One thing we barefooters will sometimes hear from people who don’t want to go barefoot is, “I don’t want callused feet”.
Now, that could be the case, but I sometimes wonder if there really might be a different underlying objection.
I wonder if what they are really saying is, “I don’t want ugly feet.”
Because there really is the perception out there that callused feet are ugly feet. That perception comes about, I think, because most people’s experiences with calluses are not with the broadly spread keratinization of the sole of a well-exercised foot, but with the localized versions often called “corns”.
If your only experience with callus is a corn, no wonder why you think they’re ugly.
Let’s review for a moment: when your skin is subjected to regular pressure, it undergoes a process of increased keratinization, also called cornification. It produces much more of something called keratin, which is a protein with strong interlocking chains. Hair, horns, and corns all have a lot of keratin in them. Interestingly, “hair”, “horn”, and “corn” are all linguistic cognates of the “ker-” part of keratin. The skin at that location gets thicker, too.
It turns out that it is not just pressure that can increase keratinization. In The Seri Boot, we found out that higher temperatures, not just higher pressures, can prompt the process.
Most corns are created from wearing shoes (though they can appear anywhere on the body). When the shoes don’t fit right, the constant pressure and rubbing creates a localized corn as the body tries to protect itself. Those corns can be painful, too. First, the thicker skin sticks out more, so the pressure from the shoe only gets stronger. Also, because the corn is so localized, it sticks out with sharp edges that can get easily caught, ripping off or tearing the edge of the corn. Ouch.
As I mentioned, corns can appear anywhere on the body. When I used to play clarinet, I had one on my thumb from the weight of the clarinet resting on that one spot.
All this discussion about corns is pretty much irrelevant to the natural callus that forms from going barefoot a lot. Yes, there is increased keratinization. Yes, the skin does thicken. But it does not lose flexibility and it does not end up looking ugly the way corns do.
That’s because the pressure is spread over the whole sole. I find that even my arch gets a bit of keratinization, since the surfaces I walk on often have twigs or other raised stimuli that touch the arch. So, the keratinization diminishes smoothly from one location to the next, and there is no sharp edge to get caught.
Even at the heel or sides of the ball of the foot the transition is fairly gradual. After all, if it truly were a problem with sharp edges that were constantly getting ripped off, our ancestors would never have survived.
There is a bit of a ridge there, though, and that area can be subject to heel cracks. However, I have to say that that is a problem that is not unique to the barefooted. Regular shoe-wearers have the same problem. They also have dry skin and all sorts of maladies that they seem to think are problems with bare feet. I think the magnitude of the problem can be seen in all the foot-care products out there—those aren’t there catering to a barefooted population. They are there catering to a shod population.
When it comes to heel cracks, I’ve written about them before. Foot-care products containing urea are the answer to heel cracks. You can read more about that in Foot Care and Heel Cracks and Dipping a Toe in Your Ria.
Also, sanding down the edges of the heel to round them off can help. I find those sanding sponges (sandpaper over a flexible sponge—you can get them at a hardware store) work really nicely and conform to the rounded surface of the heel.
Here’s a picture of what my sole look like right now:
It’s really like fine leather. It’s flexible, it’s protective, it looks like what a foot ought to look like. (OK, that’s what an old foot should look like.)
Now, if someone objects to callus because they don’t like that it’s not baby-butt smooth, then there’s nothing that’s going to convince them to go barefoot. But keep in mind that even shod feet get dry and cracked and ugly. And if that’s the way they feel, it’s a little bit like refusing to exercise because then they might develop some bulges from muscles.
But if the concern really is just about ugliness, good foot callus really isn’t ugly. It’s just footy.
[H/T: Paul Cardwell in this comment.]