MIKE PESCA, host:
All right, let's check out the shoe ledger. No, not the shoe leather, the shoe ledger. The ledger of pros and cons of shoes. Pro, "Blue Suede Shoes." That's a good song. Con, "Barefoot" is also a good song. Pro, shoes keep out dirt, keep out sharp things, keep out dung.
Con, they're killing your feet. That last con is worse than you thought, according to Adam Sternbergh, who's written an article called " You Walk Wrong" for New York Magazine. Adam, you've never seen me walk, have you?
Mr. ADAM STERNBERGH (Journalist, New York Magazine): I haven't.
PESCA: You're right, actually, about me. I totally walk wrong. But you're saying not just me, Mike Pesca, who walks on his toes as if there's a fire or glass on the ground. Everyone walks wrong?
Mr. STERNBERGH: Well, everyone who wears shoes.
Mr. STERNBERGH: Walks wrong.
PESCA: Most people we encounter on the streets.
Mr. STERNBERGH: And the reason is because shoes make you walk wrong.
PESCA: Is this a conspiracy of some sort?
Mr. STERNBERGH: Well, it's sort of a conspiracy of idiocy. When I first handed in a draft of this piece, my editor's question was how did we get to this point? And part of what you discover when you look at the history of how shoes are designed is that at no point really did anyone sit down and say let's design something that works with your foot so that you can walk naturally and comfortably.
You know, in the Middle Ages, people wore very high soles on their shoes so they didn't walk in other people's excrement. More recently, people like to wear high heels because they look sexier. You know, there's a number of reasons why people wear the shoes they wear, none of which have to do with actually working with your foot.
PESCA: With high heels, I don't think you'll get an argument out of anyone that they're actually good for your feet, they're for aesthetic reasons, women like wearing them or feel they have to, or men. But for even shoes that are marketed as comfortable shoes, or people who say all I care about is comfort, you're actually saying, and podiatrists and experts are saying, they're not as comfortable as no shoes at all?
Mr. STERNBERGH: That's right. What people seem to be discovering, and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense, is that actually, the human foot works pretty well as it is. Obviously, once upon a time, people were designed to walk around barefoot on the earth, and no one thought about putting on a pair of Nike Air shoes.
Over time because of all the reasons you cited, people didn't want to step on glass or nails or whatever, we decided to put our feet into shoes. However, what's happened is that we wear shoes as if we were wearing a cast on your arm. You know, as one person said to me, imagine if someone put a cast on your arm when you were three years old, and you never took it off. Your arm would stop working. And that's kind of what's happened with our feet.
PESCA: So just as a practical matter, there are people that like to go barefoot everywhere. But you'll concede that in the urban setting or the suburban setting, that some form of covering over the feet is necessary.
Mr. STERNBERGH: Oh, yes, not only do I concede that, but I live that every day.
PESCA: You cover your feet.
Mr. STERNBERGH: I do.
PESCA: Not out of shame.
Mr. STERNBERGH: Yes. This article didn't start out being necessarily about walking around barefoot but about the idea that we could be walking better. And of course, New Yorkers walk a lot, and so the idea that you could walk better seemed of interest to people in New York.
However, when I realized that a lot of people think that barefoot is the most natural way to go, I thought, OK, well, this is a bit of a dead end because I'm not going to convince anyone, including myself, to walk barefoot in New York City, it's crazy.
However, there are a number of shoes now on the market that purport to offer the benefits of walking barefoot, so I started looking into that. And also just how you can alter your walk to get those benefits.
PESCA: And so what are some of the benefits, well, let me ask you how well do these shoes or shoe-like apparatus, how well do they approximate the barefoot walking experience?
Mr. STERNBERGH: Well they range from - there's a shoe called MBT or Maasai Barefoot Technology which was designed by a Swiss engineer after he studied the Maasai tribe in Africa who walked barefoot and traditionally have very few foot problems. It's pretty commonly accepted that people in the world who go barefoot for much of their lives don't suffer from nearly as many problems with their feet as people in the West who traditionally wear shoes.
PESCA: But of course, people who go barefoot most of their lives live in places that aren't paved for the most part.
Mr. STERNBERGH: This is true, although there was a - way back in the '40s, there was a podiatrist who went to India to study the bare feet of men who pulled rickshaws in Calcutta and - what was then Calcutta, and he discovered that they had incredibly healthy feet and I think sometimes the rationale that we use for wearing shoes and especially heavily cushioned shoes in the city is that well, concrete and asphalt are hard to walk on, they're not like sand at the beach.
