Fabulous Feet Everything You Need To Know About Footwear And Foot Care

Fabulous feet: Everything you need to know about feet, footwear and foot care

From dress codes to the barefoot revolution, we take a look at the ins and outs of feet and footwear to find out what’s good for the sole.

Thinking on your feet, cold feet, square feet, two left feet, six feet apart … for all of the time you’ve spent staring at your feet, how well do you really know them? Did you know that it takes a quarter of the bones in the human body to make up the humble human hooves? Feet come with complex customs, loads of different footwear options and an important etiquette guideline.

Yet it seems feet are somewhat of a divisive topic in modern society. There is a spectrum of love when it comes to feet. While some of us shudder at the thought of touching, looking at or catching a whiff of feet, others adore them.

Fortunately for all of the “podophobes” out there, the foot shake seems to have been soundly beaten by the elbow bump in the race for COVID-19 pandemic greeting glory. But love ’em or hate ’em, feet are here to stay.

Foot etiquette

Much like dress codes, emails and dinner tables, there are etiquette guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to your feet. Australia’s barefoot culture is becoming increasingly common, especially in coastal towns. But according to etiquette expert and founder of etiquette training school The Standard Companion Ana Retallack, going barefoot anywhere besides the beach, pool or health spa is a social faux pas.

“Whilst bare feet on the beach is socially acceptable, coming off the beach and wandering into the supermarket to purchase a box of crackers and dip to take back to the beach is best done with shoes on from a health and hygiene perspective,” explains Retallack.

Much like dress codes, emails and dinner tables, there are etiquette guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to your feet, too.

If you feel the need to slip off your stilettos after a day at the races or a night on the town, slipping a pair of foldable flats into your purse is the most socially acceptable way to do so — keeping both your pride and hygiene in top shape. When put this way, Coco Chanel’s iconic quote “Keep your heels, head and standards high” takes on new meaning.

So when should we de-shoe when entering someone’s home?

“In Australia, the clue very often lies outside the front door or threshold,” suggests Retallack. “If you notice numerous pairs of shoes stacked neatly outside then it is very likely that taking your shoes off would be appreciated, either from a cultural standpoint or from a practical one.”

What about when it comes to flying? “Generally speaking, it is acceptable to remove footwear discreetly mid-flight but never your socks,” Retallack explains. “You can never be sure if your feet are close to their sell-by date, which makes for a very unpleasant experience for everyone within five rows of you!”

Cultural customs

Unlike Australia, where it seems almost anything goes when it comes to feet and footwear, many countries around the world have strict cultural customs and practices. In many Buddhist, Muslim, Arab and Hindu countries, your feet — specifically the soles — are considered the dirtiest part of the body. Baring them is offensive, so if you’re planning on putting your feet up or even sitting cross-legged, think again — or at least do so with your socks still on.

Keep in mind that pointing bare, shod or sock-covered feet towards other people or any religious artefacts and images is also seen as disrespectful. The bottom line: be as aware of your feet as you would your verbal manners.

Shoes are also considered unclean, hence the cultural custom of de-shoeing before entering most Asian and Middle Eastern households. Donning sandals and socks may be a fashion faux pas here in Australia, but they seem like a practical pairing for mindful foot etiquette abroad.

India has a most complex set of customs when it comes to feet and shoes. While baring the soles of your feet is a huge taboo, many locals get around sans shoes every day. In Andaman, a small village in southern India, residents and visitors are banned from wearing shoes within the village limits out of respect to the sacred goddess Muthyalamma who guards the village. And although touching other people with your feet is highly offensive, touching the feet of elders is a traditional sign of respect.

Donning sandals and socks may be a fashion faux pas here in Australia, but they seem like a practical pairing for mindful foot etiquette abroad.

