This post originally published in Bedford Bits in 2013.
The fundamental principle of popular cultural semiotics is that everything can bear some sort of social significance. And that means everything. Yes, even running shoes.
Take the current barefoot/minimalist running shoe fad (I'm not sure if it is sufficiently entrenched to be called a trend yet). The fad in question involves the explosively popular shoes that either look like some sort of foot glove (with a separate compartment for each toe), or which appear to be more or less conventional in looks but use much less cushioning and other material than ordinary running shoes. The former variety includes the Vibram FiveFingers shoe, while the latter includes the Merrell Sonic Glove Barefoot runner. The whole thing really got started with the publication of a book called Born to Run (2009), which focused on the barefoot running prowess of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, and you can learn a good deal about it all at http://runningshoes.com/barefoot-running.
Now, on the face of it the barefoot running phenomenon would seem to have a purely functional significance, based upon the fact that the Tarahumara Indians are apparently able to run effortlessly for hundreds of miles barefoot and without injury. Furthermore, after decades of running shoe technology developments that have enhanced the cushioning and support of conventional running shoes, recent research suggests that all that cushioning and support causes runners to run in such a way that their heels strike the ground first in their running stride (this is called "heel striking"), and that this kind of stride puts great stress on the knee and ankle joints, causing injuries. The "barefoot" technology shoes, on the other hand, are designed to force a toe-striking stride, which may be a less injury-prone running style.
But there's more to all this than simply the physiology of running and the functionality of shoes, for looked at semiotically these new shoes are signs as much as they are athletic gear.
First, then, there is what we can call the "Noble Savage" angle. Since the eighteenth-century romanticization of the aboriginal peoples contacted in the age of European exploration, the "Noble Savage" has been an emblem, for such writers as Rousseau, of a prelapsarian innocence that European civilization has lost. Reflecting more of a European mythology than a human reality, the "Noble Savage" is a construct not unrelated to such gestures as Marie Antoinette's donning of simple peasant clothing. The Tarahumara Indians serve as "Noble Savages" in this sense, conferring upon running shoes their aura of a prelapsarian innocence.
A corollary to the "Noble Savage" significance of barefoot running shoes is their "green" appeal. Using less material than a conventional running shoe, barefoot/minimalist runners would appear to use fewer resources and thus be more sustainable than the ordinary, beefed up variety.
Now, I'm all for green technology, and I am no cheerleader for European-style civilization, but as a runner and a semiotician I know that there is something a little funny about all this.
First of all, the "Noble Savage" bit has always been condescending, and it is no less so today with the barefoot running movement's use of the Tarahumara Indians. Living in primitive conditions for generations, they have developed the kind of hardened feet that can run without protection not because they are purer but because they have historically had no other options. They also run on natural trails without glass and nails and other foot-cutting stuff (this is why few "barefoot" runners in the U.S. actually run barefoot: minimalist running shoes are supposed to protect the foot from such things). One wonders how the Tarahumara would perform if they had modern running shoes to run with.
Beyond this is the fact (which I know from personal experience) that there are barefoot running-specific injuries that occur when one strikes too far up on one's toes—which is what running barefoot running shoes are designed to compel. Painful calf injuries often result, contradicting the claim that barefoot running is all good.
As for the possible claim that minimalist running shoes are more ecologically friendly, well, not quite. Using less material they wear out much faster than conventional running shoes, and must be replaced every few months if heavily used, leading to the consumption of more resources in the long run (pun intended), not less.
And finally there is a particularly American consumerist angle to all this. For the fact is, as I know from my own experience, that you can discipline yourself to run in such a way that your foot strikes the ground in an optimum fashion without requiring any special sort of shoe. Indeed, the best balance for aging knees and ankles like mine is a nicely cushioned and supportive shoe combined with a foot strike that lands between the arch and the ball of the foot. I do not need to buy a special shoe to force me to run this way—indeed, a minimalist shoe would force me to strike too high up on my toes and really mess up my calf muscles in no time (I know: I've tried barefoot running).
So here is the point: the barefoot/minimalist running shoe fad signifies within the context of a larger consumer system whereby Americans tend to prefer products and gimmicks that promise to do their work for them, rather than making an effort on their own. Whether it is the "toning shoe" (also originally based on a kind of back-to-nature claim) that claims to exercise your body even when you are not really exercising, or the endless weight loss programs and pills that promise slim bodies without effort or discomfort, Americans like to buy results in the consumer marketplace rather work for them. Purchasing an expensive barefoot running shoe (they are priced at a premium) rather than training yourself to run with a healthier stride is a part of this phenomenon. No one is really being more natural or green or aboriginal by choosing one shoe over another, and unless you have a nice smooth turf to run on, it isn't very healthy to run barefoot. The aura of naturalness and health associated with minimalist running shoes is a matter of image, not function, a sign rather than a substance.