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.
Infant American foot compared to adult American foot
“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.”
Hunter-gatherer feet compared to American infant’s feet
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.”
Check out the feet on this uncontacted Amazonian tribe
“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.”
There are several awesome brands of barefoot shoes and sandals coming out as more and more people discover the benefits. Our favorites are:
Xero shoes and sandals, a pioneer in natural movement footwear:
We especially like their lightweight, flexible and thin-soled hiking boots:
And their Z-Trail sandals:
And Bedrock sandals, especially their Earthquake sandals, which have the thinnest sole:
And Shamma sandals, especially their Warrior sandals:
For more details about minimalist footwear for kids click here.