But I think we sometimes overplay the extent to which our ancestors were walking on pillows and cushions all the time. They weren't, they were walking on - they weren't walking on asphalt, it's true, but in many places in the world, the ground is quite hard and not significantly more cushiony. They were actually able to absorb the shock by walking differently, not by walking on something different.
PESCA: Walking differently, which people argue, would be walking naturally.
Mr. STERNBERGH: That's correct, yes.
PESCA: OK, so we did a diversion here. We were talking about the MBTs, the Maasai Barefoot Technology, and the different types of shoes that are like being barefoot.
Mr. STERNBERGH: Well, that shoe would be on one end of the spectrum and the irony of that shoe is it has the word barefoot in the title and yet to look at them, as I say in the article, I mean they look like Frankenstein shoes.
They have a very thick sole and the idea is, well, the Maasai walk around on a soft, unstable ground, so we're going to put something and unstable between your foot and the earth. And it does affect the way you walk, however, I found they were totally unsuitable for urban walking because, basically if you're walking slowly in a straight line, they are beneficial and they can help your walk.
If you have to, say, run for a taxi, or stand on a subway or do any of the other things that require you do move sideways or quickly, they're not the most stable shoes in the world, let's put it that way.
PESCA: And another ironic thing about their title even though they have barefoot in the title, they also have Maasai, and I think the Maasai get no money off of those shoes.
Mr. STERNBERGH: No, they do not.
PESCA: So what else do we have?
Mr. STERNBERGH: And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have some shoes, for example, these shoes also called Barefoot, they're called Vivo Barefoot. They're made in England by this guy named Galahad Clark who, he's Clark as in the family the Clarks, the Clark Shoe Company, they make wallabies, a very famous old shoe company.
PESCA: He's like the grandson or the great grandson and discoverer and inventor of Clark Shoes.
Mr. STERNBERGH: Yes, he's his father, actually, was the guy who invented Wallabies. And he was convinced to make these barefoot shoes, which are sort of the opposite of the MBT shoes, they're just essentially like a slipper with a kind of Kevlar-like substance of a sole that prevents it from being punctured by glass or nails and stuff like that.
He met a guy who had designed the shoe for himself because he found that he was suffering a lot of sports injuries and his father had said, why don't you try playing tennis barefoot? And he thought, well, you're crazy. And then he tried it and he really liked it, so he sort of designed the shoe, he brought it to Clark, and now these shoes are commercially available.
PESCA: Do you wear them?
Mr. STERNBERGH: I'm wearing them right now.
PESCA: For our show, or is this, if you didn't even - let's say they rejected the article, would you be wearing them?
Mr. STERNBERGH: I would still be wearing the shoes.
Mr. STERNBERGH: I am receiving no promotional fee for saying that. PESCA: Describe the feeling - what they do for you and your walk.
Mr. STERNBERGH: The first thing you notice when you're wearing them is that they kill your heels. As you walk on the sidewalk it hurts your feels and a traditional shoe advocate would say, well you need to switch back to, you know, sneakers that have a big cushiony heel on them.
However the argument of the barefoot shoe, I mean if you walked barefoot on the sidewalk, the way you would not walk in your shoes, it would hurt your heel and the barefoot walking advocate would say that's because you're walking wrong. And I said to the guy when I got the shoes, I said to Galahad Clark, do I need some sort of instruction or how am I going to know how to walk in these?
He said you'll - it's instinctual. He just said you have to wear them and get used to them, but after a while you'll find that your walk starts to change and that it's true. That's what happens. You start to step more. You land on your heel, but it's a much softer landing, and you roll through your foot, differently than you would with a shoe.
Basically shoes - a traditional shoe with a lot of cushioning is designed to allow you to walk with the bad habits that you have because you've been wearing shoes all your life. Shoes perpetuate shoes.
PESCA: So all shoe technology now is let's solve the problems caused by the shoes that came before us.
Mr. STERNBERGH: Yeah. It's sort of a classic self-perpetuating system.
PESCA: All right. Adam Sternbergh who wrote "You Walk Wrong" for New York Magazine. Your next article is what, loincloth or lye cloth?
Mr. STERNBERGH: No. I think I'm going to be staying away from feet and body nudity articles for a while.
PESCA: All right. You had a niche, but you turned your back on it. Adam Sternbergh from New York Magazine. Thanks very much, Adam.
Mr. STERNBERGH: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.