Who Has a Legitimate Gripe Against Vibram Shoes? The Syndactyly Crowd

Why some readers view this photo as a frightening "trigger."
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Earlier this month I explained why I still wear, like, use, and tout Vibram "finger shoes," despite the company's having settled a claim from those who felt its health benefits were overstated. Once again, above you see one of my sons and me modeling the shoes four years ago.

Summary of that earlier argument: If you already know how to run in the "forefoot-strike" style that comes naturally when if you are barefoot or wearing minimally padded shoes, or if you can adjust or learn, then these shoes are great. But if you prefer, or are stuck with, the "heel-strike" style of running that is fostered or enabled by today's thickly padded shoes, you're not going to like finger shoes and should stay away.

Now responses, starting with someone who brought up an angle I hadn't considered. A reader wrote:

Say what you will about your finger shoes, but I'm one of those one in
a thousand or so with webbed toes (syndactyly); on each foot I have
two toes fused together.

These are not the reader's feet. They're from
Wikipedia to illustrate the syndrome.

It gave me a certain amphibian chic as a school boy swimmer, and a
proud sense of identification with my web-toed grandfather, but other
than that my toes have played no exceptional role in my life apart
form the role ties usually play; but those shoes - they freak me out.

I could only wear them if I had my toes sliced apart (ain't gonna
happen), to my feet and brain they look like medieval torture devices,
so when I see them I can't help but cringe and turn away.

I wrote back to say, touché, "I think you're the only person who can legitimately complain about these shoes!"

He replied right away:

You know more of us than you realize - we just don't wear open-toed sandals.

Excellent point! Now a few more on this theme, less exotic (mainly) in their medical info and all in the testimonial vein. 

"I have no kneecaps." From another reader, a female runner:

I'm not applying for the Vibram Fivefinger shoe either! 

My knee caps were removed one at a time in the 1970s—no replacements back then—due to congenital dislocation issues.  Don’t worry, my legs don’t bend backwards: but finding shoes in which I could walk for miles, or stand all day as a trainer has been profoundly difficult.  Because of the imbalance of muscles (great rocky calves and really flabby quads because of the biomechanics), I’d lost the ability to “feel” the ground.   Poor proprioception, it’s called.  My neighbors called me out about how much I was falling in my yard.

For me, the funky looking toed shoe is a life saver.  Since I began wearing them as my everyday—and sometimes platform—shoe, my knees hurt less, I fall much. Love them, and wish the lace-up version came in a basic black. 

Now about their chronically funky smell…. [JF note: Yes, it is good to wash them regularly.]

If they work for you, they’re wondrous.  If they don’t, don’t wear them.  We could use this common-sense approach to a lot of issues these days.

"I think of them as Zoris." From a reader on the west coast:

I am a 60-year-old, non-athletic woman with a bad knee who loves my Vibram Five Fingers. It should be noted that I grew up not wearing shoes unless I had to. For me, growing up in SoCal, it was mostly barefoot or Zoris (aka thongs or flip-flops). I even have "Zori feet," a major space between my big toes and the next. I've tried Tevas, but they were too constructed for my feet.

Sample Zoris, also from Wikipedia.

When my husband I did a half-world trip last year (Hong Kong to Venice), I bought my first pair of VFFs. I walked everywhere in them, including rocky terrain, sand, and asphalt. I did mountains, monuments, and muddy streets with no issues at all. Three months in all, and I never wore anything else but VFFs. Yes, I washed them periodically.

While Vibram has acknowledged their adverts were somewhat misleading, I cannot in all conscience put in a request for a refund based on those claims. I LOVE my VFFs and even purchased another pair after the announcement of a possible refund.

The shoes just WORK for me. I have never had a better pair for hiking and walking. Not to mention all the people who took pictures of my VFFs in rural communities around the world!

"I have never looked back." From a male runner—I'm ID'ing people this way just so you know who's weighing in:

I have been running regularly for 10 years, but after reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run soon after it came out, I tried Vibram Five Fingers -- and have never looked back.

As you noted, the shoes taught to me run on the balls of my feet (which I had never done before), and now (at 67), I am still free of the bone and muscle ailments that my siblings and friends seem to all suffer from, I was very glad to see your defense of Vibram. 

"Burn it to earn it." From a male runner on the West Coast who was able to shift his style. 

I think the lawsuit reflects a failing of marketing rather than a failing of the product. Too many people bought the shoes on the basis of hype without considering their own running style.

My own running experiences reflect the same kind of transformation of style that is necessitated by a switch to finger shoes. I had been running in big, cushy stability shoes and getting shin splints. I switched my gait from a heel strike to a mid-to-forefoot strike and went to a near-minimal shoe. No more shin splints.

I’m glad to hear you’re a runner as well as a beer aficionado, as I am myself. Beer always tastes better when you work up a thirst. Burn it to earn it, eh?

That is all. My sympathies to those in the syndactyly community. I am sorry to have given you a fright. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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