[Science Solitaire] Why most shoes aren’t perfect for your feet

Maria Isabel Garcia
Sometime in 3,500 BC, someone made a pair (presumably a pair) of leather shoes in Armenia. In 2010, that shoe was found in an Armenian cave.

Never try to buy shoes after reading a scientific study on feet. It will most likely ruin the most determined shoe-shopping spirit you have ever possessed. This is especially true if you read the study entitled, “The evolution of compliance in the human lateral mid-foot” which appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B last Aug 21 2013. 

I know this because recently, I did just that and I ended up standing back, staring at the most gorgeous collection of shoes in town but  thinking that all those who made them were all scientifically unenlightened, at least about the nature of the human foot.

At the southern end of your body are two separate splayed stretches of mainly bone and muscle, “frayed” at the end into generally 5 digits each. These form the base of our bodies when we are vertically poised on the ground, when gravity feels like it has been spread at the soles of your feet like industrial strength coco jam. Your feet bear much, if not most, of the impact when we stand, walk, run, skip, hop, stand and all other vertical episodes of life that bind us to the ground.  

Then we invented shoes, or to be precise, sandals first. The oldest known sandals, 8,500 years old, were made of sagetree bark fiber, found in a cave in Oregon. They protected mainly the soles of their wearer, with attachments that bind it to the rest of the feet. That signalled our first separation from the ground. We were no longer directly and literally in touch with the ground beneath our bodies. We became protected, and also insulated from the contours of the terrain we treaded.  

Sometime in 3,500 BC, someone made a pair (presumably a pair) of leather shoes in Armenia. In 2010, that shoe was found in an Armenian cave. No less than the famous shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik, was asked for a reaction. He was reported to have been astonished by how much it resembled the modern shoe.

Shoe hunt

It is a gloomy afternoon in August 2013 and I am hunting for a classic pair of black shoes that I can wear most of my working days. But there are so many kinds of footwear before me now fighting for my attention. Every time I lift a pair of utterly beautiful sandals, boots or flats, I try them on and I consciously feel what happens to the arches of my feet by the side of my small toe. Why? As I said, it is because I read a study and the findings are hounding my emotional encounters with pair after pair after pair that I try on.

The feet study I mentioned basically wiped out about 80 years of supposed wisdom of how to design shoes. The “wisdom” is supposed to be based on what earlier studies concluded: that human feet were special – already anatomically far from their ape cousins’.

Being “special” meant that our foot arches were already relatively rigid compared to the pliant ones of apes who still needed them to move from tree-to-tree. Thus, shoes were generally made with rigid supports for what was believed to be already the fixed, rigid arch of the human foot.

But now, after studying over 20,000 steps of 45 humans done on very sensitive treadmills which recorded pressure, scientists revealed that we still bear the movable arches, especially in mid-toe, that we need room for that arch to move around. In short, the general mould for the typical shoe needs to change.

From shoes to anatomical evolution

Each pair that I tried in the shoe store did have a problem with the arch because the hard arch support bulged from the shoe, painfully hitting my mid-toe. Maybe I was already especially aware of it now, that is why I practically condemned the entire collection that had my size. 

How do I explain to the persistent store assistant who was handing me all the pairs that none of these lovely but painful pairs will do because we have not really strayed far from the anatomy that reflected what Darwin called our “arboreal beginnings?”

I was in a shoe store to buy a pair of shoes and not to discuss anatomical evolution. But my shoe conscience which I have seemed to have crowd-sourced to feet researchers, found a way to scream to my alert neurons that I really needed a classic pair of wedged black shoes!

So I just grabbed a pair that would do that, and it cost me more than I had budgeted for. But I plan to crowd-source some funds to offset it. I am thinking of charging the foot scientists for it. – Rappler.com


Woman and shoes image from Shutterstock


Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com

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