Have you ever wondered what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, or lack thereof? If this question has ever danced across your mind, the Barefoot Club might be for you.
On a cool October evening by the Sunken Garden’s steps, students gathered around for the Barefoot Club’s second meeting of the semester. The co-founder, Jacob Hall ’22, stood at the head of the circle, greeting each prospective member like an old friend. Both founders, Hall and Emily O’Keefe ’23, were already barefoot, and had been all day. They live the barefoot lifestyle, only putting on shoes when absolutely necessary. Some of the newcomers don’t hesitate to shed their Docs, sneakers and sandals while others look around for confirmation they’re not alone before taking the plunge.
Within minutes of the meeting’s start, the awkward silences were replaced by a strong sense of community and openness. Hall and O’Keefe made instant connections with old and new members alike, bonding over barefooting and non-barefooting topics.
The meeting began with brief introductions. Each member had a chance to tell a fun fact about themselves and share why they were interested in joining the club.
After introductions, Hall and O’Keefe held a Q&A forum. The questions started off light. One member asked what Hall and O’Keefe’s favorite part of campus to walk through was.
“Grass is killer,” Hall said. “The area between ISC and Sadler is great…kind of rough.”
Walking those rough areas is one of the reasons why Hall relishes the barefoot lifestyle.
“I feel satisfied knowing I am able to withstand those rough surfaces more and more,” Hall said.
O’Keefe and Hall described how walking barefoot becomes less painful and more satisfying the longer one does it. Feeling their feet strengthen is a big part of that satisfaction. O’Keefe hopes their feet are strong enough to hike the Appalachian trail barefoot this Spring.
However, the barefoot lifestyle can be difficult in college. One member expressed concern about going barefoot in the dorm showers, which Hall addressed.
“For me, a lot of that concern stems from the risk of getting a fungal infection,” Hall explained. “Those bacteria tend to thrive in a damp sock environment. It might be because I just got lucky, but my feet get washed more than people’s socks or shoes do.”
Hall made sure to highlight that he washes his feet every day, in contrast to the typical student who’s lucky to wash their shoes once in a blue moon.
Another member asked if full-time barefooters wear shoes during the winter. In response, Hall described his shoes as gloves.
“I’ll use them to keep my feet insulated, but my feet are usually warm when it gets cold, because the blood is constantly circulating,” Hall said.
Hall continued by explaining how there is no “right” way to go barefoot full-time. Each barefooter’s experience is unique to them, it just comes down to whatever each person is comfortable with.
Hall, O’Keefe and other members of the club acknowledge the stigma surrounding the choice to go barefoot. While they embrace the uniqueness of the practice, they also express frustration with the restrictions established for going barefoot in public spaces. Soon after Hall arrived on campus, he faced a lot of pushback from university buildings refusing him entry or service with bare feet, including dining halls and the Rec Center. After going to the Office of Compliance of Equity, Hall confirmed that there were no rules against going barefoot indoors on campus. While they still face pushback at times — O’Keefe was recently kicked out of the Rec Center for going barefoot — Hall believes campus has become much more open to the barefoot lifestyle since he arrived two years ago.
The stigma also extends outside the academic confines of the College. Hall recounted his experience while protesting outside the Capitol in Washington D.C.
“I was barefooting while protesting and needed to find a bathroom,” Hall explained. “The Museum of the American Indian is next to the Capitol so I walked inside.”
Once inside, however, security would not let them through.
In response to the stigma, O’Keefe shared the personal benefits they’ve experienced since going barefoot full-time.
“When you wear shoes, it doesn’t allow all the muscles in your feet to work.” O’Keefe said. “We’re supposed to feel what’s under our feet.”
The forum over, the group embarked on its weekly walk. After crossing the Sunken Garden, and brightly greeting several people he knew, Hall turned back and jauntily asked if the members were down for a forest trail — an idea everyone warmed up to very quickly. Going down a steep path, the more experienced Hall and O’Keefe demonstrated where to put one’s feet and how to best balance on the rocky and muddy surfaces.
As the club walked along the brick sidewalk by the Crim Dell, the members moved in a loose group, making general conversation as they progressed to outside of Yates, where Hall ran into the sand volleyball court with glee, appreciating the sand on his feet.
For Hall, it’s stranger to imagine wearing shoes than going barefoot, as he has been going barefoot since high school.
“We were called ‘Hippy High’” Hall explained. “A lot of my peers went barefoot, so it was pretty normalized.”
Since then, Hall has embraced the barefoot lifestyle wherever his life’s journey takes him; from James Madison University, to the College, and even to the steps of our nation’s Capitol. It’s not hard to see how much the barefoot lifestyle means to Hall: his eyes light up and he become visibly excited when describing chance encounters with barefoot comrades or talking about the personalities of various surfaces he walks on.
O’Keefe and Hall have worked hard to promote the club, putting up fliers everywhere on campus. According to Hall and O’Keefe, the fliers also serve as a way to normalize the choice to go barefoot. The barefoot lifestyle is not done in an effort to cause trouble, or purposefully go against the grain.
“It’s really about being comfortable,” Hall said. “I genuinely prefer this feeling. Barefooting is who I am.”