Living Without Shoes

PHOTO Barefoot Hikers of Virginia
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Kyle Vaughn describes his sense of style as "ludicrous." His wardrobe includes a green sequined vest, vibrant purple slacks, a beanie with elephant ears stitched on the sides and an elf costume for the holiday season.

But when people comment on Vaughn's appearance, they rarely mention the neon colors and novelty accessories.

Strangers tend to notice the fact that he's not wearing shoes.

When Vaughn, 21, walks by, some ask where he left his shoes, others scoff in disgust and children ask their parents why he's barefoot.

"I guess you get used to people in ridiculous clothing, between gothic, punk and other eclectic fashions," he said. "But it's much rarer to see someone without shoes."

"It Just Feels Better"

Vaughn, from Katy, Texas, is one of a growing number of individuals who prefer to live their lives without shoes.

He's lived barefoot for as long as he can remember. As an elementary school student, his teachers scolded him for kicking his shoes off under his desk. Today, while there are times when Vaughn is forced to wear shoes –- like when he's working as a food prep –- he estimates that 90 percent of his life is spent barefoot.

"It just feels better," he said. "It sounds corny, but there's something nice about feeling the earth you're walking on. You're just more connected to the world."

Those living barefoot cite health reasons, practicality and general comfort as reasons for losing their shoes.

The trend can be attributed to an increased awareness of natural living, said Michael Buttgen, founder and president of the Primal Foot Alliance, an online network of barefooters.

"As a society, we have this desire to go back to what's pure and natural," he said. "People don't want to eat processed food anymore. They don't want to release harmful toxins into the air. Going barefoot is a logical next step."

Al Gauthier, host of Living Barefoot, a bi-monthly podcast with an audience of 25,000, says the movement picks up steam as more people learn about it.

Shoes as Mere "Tools"

"I think that most people really like being barefoot," he said. "When someone goes home, the first thing they probably do is kick off their shoes. The more people that hear about it, the more people want to give it a shot."

Recent media attention given to barefoot runners has also increased awareness of the living barefoot movement, Buttgen said.

"People see that you can run barefoot, and the logical question to ask is, 'Well, can I walk barefoot too?'" he said.

Buttgen, who has been living barefoot for the past six years, believes shoes are meant to be "tools" for specific purposes, not an everyday necessity.

He equates the use of shoes to that of gloves.

"If it's freezing out, I'll put on gloves," he said. "If I'm taking a cake or a pizza out of the oven, I'll put on gloves. But when I'm done, I put them away and don't put them back on until I have a reason to."

And Then There's Snow

Like gloves, there are times when barefooters don shoes. Buttgen says walking through snow, on black-top asphalt in the middle of summer and near construction sites or other potentially hazardous places are all reasons to use shoes.

Mindi Young, of Holden, Mo., has about 20 pairs of shoes in her closet, from fancy high heels, to rubber flip-flops. She began living barefoot about 18 months ago, but says she keeps the shoes she used to wear for when "being barefoot is unacceptable."

She wears shoes to her job as a secretary at the University of Central Missouri because her boss insists that bare feet are "unprofessional." She'll put on tennis shoes when there is snow on the ground and reserves her boots for when feet of it piles up in her front yard. She also keeps a pair of flip-flops in her car in case she goes into a businesses with a "no shoe, no service" policy.

"A lot of stores don't even notice," Young, 26, said. "Especially when it's crowded, no one is focused on your feet. But every once and a while a manager will ask me to leave."

She says that while being denied service is "frustrating," she generally complies with manger's demands.

Fears of Going Barefoot Are "Greatly Exaggerated"

"Being barefoot is unusual," she said. "And I don't mean to cause trouble. I do this for me, not to offend anyone else."

Daniel Howell, a professor of anatomy and physiology at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., hopes to change Americans' perception of bare feet.

Howell, who grew up on a farm and spent most of his childhood barefoot, has written a book, The Barefoot Book.

"Shoes are just very unnatural," he said. "The damage they cause adds up -- arthritis, bunions, corns, blisters. Getting out of shoes is the best thing we can do."

But Dennis Frisch, a podiatrist in Boca Raton, Fla. and a member of the American Podiatric Medical Association, doesn't believe going barefoot is a safe practice.

"The risks of what could happen when you're barefoot significantly outweigh the risks of what could happen when you're wearing shoes," Frisch said.

For example, he said that a blister or corn caused by wearing an uncomfortable shoe will take a couple of days to heal on its own. But a cut caused by stepping on undesirable material while barefoot could potentially become infected and be a severe medical problem.

Frisch said he isn't "anti-barefoot," and he even advises some of his patients to kick off their shoes while they're at home. Being barefoot for some period of each day is especially important for women who wear constrictive high-heeled shoes, he said.

"There's nothing wrong with being barefoot," Frisch said. "It's just that there is a place for it, and outside isn't that place."

Still, Frisch suggests people who want to escape the confines of shoes while at home wear socks or slippers to protect the soles of their feet.

Few barefooters have experienced such medical problems.

Howell says fears of broken glass and sharp objects are "greatly exaggerated."

"People like to think that every city street is littered with broken glass," he said. "But if you actually look around, you'll see that simply isn't true."

He said most injuries can be avoided if walkers look at the ground.

Going Barefoot Not For Everybody

"If you pay a little attention, it's easy to avoid problems," he said. "A piece of glass that's big enough to see can be avoided."

As the movement grows in popularity, barefooters hope their choice will become more socially acceptable.

Buttgen says common "myths" about going barefoot -- such as bare feet are unsanitary or walking around without shoes is illegal -- will be debunked as more people become aware of the movement.

"Not everyone is going to suddenly stop using shoes," he said. "But I do hope that people can accept the choices that we have made."

ABCNews.com contributor Meg Wagner is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Gainesville, Fla. Brianna Gays, working with New York's On Campus staff, contributed to this story.

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