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Barefoot and kiwi

Written By: - Date published: 12:29 pm, January 3rd, 2010 - 40 comments
Categories: culture - Tags:

Feet and JandalsThere is a weird article in the Sunday Star Times about a US lecturer missing out on a job because she objected to “the Kiwi habit of going barefoot”.

This has been on my mind since summer started. At work the minority of kiwis, immediately shucked the shoes that we’d been wearing during winter and shifted to jandals. Since the work rules said that we were to leave shoes at the door, that meant that we were barefoot inside. The imports and recent immigrants continue to wander around in shoes outside, and socks inside. They were a bit disconcerted at the kiwis.

As an academic who writes about ethnicity, she said the debacle showed how cultural misunderstandings could occur.

But she still thinks walking around barefoot does have public health implications. “That’s why God created flip-flops or jandals.”

Yeah right. I realize that I’m extreme in the amount that I wear bare feet by preference. But there are some good reasons for it.

Personally I’d say that my wearing of shoes is a public health risk. For some reason my feet radiate heat and sweat far more than any other part of my body. Consequently in the humid Auckland summer, my socks become sopping wet and outright disgusting within a few hours. They constitute a public health risk, and a personal health risk to myself. It is a sure way to get fungal infections to wander around in wet enclosed feet.

Jandals aren’t much better. I have permanent calluses on the top of my feet from when I wear jandals. So given a choice, I seldom even wear those. Mostly I wear jandals where there is a possibility of getting slivers of glass penetrating my exceptionally thick soles. This is a pity because the increasing amount of broken bottles around K Rd finally forced me to start wearing jandals. It was getting to be too much of a pain getting rid of those annoying slivers of glass that got stuck in my foot soles.

Of course naturally wearing bare feet most of the time has artificial problems. Trying to find shoes wide enough to fit my feet is a problem. Most of the shoe-wear manufacturers targeting countries like the US with strange fetishes about bare feet or European nations with lousy weather. So we get far too many shoes here that are designed for the crippled narrow feet that the North American children carry into adulthood after wearing the uncomfortable bindings as kids.

You’d think that a academic writing about ethnicity would have realized that cultural behavior is usually based on some kind of practical need. Kiwis of many generations tend to prefer bare feet. There are reasons for it. What is less clear is why parents in some countries like the US feel the need to partially cripple their children by forcing them to wear constraining shoes.

40 comments on “Barefoot and kiwi”

  1. prism 1

    capcha ill
    Aren’t people allowed to express their general ideas any more in case someone doesn’t agree? Fancy a ‘hive of intellectual ferment’ like a university holding this extremely conservative view about a personal letter about general social mores.
    The pc people have a tendency to become more repressive than the people they condemn, only on some subjects of course.

    • lprent 1.1

      Personally I couldn’t give a damn. She is obviously well regarded because Syracuse University is probably a better university than the unnamed university. Think of it as “evolution in action” between the universities. I suspect that a group as small-minded as the unnamed university will simply go incestuous and diminish rapidly.

      I was more struck by the cultural differences that her letter reflects. For that matter the unnamed universities presumption that only Maori didn’t wear shoes here. Most of my family have been here for more than a century and a half, and have long adapted to NZ conditions. We generally prefer bare feet, have an aversion to bloody ties, and use extended family structures. Most immigrant families develop these over relatively few generations.

  2. prism 2

    Prejudice – prejudging. The presumption that one knows all there is to know, knows rightly and then acts from that belief. Pretty common. Sure gets us into difficulties. I wonder what other knowledge (presumptions) this USA university cohort have about Maori and New Zealand?

  3. Sanctuary 3

    “Repulsive to North Americans??????????”


    What is wrong with those Americans?

    • Bare feet are naked feet. And naked means sinful and ungodly.

      Either that, or they just have bad weather there. Or dogs.

      • Jenny 3.1.1

        They do have snakes.

        Most North Americans won’t wade into the underbrush with the same abandon we are accustomed to.

    • Jak 3.2

      She’s an idiot.

      She should not dare to presume to speak for an entire continent, and she certainly shouldn’t be teaching about ethnic differences if her own prejudices and phobias are this ingrained.

  4. Draco T Bastard 4

    But she still thinks walking around barefoot does have public health implications.

    It’s healthier?

    Seriously, I only wear shoes because work demands it. If it didn’t I’d go barefoot. And I loath jandals.

    and use extended family structures.

    As I understand it, extended families are the more natural structure than the enforced nuclear family.

  5. Rex Widerstrom 5

    What’s even weirder is here in Australia it’s generally around 10 degrees hotter than NZ at any given moment so you think barefootedness would be even more rampant.

