Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis Blog

This blog contains experiments, project and reading reflections, unanswered questions, and more relating to my year-long thesis as part of my Master's design program. From Sept. 2016 to May 2017, I explored rewilding human beings and the environments we inhabit at multiple scales including investigation around individual fears of nature, regional food production systems, and global overpopulation. The final works of this thesis can be found in my portfolio.

The Barefoot Experiment

In this experiment, I wanted to explore walking around barefoot in NYC for two reasons: 1. to discover the barriers to this lifestyle choice (physical, environmental, social, etc.) and 2. in attempt to start normalizing barefooting. The more normalized something becomes, the more likely we'll design our environments to support it. 

I conducted some primary research to start understanding the risks and benefits. Many sources assured that there was very low risk of any illness or health hazard unless you cut your foot and have an open wound. I was convinced. Last weekend, when I visited my parents, my mom gave me a small first aid kit to keep in my bag and, upon my return to NYC, I hopped off the bus with my sandals tucked away in my backpack.

Day 1:

The first day of the experiment went rather well. I had only a couple short walks that day - one from the bus station at FIT to my apartment 5 blocks away and another to the Trader Joe's nearby. The more interesting experience was that of going to Trader Joe's. Worried about store policies, I did some research before leaving to see if they require shoes. Luckily I came across this article: http://barefootislegal.org/barefooting-hot-spots/ in which the manager of NY and CT Trader Joe's stores openly welcomed a barefoot-er and shared their store's "No Policy policy". I was still concerned when I seemed to have caught the attention of the security guard, but he let me shop without question. It raised a question for me, though, about privilege. I am privileged enough to walk in here without shoes and not get stopped. Further, just the privilege to choose to be barefoot is of concern. How does my decision impact those across the world who can't afford shoes? From this perspective, some research around initiatives like TOMS shoes, where they are actively trying give more people shoes, seems very relevant.

Barefoot at Trader Joe's

Barefoot at Trader Joe's

Day 2:

The second day of the experiment was a Monday, and therefore a work day. I decided to pack shoes to wear at the office, as I am still a new hire and people don't know me well enough yet, but I went barefoot on the commute to and from work. My boyfriend and I have recently been walking on the Highline to work together in the mornings - he gets off at 26th, and I continue down to 30th. I figured the clean and nature-filled path would be perfect for a barefoot walk, but I was very wrong. While a good portion of the walk was on smooth concrete/stone slabs, half of the walk was on grated textured steel. While no cuts were incurred walking across this barefoot, it was far more painful than even the most graveled sidewalk sections. It left my feet burning and throbbing for the rest of the morning. 

Surprisingly barefoot-unfriendly Highline

Surprisingly barefoot-unfriendly Highline

Needless to say, I walked on the streets on the way home instead. The journey was far more comfortable, with the exception of the social awkwardness incurred by the many stares and disgusted expressions. This opened me to the idea of potentially investing in a pair of "barefoot shoes" (not Vibrams), that look like sandals from the top but are actually sole-less. But I quickly reconsidered. With the exception of using them to sneak into places that require shoes, I feel that the barefoot shoes would detract from my secondary goal of normalizing bare feet.

"Barebottoms Shoes" photo by Sue Kenney (designer)

"Barebottoms Shoes" photo by Sue Kenney (designer)

Day 3:

On the third day, I started to incorporate some strategy to my methods. I had learned that the streets overall are actually more comfortable than the Highline, and some streets had smoother surfaces than others. The smoother surfaces are nicer not only for comfort, but also for visibility of glass, fecal matter, etc. So I started to create a map of preferred routes from home to work and back. Unfortunately I didn't get very far with the map, as this ended up being the last day of the experiment. On my way home from work, about a block away from my apartment, I stepped on a tiny shard of glass. It must have been sticking up just in the right direction for me to not see it and for it to pierce my callused feet. 

Without a bench or other place to pause to clean and bandage my cut, I hobbled home, keeping the wounded area off the ground. While the cut was extremely minor, and there was no concern about tetanus from the glass, I was paranoid. My boyfriend's co-workers were saying the day prior how I could "get infected and die". What if they were right? How careful was I to keep my wound off the ground? Am I sure I didn't step in urine or feces afterwards? Luckily, my mom the RN calmed me down. But I have not stepped outside barefoot since. 

This might have been overkill...

This might have been overkill...

