The freedom to go barefoot
31 August 13
Our girls explore most of the world in bare feet. Due my own social conditioning, it’s a freedom that was initially very difficult to allow, but now we’ve embraced the practice and the notion that bare feet are superior in many ways!
The girls’ decisions to go barefoot is not about a lack of shoes. We have a large shoe-drawer which contains multiple pairs of shoes of the girls’ own choosing — closed shoes, sandals, water-shoes and gum-boots.
However, it’s a grim day when I ask them to wear shoes — usually only because we’re entering an institution which requires them. They grimace and sigh and ask if they really, truly have to — “Why?” And most of the time I don’t have a good answer — not a logical, full explanation, anyhow. I usually have to resort to “Because they have this silly rule that you need to wear shoes. They think you’ll get hurt if you’re not wearing shoes.”
For the girls, wearing shoes feels wrong. Going barefoot feels natural!
It’s not about me
For me, it’s taken years of deliberate processing to get past the idea that bare feet are inferior. As I grew up in West Africa, I learned the conditioning that many third-world countries have — Western technology is always superior to tribal ways.
As a young girl, running around the Saharan desert town of Tahoua, I was barefoot. My parents saw that the children around me were barefoot and gave me that freedom. The only conversation I remember having about my feet was when my mother — scrubbing my feet as I sat in the tin-metal bath that we called a kwano — remarked that my feet were the same colour as an African’s! I took it as a compliment, for with my sisters already at boarding school, all my friends were Africans.
Growing older, I learned the cultural niceties that dictated that shoes were mandatory for special occasions. When we moved to the wealthier country of Côte d’Ivoire, shoes became a status symbol. I saw children wear horrible, plastic sandals to play soccer because any shoe was considered superior to bare feet! At my American boarding school, the mentality was perpetuated with rules against going barefoot. We were told stories of hookworm to keep us in our shoes.
All around me, I witnessed that those who had shoes wore them. Families saved and scrimped to buy shoes, and children often wore ill-fitting, uncomfortable shoes simply because, well, shoes demonstrated wealth and sophistication. It wasn’t about protecting the feet, it wasn’t about building strong arches, it was simply about looking right in a judgmental society!
When I first returned to Australia as an adult, I was shocked to see adults going barefoot in shopping centres! Australian society is quite laid-back, and the beach culture has moved away from the sand and surf, so going barefoot isn’t entirely unusual here.
As an adult, I’m addicted to my shoes. I like the fashion accessory that they can be, I appreciate the way they protect my delicate soles, and I rarely go barefoot. But that’s just me, and that’s my choice.
Freedom for our children
Society’s views of what we should wear influence us every single day. Marketing sets standards to which we aspire and conformity dictates unofficial uniforms for almost every group of people.
I remember when I first had the revelation that I could allow our children to grow up freely, without imposing society’s ideas of matching, fashionable or suitable upon them. I can’t express how agonising it has been to truly offer this freedom to the girls. For all the years I judged people on how they looked, for all the years I judged parents on how their children looked — those same unkind thoughts haunt me when I let our girls run free while wearing what they feel comfortable in.
Now I’ve deliberately let go of what others may think and let the girls decide what they want to wear. If they’re cold, they’ll say so. If they want shoes, they’ll complain that the ground hurts their feet. My service to them is to provide shoes upon demand or suggest them if a child is struggling with her environment. Apart from that, I can let them go. I can let them be free. So they are.
The barefoot tribe
The good news is that I’m not alone in offering our children the freedom to go barefoot. Others have already travelled the road without shoes, and they’ve written great things that inspire me to let our children keep their shoes packed away.
“The boy or girl who has not had the privilege of running barefoot has been denied a heritage of youth for which nothing that comes later can compensate. The mother in this case is, according to the evidence, to be praised rather than condemned for allowing the children to run in bare feet.” — Judge Wood
Many barefooters choose to go barefoot for health reasons. Shoes create an artificial environment for our feet that prevents our feet from being as strong as they can be. The Society for Barefoot Living maintains a Facebook page where users swap stories of transitioning from shoe-dependence to total freedom. There aren’t many adults who walk around barefoot in our cities, but there are some!
Parents for Barefoot Children has compiled medical research that provides evidence that going barefoot leads to better foot health. They’ve also sensibly addressed common concerns such as broken glass and dirt. We agree that we don’t have an agenda of forcing children to go barefoot — there are times when shoes are definitely better than bare feet! But we can offer our children the freedom to go barefoot whenever appropriate, and cultural conformity isn’t enough of a reason to force children to wear shoes.
Our girls feel an affinity with other barefooters. They’re aware that most people wear shoes and so when they see someone without shoes, they recognise that this person is a non-conformist too. Many of our home-educating friends allow their children to remain barefoot — if you’re not dressing your children for others’ arbitrary rules (like school), you can usually let your children wear whatever they like. So when our girls spy other children who are barefoot, they approach them as friends.
Not a new rule
Most of all, the freedom to go barefoot isn’t a new rule that one must go barefoot! I keep shoes available, suggest them where appropriate, carry them when I think an institution will insist upon them but otherwise let the girls be free. In offering our children this freedom, I’m not perpetuating the cultural conformities that shackled me for so long but am cultivating a new way of thinking where the girls can decide what conventions they want to participate in — without coercion, guilt or bullying.