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If the shoe fits, wear it


FREE SOLES Walking barefoot through sand and grass can feel therapeutic.

Andrew O'Brien

Leonardo da Vinci once described something as ‘a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art’. When you consider that Da Vinci died in 1519, it’s hard to think what on earth he could have been referring to. The Pyramids of Egypt? Stonehenge? Machu Picchu? I suppose with a bit of research you could find out whether Da Vinci had been to Egypt, or knew anything of Stonehenge or Machu Picchu. But you’d be wasting your time, because he was actually referring to the human foot.
Many people these days see feet as utilitarian at best, ugly at worst. I used to be surprised by how difficult in can be to convince people to remove their shoes and socks – especially in public, but even in their own homes. Are human feet really that bad, or are they, as Leonardo says ‘a work of art’? I guess it depends on the foot you are looking at and your own personal tastes.
The Chinese practice of foot-binding, which only died out in the early 20th century was intended to make feet beautiful. It’s estimated that by the 19th century, 40-50 percent of Chinese women may have had their feet tightly bound to change their shape. The process regularly resulted in broken bones, repeated infections and ingrown toenails, with an associated risk of gangrene or death by septic shock.
As a result of the changes in foot shape, it was difficult for the women to weight-bear through the forefoot, meaning they had to walk with tiny steps and a swaying gait. Apparently, men found the swaying gait, and the appearance and (heaven help us) smell of bound feet, to be erotic. Perhaps a work of art then, but hardly a masterpiece nof engineering.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Huaorani. A tribe of around 4,000 people living in a remote area of the Ecuadorian Amazon, some of the Huaorani still live a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and avoid contact with outsiders (occasionally spearing those who do try to make contact). A quick search for ‘Huaorani feet’ on Google will reveal an engineering model of the foot, where form follows function. The Huaorani walk through dense jungle, climb trees, so their feet need to be wide, pliable and dextrous. Thus, a Huaorani foot looks like a cross between a hand and foot.
What has this to do with the residents of Mayo in 2019? I’m sure nobody intentionally binds their feet, and not that many of us spend our days hunting monkeys in a rainforest. But how many of us wear shoes that don’t quite fit and therefore don’t allow our feet to function as they should? Perhaps more importantly, how many parents make their children wear shoes all day? Remember that the bones of the foot don’t fully harden until 18-20 years of age, which means a pair of shoes that are even slightly too narrow can, over time, have a binding effect.
The presentation of symptoms that can come from ill-fitting shoes range from the obvious (bunions and hammer toes) to the less so (ingrown toe nails, tight calf muscles and sore backs). Should you then just chuck the shoes away and go full Huaorani? Probably not. While it’s so nice as to be therapeutic to walk on the grass or a beach in bare feet, walking around town without shoes can draw some strange looks and could well be a bit painful for anyone not used to it. You could though, take your shoes and socks off in the house and garden. It is spring, after all!
When buying shoes, put your foot beside the shoe on the floor – or better still on top of it. If your toes are hanging over the sides you are taking the foot-binding approach of fitting your feet to the shoes rather than the shoes to your feet. There are some companies that make truly foot-shaped shoes, some of which look like weird foot gloves, but others that just provide an anatomically correct shape, with wide toe boxes and minimal extra structure. Sadly, most of these brands aren’t available in Irish shops, forcing you to rely on an online leap of faith.
Making the shift from shoe-shaped foot to foot-shaped shoe might not make you more attractive, nor will wearing foot-shaped shoes give you Huaorani toes, but varying your options will reduce the risk of long-term issues.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at