    But certainly not amongst males, unless at the beach (girls will sometimes wear jandals, or thongs as they insist on calling them, which still gives me a momentary pause when a girl says she’s about to put on her thongs, but they’re usually spangly and dressy).

    And never indoors. When I got to the office and took off my shoes and socks I’d have caused less consternation amongst the Australians if I’d taken off my pants.

    Rampant and prolonged barefootedness seems a uniquely NZ indulgence, and it’s one I love.

    But you’re right, lprent, finding wide shoes is a nightmare. Pity all the NZ shoe manufacturers are long gone.

  6. outofshoes 6

    I keep being thrown out of places for being barefooted, the last one being a real ale pub in ChCH. Even after offering to sit outside.
    I was once stoped boarding a Quantas flight at the door of the aircraft (my 10 month old barefooted son however was allowed on with his mother)
    I really don’t understand it. One tends to watch where one walks so my feet are unlikely to have dogshit or chewing gum on them ( you kinda notice)
    Is it because they are naked?
    Why are jandals acceptable then?
    It is plain wierd
    Can someone explain?

  7. burt 7

    I bet that woman also sits on tables – but hey if she did that we would have a legitimate reason to be offended by her wouldn’t we.

  8. captch: magnitude
    Iprent: does this mean the kiwis at yr work wore their outside jandals inside, whereas the other non-kiwis all go about inside in socks or slippers?
    Kiwi me would consider it ill manners to do that.
    I love my jandals. But seeing as they’re the ones squishing the gum and dog poo, glass and butts – well. leave them outside i would say.
    just sayin..

  9. felix 9

    Exactly. It doesn’t matter (from a cleaniness perspective) which way around you do it, the important thing is not to bring dirty outside stuff into the nice clean hut. So if you’re wandering around K’ Rd in bare feet (geez Lynn) you should probably have a wee pair of slippers or something to wear inside.

    • lprent 9.1

      I have really hard feet, and had an excellent door mat.

      Contrary to popular opinion the main street areas around K Rd have excellent lighting and are pretty sanitary. Just the frigging glass is the problem. However I wouldn’t do that around the backstreets. Mostly what I’d be doing is heading to the all-night gas station for early morning munchies while coding.

      These days I’m around where Grey Lynn touches Ponsonby Road just down the road a bit from my Newton apartment. I’d probably have used the all-night videoezy. But Lyn doesn’t like my midnight munchie habit and the fridge is better stocked albeit with healthier foods..

  10. Anthony Karinski 10

    Barefoot living can constitute a public health risk as hookworms and other nematodes enter the body through the skin. You then become a carrier with the potential of spreading the disease on. In addition other communicable diseases such as hepatitis can more readily be spread the same way. Odour and athlete’s foot although somewhat unpleasant hardly rank in the same category.

    • lprent 10.1

      In New Zealand? Don’t be a dickhead – wrong climate.

      There have been some cases of hookworm in NZ, but they have largely been from contacts outside the country. They actually publish the few cases of hookworm infection here.


      Just to provide you more info on NZ. We don’t have snakes. We don’t have predators apart from some small ones like cats, stoats, weasels, and dogs that some idiots brought here in the 19th century. There are two poisonous spiders in NZ – one shyly lives on west cost beaches. The other is an aussie import and isn’t particularly well adapted, widespread, or aggressive.

      We have some pretty damn strong border controls to ensure that we don’t get any nasties.

      • Anthony Karinski 10.1.1

        Hookworms are rare here not because of the climate but because sanitary conditions are good. The main way of catching the disease is stepping barefoot on someones faeces. The more people walking barefoot the more widespread infestation is likely to become.

        It’s like HIV and condoms. Even if you have unprotected sex with a hundred partners you are unlikely to contract the disease. However, the more people having unprotected sex the more prevalent HIV will become in the general population, increasing the risk for everyone. I.e it’ s a public health issue. Although the risk to you personally is small by walking barefoot, your action copied by most people will likly yield bad results for society as a whole. Individual freedom vs the common good I guess.

      • burt 10.1.2


        I don’t think cities constitute a natural environment for barefoot endeavors. Beaches and parks are the places for that, and of course your own home has it own rules.

    • Barefoot American 10.2

      Anthony –

      Sorry, but you are wrong. Athlete’s foot is unknown in barefoot cultures. In order to get hookworm infection, you must not only walk but stand in fecal matter for a relatively long time. Thank goodness for indoor plumbing. Foot odor is caused by wearing shoes, just as hand odor can be caused by wearing gloves for hours on end. Contracting hepatitis requires a puncture wound from an object contaminated with hepatitis or a bad blood transfusion. So be careful what you touch with your hands.

