Many barefooters are aware of Simon Wikler’s book, “Take Off Your Shoes and Walk”, from 1961. You can even see a bit of it at the Parents for Barefoot Children site.
You may not be aware that he had an even earlier book.
This book was “Your Feet Are Killing You”, from 1953, and while it has a lot of good stuff in it regarding feet, it also unfortunately shows Wikler to be a bit of crank.
This is a problem that the serious barefooting community still has today, where shoes are portrayed as the incarnation of evil (or at least the cause of all sorts of unrelated problems) or that going barefooted is “The Most Important Health Discovery Ever” (via “earthing”).
The book starts off with Wikler’s usual good stuff in his area of expertise: feet. (Wikler was a podiatrist.)
In modern shoe-wearing societies, all feet are deformed in greater or lesser degree. The cause is poorly designed footgear. The specific cause of foot trouble is readily understandable. The foot is so constructed that the heel should rest flat on the ground, the waist of the foot should be unhampered by pressure or binding, and the toes should be free to achieve their normal breadth and movements. Modern shoes hinder all of these requirements. If the foot were allowed to develop and function without hampering shoes, it would be free of functional disease, as is witnessed by the absence of foot imbalance in the feet of our forefathers (who wore but rudimentary shoes) and of contemporary barefoot and sandal-wearing races.
He has a great diagram that shows how shoes “invert the triangle” of the way feet ought to be.
He goes on to talk about arch supports, and all that they do wrong.
The term “arch” was not widely used to describe the dome-shaped portion of the foot until factory-produced shoes attained wide distribution. Shoe wearers, forced to walk and lean on the elastic inner side of the foot, found they could not comfortably do so unless the hollow of the foot was firmly braced.
Even in cases where arch supports seem to give relief, the cost is considerable, since the principle on which they work is that of immobilizing the many small bones of the foot and forcing them to carry the body weight, whereas the true function of these bones (with their connecting muscles and ligaments) is to act as resilient levers and springs. The wearing of arch supports results in the shrinking of unused muscles, partial dislocations, and degenerative arthritic processes, besides the ensuing damage to the rest of the body.
All good stuff, and all things that members of the barefooting community have observed themselves. Wikler also relates shoes to postural problems, which we have also observed.
Unfortunately, he then goes on to relate shoe-related postural problems to a whole host of diseases, by making all sorts of statistical correlations that he falsely believes are causations.
Much of the book tries (and fails miserably and crankily) to relate shoe-wearing to cancer, rheumatic fever, arthritis, chronic fatigue, problems of the uterus, sexual disturbances, neurosis, high blood pressure, narcotic addiction, allergies, brain tumors, eyestrain, and dental caries. When he says “your feet are killing you”, he means it literally.
Whenever anybody thinks they’ve found one all-encompassing, nearly magical, cause for such a host of ailments, you can be quite sure they have just become a zealot. It also unfortunately puts nearly everything they say under suspicion, even the parts that really are correct.
Dr. Wikler made his first public claims (or at least they were first covered in the media) in 1949. His main correlation, which he also continues to make throughout the book, is that cancer was rare in the mid-1800s, and that the rise in cancer “coincides with the start of the manufacture of modern shoes”. The shoes affect your posture, “rendering toes puny and helpless, which in turn atrophies muscles all the way up”. Heels do much the same. Then, supposedly, this irritates tissues, which, he says, is one of the accepted causes of cancer.
That is just such a stretch, even for back then. Of course, these days, we know so much more about what causes cancer, and that’s not it.
Dr. Wikler got on this kick after his mother died of brain cancer, and noted how she had ruined her feet with “stylish but ill-fitting pumps”.
In the book, his “position is that in our civilization deformation of feet causes trauma which in turn causes cancer.”
He justifies it with statements like this:
We may note that in 1900 cancer caused 3.7% of all deaths in this country, whereas in 1946 the mortality was 13.5%. This great increase (if the postulate of foot deformity as a contributory cause of cancer is accepted) might be explained by citing the increasingly widespread use of deforming shoes in the last fifty years.