The act of padasparshan or charan sparsh (touching one’s feet) stems from the Vedic period and has both scientific and spiritual roots. This act is both a sign of respect for elders and a way to bless the other with strength, wisdom, intellect and good luck. Science dictates there are both positive and negative electric currents in the human body, and charan sparsh forms a closed circuit between two people, passing positive energy from the feet of one person through the fingertips of the other, completing the circuit and transferring karuna (goodwill and healing energy).

Over in Vietnam, tour guides at Trang An have developed a new technique to get through the long, gruelling hours of rowing sampans full of tourists — using their feet. Toes may not have the same ability as fingers to grip the oars, but the locals make it look as easy as walking (no straps necessary). It’s more of an art than an act — and an excellent way to prevent lower back pain.

Barefoot bandits

Don’t just expect to see the barefoot movement taking a foothold in coastal towns around Australia. The barefoot revolution has been gaining widespread momentum since Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run was published in 2009, tracking McDougall’s quest to find the elusive Tarahumara tribe — the world’s best long-distance runners, who run ultramarathons barefoot. But should we be so surprised that running barefoot is so efficient? After all, didn’t our ancestors run barefoot for miles and hours to hunt animals?

Australia’s very own barefoot guru, Paul Thompson (aka the Barefoot Podiatrist) has worked as a podiatrist for the past decade and, after experiencing years of pain and injuries despite being a long-term wearer of orthotics, he decided to pursue a holistic alternative to traditional podiatry.

“We’ve been conditioned for years and years that our feet need support from an early age, when in fact they don’t,” explains Thompson. “We’ve got hundreds of ligaments and tendons, 29 muscles, 200,000-plus nerve endings and 33 joints — the feet are jam-packed full of amazing equipment and they’re built to support themselves.”

The barefoot movement has had its fair share of sceptics, but it’s not about always being shoeless and living like hippies. As a certified barefoot trainer, functional movement specialist and a qualified Pilates matwork instructor, Thompson knows a thing or two about rehabilitating natural foot function and has amassed over 20,000 followers on Instagram (@TheBarefootPodiatrist), where he shares foot strengthening exercises and shoe recommendations.

“We’ve always pushed, and I’ve been taught through university, that from around two years of age we need things like a slight heel on the shoe but nothing too high; that it needs to be rigid through the shank and supportive,” says Thompson. “All these features that are believed to be nice and supportive and help keep our feet healthy, which to me is the biggest misconception of all because a lot of these features can actually cause dysfunction in the feet.”

And it turns out that this dysfunction begins at a very early age. According to American podiatrist and footwear expert, Dr William Rossi, “In any shoe-wearing society, by age eight or nine, the toes of most children have lost up to 50 per cent of their natural prehensile and functional capacity.”

As a general rule for children and pre-teens, Thompson suggests opting for a barefoot shoe from brands like PaperKrane, Vivobarefoot and Xero Shoes, then transitioning to traditional shoes if there’s any structural issues down the track. But for adults, it’s a little trickier.

“If your feet aren’t functional, these barefoot shoes won’t fix you just like an orthotic won’t fix you. It’s exercise and working on strength, mobility and motor control of your foot and ankle,” explains Thompson. “The shoe will help aid that process if you’re doing the other work; for someone who already has a bunch of issues as an adult to just change to a barefoot shoe and go and do sport will nine times out of 10 exacerbate a problem.”

What can you do to rehabilitate your foot function? “Start by working on improving function and making sure there’s enough mobility through the foot and hip, enough strength and enough motor control,” says Thompson. “That’s the thing that’s going to help essentially bulletproof your feet from a lot of these chronic conditions like neuromas, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis and knee pain.”

The barefoot podiatrist’s top tips for shoe-shopping

  • Ask what the heel stack is and look for zero-millimetre heel height. Most shoes have a built-in heel that shortens the Achilles and changes your pelvic position, meaning it loads up your lower back.
  • You’re going to want a wide toe box. Contrary to popular belief, the widest part of the shoe should be the toe box to give room for toe splay, rather than the ball of the foot.
  • Look for minimal cushioning and make sure it fastens to your foot to prevent clawing.
  • New to barefoot shoes? Ease in, make sure you’re doing stretches and don’t go too hard too soon.