      Going barefoot builds strong, healthy feet. What is “backwards,” to use a word that the U.S. professor used, is attitudes like her own. She apparently thinks she knows everything simply because of her cultural biases (or her own personal issues with bare feet) when in fact the science directly contradicts her ignorant beliefs. By the way, I am not a Maori and I go barefoot almost all the time. I wash my feet daily, just as I do the rest of my body. No communicable diseases here.

      • Anthony Karinski 10.2.1

        “Sorry, but you are wrong. Athlete’s foot is unknown in barefoot cultures.” doh, read what I actually wrote.

        “In order to get hookworm infection, you must not only walk but stand in fecal matter for a relatively long time.” Shit sticks my friend and thats how nematodes enter your blood stream, goes through your lungs and into your gut.

        “Contracting hepatitis requires a puncture wound from an object contaminated with hepatitis or a bad blood transfusion. So be careful what you touch with your hands.” Thats why I don’t drag my knuckles along the footpath where you put your bare feet.

        Look, barefoot living is hardly the end of the world. It’s not a health issue like HIV. However it is a public health issue. People walking barefoot in public display the same sort of disregard and parasitism that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children do. They rely on everyone else doing the job and minimising the risk for them. Its short sighted and absolutely selfish.

        Now, you and the author of the post display a strong emotional attachment to walking barefoot. As far as I and most medical professionals am concerned it is the same sort of emotional attachment you will find among global warming deniers. It is not so much about the real world but rather an exercise in reaffirming your belief that barefoot living is good and wholesome. For the most part it ain’t.

        • Barefoot American


          Your reply isn’t so much about the real world as it is about reaffirming your irrational belief that barefoot living is bound to lead to all manner of problems.

          Paranoia about parasitic infections is not a healthy attitude. However, when one is in a truly dangerous environment for bare feet, one should wear some protection, just as one should wear a coat when it’s cold or gloves when handling potentially dangerous material. 99.9 percent of the places I go on a daily basis (be it in NZ or the USA) pose no more of a threat to bare feet than the carpet in my house does. Which is to say none. When I go somewhere that truly poses risks, or if I simply *want* to wear shoes, I will. Otherwise, I try not to let someone else’s ignorance affect my personal freedom.

          To answer your ridiculous examples: Shit sticks, but it also comes off your feet, hands, arse, or wherever. Question: Do you ever shake someone’s hand? You may not get parasitic infections from it, but you certainly can catch a cold. The more people you shake hands with, the more likely some sort of negative health effects.

          To compare walking barefoot with not vaccinating one’s kids and denying climate change (a more accurate term than “global warming”) is an apple-and-orange comparison and reveals the depth of your negative emotional reaction to people going barefoot and an irrational attachment to your own private biases. Sneezing, spitting or overuse of antibiotics poses a much greater risk to public health than walking barefoot. Just wondering: Do you overprescribe antibiotics to your patients? If so, you are doing far greater harm to public health than anyone walking barefoot could ever do. This is a fact based on countless epidemiological studies. Your example is based on fearful speculation.

          For the most part, you are basing your belief on seeing reality as you want to see it rather than stepping back and looking at things more objectively. Are you as paranoid about real parasitic infections from tainted food and water as you are about hypothetical ones regarding feet?
          Just curious.

          My own doctor here in the United States is 100 percent supportive of my affinity for walking barefoot. In fact, he says people who wear shoes tend to have more foot and ankle problems and says that going barefoot on nature walks is, in healthy people, is better for overall circulation than always wearing shoes when walking.

  11. prism 11

    To be really careful and responsible about health and not spreading diseases how about carrying a pack of wet wipes and putting one in your hand before you touch a door handle or a light switch. Of course you should always wipe over the toilet seat before you sit on it, if you do.
    Cripes, where does it end, this public health business. I like the story of how we are surrounded by our tiny dead skin cells floating around us and each one probably has a bacteria on it like a surfer on a board. Whee! There are more of them than of us, I feel like cowering in a corner, with a very tiny fly swat.

    • burt 11.1

      Unfortunately broken glass and sharp metal objects have not been around long enough in our environment for our feet to adapt to them. Perhaps we don’t help that by wearing shoes but humans have always been a species of tool makers.

      Wet wipes on doorhandles, if door handles are made from broken glass then wet wipes would be useless although perhaps comforting to some.

  12. Jenny 12

    When I was in Bondi on holiday, I was at the beach and met another Kiwi who was walking on the beach wearing one jandal.

    I asked her if she had lost her jandal.

    “No, just found one.” she replied.