Statistics indicate that cancer of the stomach, while it is the commonest form in foot-disabled populations, is rarely seen in the populations that are not foot-disabled, that is, among primitive peoples.
There are so many changes that took place during that time period, from diet to exposure to new chemicals, to air pollution, that it is quite unreasonable to try to relate it all to one particular cause.
But according the Wikler, it is all related to poor posture from shoe wearing.
As described earlier, when the toes are deformed the foot is turned outward, so that the inner arch can become weight-bearing and provide a wider base of support. Weight is thus disproportionately placed on the inner side of the foot in varying degrees, according to the amount of forefoot damage. The leg then twists outward to compensate for changed attitudes in the foot, and the weight falls further toward the inner side of the knee. The thigh bones correspondingly twist outward and backward. This attitude in turn reduces the anterior support of the pelvic bowl. The pelvis characteristically dips downward in front and tilts upward in the back, resulting in prominence of both abdomen and buttocks.
With the pelvis tipped forward and down, the many-segmented spine must curve exaggeratedly, in order to compensate for the pull of the pelvis and belly. At the same time to keep the body weight in a direct gravitational line with the supporting heel bones, the spine bends forward at the lumbosacral articulation, forming a hollow at the small of the back, and juts, in front, into the pelvic and abdominal areas, thus reducing the abdominal space. If one foot is worse and thus assumes less weight, the spine will because of gravitational necessity develop a curvature deformity. The spine in the thoracic region corresponding to deformity below it curves backward, causing a humped appearance. The chest cage becomes depressed in front, lowering and depressing the anterior chest wall. The spine then bends forward at the neck, so as to maintain the head in a gravitational line with the inner side of the heels and arches of the feet.
Even regarding brain cancer, which killed his mother, he tries to relate it to poor posture caused by shoes.
Because of the chronic tilting of the head necessary to compensate for the malposture caused by foot disease, the brain is constantly in an abnormal and potentially traumatic position within the cranial vault. This fact, together with consequent increased pressures on the carotid arteries entering the head, may account for the increased incidence of brain tumors in the foot-diseased era.
Or when he talks about dental caries:
It is conjecturable that reduced vigor in children because of postural stressful factors would make their tooth tissue more liable to degeneration and decay. At least, dental decay has greater incidence where foot deformation is common.
The causes of these ailments are pretty-well understood (and were back then, at least to the point of knowing that things like “reduced vigor” was just plain silly as a reason).
He remained a firm believer in his shoe theories his entire life. In 1988 (when he was 76), an article in the Philadelphia Enquirer showed him to still be pushing (and even expanding) his theories.
“See, we distort nearly everybody’s feet,” he explains from his Miami office, headquarters of Shoe-Related Diseases Inc. “This is a basic element of our body that’s been distorted, been inhibited. That causes stress all over the body.”
Rigid, restrictive, stupidly designed shoes, he says, cause grossly distorted feet — especially among women. The feet then lose flexibility and function, putting undue pressures on the spine and entire musculature. The consequence of this, he maintains, is systemic chaos and a host of disorders. Chief among them: heart disease and breast cancer.
“When a woman has good feet, her breasts will rest on her breast cage. But when a woman has bad feet, she tends to stand round-shouldered — you know, the debutante slouch. The breasts then sort of hang limp and sort of lean a little from the armpit.”
This, Wikler says, is a prescription for malignancies.
We barefooters have enough trouble getting people to accept us. We try to educate them about the real problems with wearing shoes. But when those people also see theories like Wikler’s, how can they believe anything else he, or we, say?
And in fact, it can lead to others (who know these things) writing blog entries like Your Friday Dose of Woo: It’s all in the shoes, or is it?
There is nothing we can do about Dr. Wikler when it comes to talking about going barefoot, except acknowledge that he got obsessed with the idea and did not understand how to do science to remove (or at least mitigate) his bias. But we can make sure that, when we go forward, we are careful about the claims that we do make about the benefits of going barefoot.
There are plenty of them (such as not bathing our feet in shoe bacteria, or the true benefits of how going barefoot affects posture and stresses on feet, knees, and hips).
But our credibility is on the line. We ought not abuse it.