Reflection:

My wound is healing and there is no sign of infection. Though it was a short experiment, it was certainly informative. I experienced three primary "barriers" to a comfortable and safe barefoot experience.

1. Harsh ground surfaces. The Highline is the biggest example of this. Even a place that is considered to be a park, with some areas that do encourage going barefoot (like a little water stream that you can walk in), have some very unfriendly surfaces for bare feet. For the three days of this experience, I longed to be at beach with my feet in the sand or in my parent's grassy backyard. It made me appreciate these surfaces even more.

2. Sharp Objects (and infectious debris in combination with that). NYC is dirty. Urine, feces, food droppings litter the ground. But none of these things are harmful, unless you have an open sore. Which makes the presence of glass shards so dangerous for going barefoot. But the thing is, NYC isn't unique in having sharp objects and bacteria-filled droppings. Go to any park and you'll likely find the same. Now potentially, the softness of the ground in a park could decrease the risk of glass-induced puncture, unlike the hard concrete surfaces of NYC. But while, I'm tempted to agree with those that say barefooting is safe in many places but not NYC, I'm not sure I can. What this does leave me curious about is the presence of glass in our world. In many circles, glass is thought to be a eco-friendly material (at least compared to plastic). But what if it isn't? It's prone to generating unnecessary waste due to it's fragility and break-ability and it is one of the biggest barriers to walking barefoot. Surely other animals are impacted negatively by broken glass as well. Beaches often ban glass because people walk around without shoes. Could that become a wider-spread policy?

3. Nay-sayers. A large reason for the conclusion of this experiment was paranoia and a lot of that came from those who disagreed with this modality. Further self-education is needed to counter the fear induced by the fearful.

I didn't include the social barriers of "no shoes" policies in this list simply because I didn't encounter them in my short experiment. However I imagine, had this experiment run longer I may have found that to be a barrier as well. 

I am still unsure with how to proceed from here. I do not want this to be the end of my barefoot experiment and learnings. But I am also worried about continuing to put myself at risk for injury and infection.

Here are a few potential next steps that I'm considering:

- Speaking with other barefoot-ers and doing further online research on what I am learning is called "earthing". There are plenty of people out there with more research and experience than me, both in more rural or suburban settings as well as urban ones. Apparently Boston has an Urban Barefooting League. I'd love to learn what their experiences are with glass and infection and see if they have any wisdom or advice on the matter.

- Going barefoot in curated places. I can choose to go barefoot when I go to beaches, parks, or other similar environments only. Though, as I previously mentioned, I'm not sure to what extent the risks are actually different.

- Build up my body's protection capabilities against the risks of going barefoot. As a dancer, I have a constant light callus layer on my foot, but evidently it is not enough to protect from glass. I would love to explore ways to build up my foot's protective layer prior to further outdoor barefoot walking. I am also interested in exploring ways to fortify my body from the inside. Are there better nutrients I can be providing myself to "naturally" protect against infection?

- Understanding all things we have to protect ourselves from. As I'm operating in this realm I want to know what exactly is it that we're trying to protect ourselves from. What is the distinction between dirt and dirtiness? What are the different bacteria types and why are they dangerous? Related to a previous post, how do the UV rays of the sun actually affect our skin cells?

- Finally I'm interested, of course, in the design opportunities of all of this. Could there be a service for barefooters where they can get all of the facts and recommendations, be provided with the tools and techniques they need, access training, health, and wellness facilities? Could there be at-home products for barefooters to increase their callus levels? Is there a design opportunity in decreasing the amount of broken glass on the streets?

Eventually I would like to get a point of going barefoot again. Yesterday I found a small piece of glass inside my close-toed shoes and it reminded me that injury and infection can occur whether you're barefoot or not. Hopefully after further research and understanding I can feel comfortable "putting my feet out there again." 

Glass in shoe

Glass in shoe

A final point of reflection is how this experiment informs being connected with nature/environment. Well for starters I was certainly much more aware of my general surroundings, particularly paying attention to the ground ahead of me and looking out for glass and other unpleasantries. But how can being barefoot actually foster a relationship to nature? Well I think that answer could be found in a brief ethnographic study: If you were living barefoot, what types of ground surfaces would you want to walk on? While there is the potential for many people to want marble or tile, I think we have a visceral tie to dirt, sand, and soil that results in a longing to be barefoot on those surfaces.

Jenna Witzleben