  13. deemac 13

    this does seem to me to be an example of the “NZ centre of universe” view that so many Kiwis have. No other country I have ever visited or lived in regards shoelessness as anything other than a sign of poverty (except at the pool or beach). Personally I never go barefoot even there since catching a fungal infection at a public pool in the UK. Perhaps people here are immune to these? Or if you go barefoot long enough your feet become so hard you don’t notice?
    Anyway I really, really don’t see how her comment, however ill judged, can be seen as racist since going without shoes in NZ applies to both pakeha and maori. People should find something more worthwhile to get outraged about.

    • prism 13.1

      deemacThis is from the article on hyperlink.
      “Trouble started when Mackie returned to the US. According to US author Cary Nelson, university staff had found out about Mackie’s letter and decided it was an attack on the Maori people and thus racist. On those grounds, Mackie missed out on the job.”

      It was in the USA that the deemed racism response came from.

  14. Barefoot American 14

    Going barefoot is gaining acceptance in the United States. Just today, the Sunday magazine PARADE published an article pointing out the advantages of running barefoot.

    Perhaps the USA is finally catching up to NZ when it comes to common sense regarding bare feet.

    But I agree that the comment by the professor isn’t racist. It simply shows her ignorance about hygiene and that is why she should have been denied the job. I doubt she has ever done any research on the matter but simply bought into the anti-barefoot prejudice that surfaced in the US at the time of the hippies.

  15. Barefoot Englishman 15

    I regularly walk barefoot in the UK and am convinced, by personal experience and the research I have read, that it is healthier and safer than wearing shoes. I suffer from chondromalacia patellae in both knees and suffer severe pain if I walk for more than about 2 miles in shoes; barefoot I have no problems at all. The only time in 6 years of barefooting that I have got a splinter of glass in my foot (easily removed) was in my dining room at home! Hookworm – not going to happen with the UK climate and our habit of not sh**ting in the street. This professor is entitled to her opinion; but what she said doesn’t sound like a cultural misunderstanding, it just sounds ignorant.

  16. randal 16

    wait till youlive in a suburb where every square yard of footpath is covered in dog faeces and where the food workers dont wash their hands. kiwis are by and large far too important to do the simple things that gurantee hygeine and confidnece. their poo doesnt smell either.

  17. prism 17

    Someone said that getting glass out of feet is easy. What??
    Clear glass is hard to find and digging into the body looking for any coloured glass is not a picnic and is done with great difficulty by the hurt individual if trying to see the puncture wound in the feet. Getting harder feet by going barefoot would help to limit this but I hate to see children walking the streets barefoot. We live with a careless, bottle throwing mobile minority that make it likely that they will be cut by glass.
    From time to time I sweep up glass on the road there as a result of lazy careless bums who ride around in cars throwing their empty beer and alcopop bottles at trees and poles by the street to see if they can hit and then smash. Then bottles are left on the road to be smashed by passing cars too.

    • lprent 17.1

      It isn’t easy getting glass slivers out of feet. Which is why it is such a frigging nuisance when they manage to penetrate my hard soles. It isn’t bad if they are projecting above the sole surface and you can feel the things with a needle or tweezers at the surface. When they are subsurface you need two needles and everything done by feel (looking for the glass as you point out is a waste of time).

      Littering bottles should be a treated as being a malicious intent to cause injury with high fines and jail time for persistent offenders. Inebriation should not be a mitigating factor. Littered bottles always get broken…

  18. CP 18

    Below is a short outline of how we come to be talking about the Mackie case:

    In mid 2006 Erin Mackie, a cultural studies academic then working for the University of Canterbury, dispatched a couple of paragraphs to the editor of NZ Listener. Her message was in response to complaints about the ‘no-shoes no service’ rules in US supermarkets that had been penned by the author of the magazine’s Bradford’s Hollywood column.

    The column apparently connected capital punishment in Texas with laws against barefoot shopping. Dr Mackie wrote that analogy was a ‘chauvinistically Kiwi misunderstanding of public hygiene and the public policies instituted by many countries to protect public health’. In hindsight she now might wish she had stopped typing at this point.

    Instead she went on to say that she found the kiwi habit of going barefoot in public one of the ‘few customary practices here that seem not only backward and uncivilised, but dangerously unhygienic and repulsive to North Americans’. Of course for some this last point might well be a recommendation to take off one’s shoes and run widely through any public spaces (and of course they are qualified by the work ‘seem’). As for ‘dangerously unhygienic’ – such claims are unsupported and disputed (as noted above). But the claim that the practice may be ‘backward and uncivilized’ puts Dr Mackie’s on different terrain.

