are built keeping urban and industrial mobility in mind.”
Mitali couldn’t step on concrete because of how hot it gets during the day and, consciously walking on non-concrete surfaces was not easy in a city. “I understood how widely surrounded we are by concrete and that maybe cities might not be meant for one in the first place.”
She said that there is a certain mental “rewilding” one goes through after going barefoot. Recently, during a trek in a forest with her friends, she was the only one to notice that there were paw marks of a bear and her child on the ground.
“One truly becomes mindful,” she said. “Even though I’m usually not very sure-footed, I haven’t had a single cut mark on my feet after going barefoot because one becomes all the more aware of where one is stepping.”
However, most people we spoke to also clarified that they were not radically against putting on shoes when the need arises. Eva zu Beck said that she will wear shoes if it’s a formal setting, like when she is visiting a government building or a restaurant that insists on customers wearing footwear. Similarly, Brough said that she wears shoes while walking on snow. Aparna said that she does not go barefoot when boarding flights. The barefoot lifestyle is not a radical one for them, but rather an “ideal and default” state to be in as much as possible.
However, Deepak Oberoi, a 37-year-old co-founder of the popular Bombay Running society, said the romanticism of the barefoot lifestyle must be viewed with caution.
“It is only meant for slim people because someone who is obese cannot go barefoot without severely damaging their ankles,” he said. “People get easily influenced on social media with the newest fad, so they will research a keto diet or a barefoot lifestyle without first researching their own bodies. You cannot be feeding grass to a lion and meat to a goat. We all have different body structures.”
However, movement therapist Ritesh Shaiwal, who is also a proponent of the barefoot lifestyle, said that most of the bodily dysfunction happens “from the ground up” and a barefoot lifestyle improves awareness of the body.
“When you wear high arched shoes and heels throughout your lifetime, it impacts a feedback mechanism called proprioception (also known as the sixth sense),” he said. “Basically, shoes insulate you from signals from the ground that are supposed to be transmitted to the central nervous system.”
But he advises easing into the barefoot lifestyle.
“Start walking on the grass first for a little while and see how you feel. You will see how a barefoot lifestyle will enhance your awareness in every way possible.”