Episode 14: These Shoes Were Made for Mocking

(and that's just what we'll do.)

Producer Taylor Quimby has been defending Vibram FiveFingers shoes to naysayers for years. When people see him wearing them while he’s on the trail or out for a run, they tend to have a pretty visceral reaction, and that reaction is typically disgust. So what is it about these glove-like shoes that makes people so upset?

 
 

The Real Reason So Many People Hate FiveFingers™

It’s a hot July afternoon, and I’m hiking up Kearsarge Mountain in New Hampshire when a woman on her way down says, “Ugh, don’t those hurt your feet?” She didn’t stop or look me in the face so I could tell she didn’t really want to hear my answer–it was just passing commentary on my choice of footwear.

After seven years of wearing Vibram FiveFingers, I’m pretty used to fielding questions (or enduring insults) about them when I hike, but I’ve never been able to adequately explain how a general phobia of exposed toes turned into a mean-spirited backlash against Vibram enthusiasts back when the company settled a class-action lawsuit in 2014.

Until now. Here’s my four-point theory on why so many people came to abhor the FiveFingers toe-shoe.

We've blurred this runner's feet for Jimmy's sake.

We've blurred this runner's feet for Jimmy's sake.

Like Crocs or PT Cruisers, a good deal of the hatred for Vibrams has nothing to do with their functionality – for these anti-foot-fetishists, the real problem is the independently segmented toes. One colleague of mine referred to Vibrams as crossing “the uncanny valley of feet”. I’m guessing she means they look too much like feet and nothing like feet at the same time.

But people aren’t just disgusted by toe-shoes. Runners who leave their toes entirely exposed are subject to ridicule too. “I don’t have the psychological insight to figure out what it is about naked feet that freaks people out,” says Christopher McDougall, author of the unofficial barefoot bible Born to Run. “I’d be running down the street in bare feet and people would roll down their windows and go berserk: ‘You forgot your shoes! Put your shoes on!’"

“Dude, it’s not my penis. These are just my toes.”

 

When the FiveFingers first became popular, Outside Magazine contributor Jon Gugala was working at a running store. He says that fitting customers for Vibrams was a long and frustrating process, and one that rarely ended in a sale.

For these reasons Jon says, “there was a special place of hatred at least for me and a lot of my coworkers for the FiveFingers at the time.”  What was most infuriating though, is that the presence of Vibrams brought lots of people with little to no running experience into the store. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing, except…

Many non-runners who came into Jon’s store with an interest in Vibrams did so because they had read Born to Run. The book, an adventure story about a tribe of spectacularly gifted Native American runners, proposes a theory that the human foot evolved to run long-distances.

The modern running shoe, McDougall says, has allowed runners to develop terrible form–a factor that he think contributes to high rates of injury for the sport. It’s a position that he’s stuck to, even after the barefoot running craze ended a couple years ago.

“When things go wrong with the human foot,” he says, “it’s because we strap on the crazy inventions by mad scientists and think that they’re going to actually improve what our foot has naturally evolved to do.”


In other words, people who wear running sneakers (most everybody) are doing it wrong. McDougall’s philosophy is what many non-running, Born To Run-reading customers were spouting when they entered a shoe store to try on Vibrams for the first time. Not surprisingly, many...

Photo credit: Logan Shannon

In the words of Jon Gugala: “You work at a running store, so you think you know more than the average person about running, so when people try and call you on that based on a book that they read, your ego gets hurt. So maybe you take that out on a helpless product like FiveFingers.” Jon says he actually really loved wearing the Vibram FiveFingers for a time, and went so far as to recommend that everybody try them at least once. After a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis though, he gave them up, and when Vibram settled the class action lawsuit in 2014, he was among those who gleefully lashed out against all of those finger-wagging barefooters.

 

Despite being one of the targets of that backlash, I totally get it. In fact, it reminds me of my relationship with kale. I have nothing against kale, but when I hear people talk about kale like it’s going to cure cancer, boost IQ, and solve the control debate, I call bullshit. And that makes me want to eat less of it, even if it makes for a decent smoothie. The thing is, I really shouldn’t be annoyed with kale. I should be annoyed with the crazy kale-heads who act as though it’s the galaxy’s most powerful super-food.

I get the backlash…but I still like these shoes.

What’s Good for the Goose Foot, Is Not Always Good for the Gander’s Feet

TAYLOR IS A VERY GOOD JUMP ROPER. 

TAYLOR IS A VERY GOOD JUMP ROPER. 

Vibram Fivefingers aren’t the panacea or silver bullet that the company may have claimed them to be (an idea likely spread by Born to Run, unintentionally or otherwise) but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a good option for some runners.

Dr. Jonathan Roth, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon, recently did a literature review of studies on barefoot versus shod (as in, with shoes) running, and found that the two styles seem to have two different injury profiles. He found that, whereas barefoot style runners may suffer fewer injuries to the lower legs and knees, they may be more prone to injuries in the foot and ankle. Depending on a runner’s individual injury profile, switching to barefoot or cushioned shoes could be the right thing to do. And if you’re relatively injury-free, don’t bother switching at all.

“People are so different, that what may work for one person may not work for another,” Dr. Roth says. “You should really take each person as an individual and look at their mechanics, look at their foot shape, look at their injury risk and where they’re prone to injuries, and adjust accordingly. Just like with diet, you really have to be more personalized with not suggesting one thing for everybody, but really take a look at the whole.”

It’s advice that’s unlikely to get you on Good Morning America or to the top of the New York Times’ best-sellers list, but it may just put your mind at ease when it comes to whatever you’ve chosen for your feet.


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Taylor Quimby, Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, & Logan Shannon

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder 

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.