    On their own the terms could be dismissed as a rather silly assertion of cultural superiority. However coming from an academic, and one whose specialism is 18th and 19th century English literature and politics, the phrase replays the colonial history of oppression and subordination visited on many locales around the planet and more recently played out in some aspects of US foreign policy.

    At the time of the 2006 letter Dr Mackie’s drew a volley of return fire from the Listener’s letters-to-the-editor writers who took exception to the backwardness charge. Dr Mackie responded to these detractors by shifting her original position slightly: ‘I admit that the issue is not simply one of hygiene but of propriety ‘. In other words going barefoot was more a matter of poor manners than backwardness; an indecency rather than a cultural imperfection. Perhaps looking to garner some sympathy, Dr Mackie added that her comments sprang in part from her own feelings of alienation and displacement:
    ‘For the record, I have lived in New Zealand by election for five years; I love it here and love the people and the society. However, this issue, I confess, brought into full relief everything I find most alienating and unassimilable about my new home’.

    The ripples from Mackie’s missive may well hit the shore at that point but for the combined power of the internet and Dr Mackie’s failure to successfully snag a job in the English Department at the University of Illinois that is also home to the President of the American Association of University Professors, Gary Nelson. Nelson’s about-to-be-published book ‘No university is an Island’ features the Mackie case as a story of how political correctness can lead to bad decision making. Nelson’s use of the Mackie case might of course have been ignored but for the fact that it is used by Stanley Fish (eminent US English professor) in his column in the New York Times as part of his profiling of the book’s key message. Fish writes:

    [Nelson’s] own example of absurdity (it occurred in his home department) is a faculty appointment that was derailed when it was discovered that the candidate, then teaching in New Zealand, had written a letter to a newspaper criticizing the practice of going barefoot in public places on the grounds that it promoted the spread of disease. A department member decided that the letter “was an attack on the Maori people and thus racist,’ and even when it was determined that it is not the Maori, but “white hippies, who go barefoot in New Zealand, the majority voted against pursuing the candidate in order, says Nelson, to prove “themselves to colleagues of color.’

    The upshot of this is that Mackie’s comments were reported in a New Zealand newspaper (Sunday Star Times) and feature here in the ‘blogosphere’.

    • Barefoot American 18.1

      To clear up a common misconception, there are no laws or health codes in the USA that prohibit going barefoot into stores and restaurants. Nor should there be – people who go barefoot pose no more of a health risk than people wearing shoes. In fact, the soles of feet are often cleaner than shoes soles since barefoot people tend to be more careful about their footsteps.

      There are, however, cowardly or misinformed store managers who hide behind this urban myth and lie about such non-existent rules when posting signage. While a business does have the right to set standards for admission within certain parameters, it is by no means required to do so. Some businesses in the USA will gladly welcome barefoot customers once they learn that no law requires them to discriminate against someone because of their preference in footwear.

      Even Dr. Mackie, as you said, acknowledged her prejudice by saying: ‘I admit that the issue is not simply one of hygiene but of propriety .’ Her notions of propriety are clearly hampered by her discomfort at seeing other people walk barefoot.

  19. prism 19

    captcha – embarrassed!
    Conclusion from reading CP – don’t open any unlabelled can. It may be a can of worms! It seems to me that people involved in the humanities looking at racism etc are passionate, meticulous people and get stirred up easily so it doesn’t pay for one of them to be too free with opinions. Chinese? whispers can turn an innocuous opinion into a major faux pas?
    Each culture has its lines in the sand. Was it burt who made an allusion to sitting on a desk. If you haven’t studied cultural differences you won’t know about that. It’s no use saying its double Dutch? as to protect ourselves from the pc zealots we need to have a grounding in cultural understanding.

  20. Time Traveler 20

    Barefoot American said:

    “Going barefoot is gaining acceptance in the United States. Just today, the Sunday magazine PARADE published an article pointing out the advantages of running barefoot.

    Perhaps the USA is finally catching up to NZ when it comes to common sense regarding bare feet.”

    I guess you were not around in America during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when going barefoot everywhere was a fad for young people. We WERE like New Zealand is today, at least to some extent, but here it went out of style during the 1980s, and there it did not. So it’s not about catching up – it’s about re-learning what we forgot. Though much of the older generation of the time hated what the young people were doing, but a sizable enough minority (mostly women, though) were going barefoot in stores and such, even in New York City, that people generally began to ignore it and at least tolerate it up to a point. And no, there aren’t any laws against it. Those signs are the business owner’s own policies, at first aimed at keeping hippies out.

  21. We had an episode with those kiwi jandals. My partner broke a rib because he was wearing them while trying to get a cow out of our olive grove!

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