If you take any given foot that has been confined to a shoe for the majority of time, then let it go bare most of the time for a couple of years, it will almost certainly get wider. This depends some on the type of shoes were previously worn, as well as whether or not there was significant barefoot time prior to the shoe wearing period.
This widening will result from all of the muscles and bones being allowed to function as they were designed to do. Toes will splay for balance. Ligaments and tendons will have the freedom to find their natural elastic limitations of extension as they provide shock absorption. The muscles will get stronger, which usually involves some increase in size. The foot pads will probably even thicken in response to stimuli.
There will also be changes in the skin and color of the foot, both from increased circulation, plus exposure to air and sunlight. The parts of the skin that come into most contact with hard surfaces will be stimulated to develop a more leathery thickness. To what degree this happens will depend on roughness and temperature of surfaces routinely encountered.
All of this is healthy. To tell people to wear shoes so that “your feet won’t get too wide” is bad advice. No one says you need to wear stiff, confining leggings to keep your thighs from spreading. To the contrary, the leg muscles need room to flex and bend. A moderate increase in muscle size is expected with normal use, and is considered an attractive sign of health.
To tell people that they need shoes so that “your feet will stay soft” is akin to saying a guitar player should wear gloves so he won’t get callouses. He can’t play the same way AT ALL with gloves and the calluses are useful in playing to a higher level. We should think the same way about feet.
Unfortunately, some barefoot advocates take these basic facts and jump to conclusions. For instance, barefooters can smugly refer to an “unconditioned foot” or feet “suffering from shoe abuse” due to what is assumed to be the ultimate bare foot image.
It is not always easy to tell if a person spends a lot of time barefoot according to foot appearance. Some people’s feet are naturally wider, with toes more spaced. Some people’s feet are narrower. There is a lot of genetic variation in toe length and arrangement.
Some people have no need or desire to live in more rustic surroundings. You can go barefoot all day in Taipei and walk on very smooth surfaces and in fairly constant temperatures the whole time. However, living in rural Idaho will mean exposure to a wide variety of rough surfaces and weather extremes. Between those factors and differences in humidity, bare feet in each area will adapt accordingly.
The genetic aspect of foot shape could lead to erroneous conclusions, too. Photos of tribal individuals, who supposedly have gone barefoot their whole lives are often shown as examples of what truly bare feet should look like. There are a couple of problems with these assumptions. First, it is quite possible that the shape that is assumed to be due to a barefoot lifestyle is also a strongly genetic feature.
It is also possible that a certain type of foot shape made survival in that environment more likely. Maybe a certain foot shape was thought to be unattractive and individuals cursed with it were avoided. Stranger things have happened. The point is that there are very plausible reasons that could also determine the average foot shape in a given population. To say all the feet look that way “because they go barefoot” is a correlation treated as a causal factor.
It is similar to people assuming that I am a particular shape because I run. The fact is that I was given a streamlined body type. There were many years while I was raising kids when I didn’t run. I was still the same shape. Well, off and on. It is hard to be streamlined while pregnant.
It is possible that people of a certain type of feet are more likely to end up going barefoot for very practical reasons. They may have a much harder time finding shoes that are comfortable or that fit. This could conceivably lead to more people with wide feet going barefoot.
The less culturally acceptable a foot looks, the more likely a person is to feel embarrassed about letting others see it. Not only can this lead to wanting to cover it, but it could also entice the person to choose shoes to give the foot a more acceptable silhouette. Again, we have only potential correlations.
Some of my observations come from evaluating the feet of my seven children. Since they were all taught at home through high school, they spent most of their lives barefoot. True, before I had come to appreciate the advantages of going barefoot outside, I strongly suggested shoes sometimes, but they preferred going barefoot, so often did.
There are some significant variations of foot type among them. Ironically, the two youngest, who have run barefoot almost as many years as I have, have some of the narrowest feet still. They noticed that their feet widened some more with the running aspect added, as some of the footwear the use for work now is a bit tight, but I cannot see it from looking at them.
My two children who have gone barefoot the least are at the widest end of the spectrum. And I mean wide according to everyone’s spectrum. Shoe salesmen have laughed when trying to help fit them in the past. Fortunately, one of them can now go barefoot or minimalist most of the time, but the other has workplace requirements to deal with. I suppose I could regret not forcing him into shoes more when he was younger, in the tradition of Chinese foot binding, but he is probably glad I didn’t torture him like that.
What does all of this mean to a new barefooter? First, there will be changes in your feet. Most likely, any shoes you hang on to will begin to feel snug. How soon or how snug will depend on how much you go barefoot and what type of footwear you have.
Secondly, don’t get concerned that your feet are not looking as well adapted as other barefooters. Barring extreme cases of malformation, you are are capable of being barefoot even if your feet don’t look like some stereotype floating around the internet. Just like not all hands are alike, yet most of us perform similar functions with them, most feet do what they do in spite of aesthetic variations.
Don’t be discouraged by getting a late start, either. We can all learn new fine motor skills later in life. I learned to crochet in my 40’s and have become quite proficient. I began barefoot running around age 50 and have made enjoyable progress.
Fortunately, most feet in our culture have not been deformed to the degree that they can’t regain significant function and strength from being, walking, or running barefoot. What your own feet will look like as you go barefoot more is part of your unique life experience. Don’t let your joy in the journey be deflated by erroneous assumptions.