Beautiful feet

Much like our features, feet vary in shape and size around the world — there is no “one size fits all” shoe. The same goes for the definition of beautiful feet. For centuries, the archaic (and now banned) practice of foot-binding was held in high regard in China. The procedure began in 10th Century China as an elite status symbol and eventually spread across the country and all classes. Millions of young girls would have their toes broken and tightly bound beneath the soles to transform their feet into “golden lotuses” that would fit into doll-like shoes just three inches long. Much like a small waist in Victorian England, tiny feet were the epitome of femininity and desirability in Imperial China. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that this disfiguring tradition was stopped.

While foot-binding is no longer practised, feet aesthetics are still important to many people in the 21st century — so much so that the “Cinderella procedure”, a surgical reshaping of the foot (including bunion removal, toe shortening and even Botox and liposuction) is becoming a go-to for many women wanting to squeeze their toes into stilettos and pointed pumps. But if you hate the look of your feet, fear not. There are plenty of alternatives to the surgery to make your feet more appealing, like pedicures, chemical peels or even just finding the right style of footwear.

Did you know that foot fetishes are one of the most common sexual fantasies? While researching his book about the science of sexual desire, Dr Justin Lehmiller found that 14 per cent of the 4000 Americans he spoke to reported having a sexual fantasy involving feet or toes (think massaging, sniffing and even licking). One 23-year-old medical student that goes by the name of Sweet Arches reported earning $US6000 per month in 2020 by selling pictures of her feet online — now that’s one way to fund your medical school studies!

Footwear for the future

When it comes to the world of footwear, will we experience a barefoot shoe revolution or will the “science” behind gel cushioning, stacked heels and arch support prevail? Only time can tell. But right now, one thing is clear: vintage classics are here to stay. From the iconic Aussie Dunlop Volleys, launched in 1939, to the stylised iterations of the Birkenstock, originally released in the ’60s, the revival of retro footwear is in full swing.

Here, our top picks for the footwear of today that are good for the feet and the earth and won’t compromise your style.

Feelgrounds
Eco-friendly, foot-friendly and designed with your health in mind; minimalist footwear doesn’t get any better than this. Think vegan leather boots, crisp white sneakers and slip-on knits to complete your everyday rotation. Feelgrounds is the ultimate starter kit for your barefoot journey.

Wild Wool
Cool weather calls for cosy kicks and this local footwear has plenty of merino sheepskin slides, boots and slippers label. Each pair is made in Australia from ethically sourced one-of-a-kind leather and cloud-like wool. Our pick of the season? The Classic Corduroy Slippers — a timeless and seriously snug silhouette.

Veja
Ethical fashion is the catchphrase on every fashionista’s mind right now — and Veja is one of the first brands to come to mind. The French label uses sustainably sourced Amazonian rubber and crafts their sneakers from organic cotton, recycled plastic bottles and eco-tanned leather. Plus, they make eco-friendly running shoes that are guaranteed to up your workout wardrobe.

Crocs
Footwear enthusiasts are often torn between functionality and fashion when it comes to Crocs. Whether through irony or simply a love of bedazzled clogs, Crocs have transitioned from being the practical shoe of choice for nurses and chefs to an aesthetic fashion centrepiece — calling for a collaboration with Balenciaga and a feature in Drew Barrymore’s closet.

St. Agni
Your one-stop shop for ethical footwear that’s as sustainable as it is stylish. St. Agni’s designs translate the simplicity of the Spanish vista into chic, minimalist sandals that add a boho flair to your wardrobe all year round. Think espadrilles, strappy slides and square-toed slingbacks.

Georgia Nelson

Georgia Nelson

Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the South Coast of NSW, currently acting as the deputy editor at EatWell, and the features writer at WellBeing and WILD. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature.

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