Monday, October 31, 2011

More Used Shoes

A post I wrote back in August on "used shoes" got a lot of attention recently when a Montreal-based Craig's List linked to it.  One person (Frédéric Deslauriers) posted a lengthy and well-considered comment, and he asked if I could respond to several questions.  So here are his four questions (at least, as I distill them), and my answers.
  1. Does history matter? (He writes, "It appears to me that such an issue as the use of hand-me-down shoes might have been around for so long that we forgot why it is we do things that way.")
  2. Since absence of evidence (that used shoes cause damage) is not the same as evidence of absence, is there any existing research showing that used shoes do not endanger their wearers?
  3. How do I respond to the risk of fungus?
  4. How do I respond to the risk of structural problems?
Phew!  Here are my answers, imperfect though they may be, but I'll do my best.

1.  Have we just forgotten the reason we worried about used shoes?
It may well be that long ago, used shoes could cause foot problems.  But even if that were so, things have changed so much in the last century that those conditions no longer hold in the same way.

For one thing, shoes used to be so expensive that most people bought just one pair (or maybe two) and wore those exclusively.  Loretta Lynn famously sings in her "Coal Miner's Daughter",
"In the summer time, we didn't have shoes to wear. But in the wintertime, we'd all get a brand new pair." 
Loretta Lynn and even her wealthier contemporaries didn't need shoe organizers to help keep the floors of their closets neat:  they wore the same shoe over and over and over again.  But now when I go to yard sales, I see shoes that clearly get occasional use at best.  Some shoes (especially women's shoes) are still in their original box, never yet worn.  Even kids' shoes appear in such multitudes that you can tell some shoes hardly ever got to go outside and play.  An occasionally-worn shoe is different from an always-worn shoe.  When I buy used shoes, I go for the "gently worn" ones.

Similarly, my kids and I don't wear the same pair of shoes every day.  For what it's worth, none of us are in the situation of forcing our feet to conform to one pair of shoes day in and day out.  Even men who wear the same pair of leather shoes to work each day will often switch into a completely different kind of shoe for exercise, gardening, or other kind of intense foot activity.  That is another important difference compared to the past.

But another, huge factor is that shoe construction has changed dramatically.  Matthew Werd's "Athletic Footwear and Orthotics in Sports Medicine" notes that
Initially, marathon runners of the early Modern Olympic Games competed in heavy boots or shoes with leather uppers and soles, allowing for little plasticity.  With the increasing popularity of the running events, the Spalding Company addressed the need for running shoes among the public and advertised a high-cut, black leather shoe with a reinforced heel and a sole of gum rubber, but the outsole did not last long and further improvements needed to be made.
Can you imagine running a marathon in leather boots?  The lack of synthetic materials made shoes much less resilient, much less likely to adapt to a human foot.  Comparing modern used shoes to historical used shoes is like comparing apples and pine cones.  History has little to say about the kinds of shoes I see at a yard sale today.

2.  Is there any positive evidence (as opposed to absence of negative evidence) that used shoes are okay?
In recent years, there have been a few stories/studies coming out that cast doubt on the "need" for new, expensive shoes.  I'd love to be the cheerleader, but I don't know that this evidence is overwhelmingly convincing, at least not yet.  Just google "barefoot running" to learn more than you want to about why some people believe that any shoes are bad.  The barefoot running movement is controversial and I don't know enough to say whether it's on the right track or not.

Recently, a British study involving 43 volunteers found that inexpensive running shoes were actually better (in the sense of minmizing plantar pressure) than expensive shoes.   The researchers did not test used shoes, however.

3.  What about fungus?
Fungus is a problem caused by wet shoes (new or used).  Dry the shoes out, and you'll be fine.

I think "fungus" is one of those issues people bring up to give thrift a bad name.  Many, many people rent shoes at bowling alleys, ice-skating rinks, and roller-skating rinks.  When people PAY to wear shoes that many other people have worn recently, they don't worry about foot fungus.  When people SAVE MONEY by buying used shoes that one other person wore a while ago, all of a sudden there are health concerns.  Faugh.

4.  What about structural issues?
Quick:  Which shoe is more dangerous for me to wear?  A $2000 pair of Gucci boots, or a $1 pair of yard-sale boots?  A few years ago, I actually got to test this out myself.  I was featured in a New York Times Magazine fashion spread.  A team came down from New York City; it took about 8 people almost three hours to get me presentable and dolled up in a fashionable outfit, which included those  I-kid-you-not Gucci boots.

My make-up and hair people asked me several times if I wanted to take the boots off ("We're not going to shoot for a half-hour, and I know those are uncomfortable!").  Since I was sitting down and not standing, I just left them on.  But if I'd tried to walk around for any length of time, they would have hurt a lot.  Meanwhile, my low-heeled yard-sale boots fit fine and were easy to move around in.

The most important part of shoe wear is that the shoes fit comfortably and support you well.  For kids, make sure that there's at least a half-inch between the kid's toe and the shoe's toe, and toss shoes that have too much wear.  Gently used shoes can fit just as well as new shoes can.  In fact, if buying new shoes is so costly that you only do it once a year, then new shoes could wear so much, or your kids' feet could grow so much, that the new shoes would be worse than buying several cheap pairs of used shoes that fit properly.

Deslauriers notes toward the end of his comment:
Basically, I think we can say that it is definitely possible, with the use of good judgment, to find hand-me-down shoes that will do just fine. That being said, some people would rather not take that chance because the problems that could occur if a mistake is made are severe and could result in long term, irreversible consequences.
Millions of women wear high-heeled shoes, doing well-documented damage to their knees.  (I know it's bad for me, but I wear high-heeled shoes, too).  As before, I think it's worth asking: do you worry about risk when the shoes are cheap and ignore the same risk when the shoes are expensive?  If so, examining THAT attitude might be the best way to save both your money and your health.

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