- On TikTok, “barefooting” has become a popular topic of conversation.
- The lifestyle involves walking outdoors without wearing shoes or socks to connect with nature.
- Barefoot influencers told Insider why they love this lifestyle, even though it’s led to criticism.
Twelve years ago, 66-year-old Sue Regan Kenney was walking through a forest near her home when she was overcome by a strong, indescribable urge to take off her shoes and socks.
She believes that she received a message from Mother Nature — and it wasn’t the first time.
A few months prior, Kenney said she believes Mother Nature urged her to “bring people back to the forest,” but she did not quite understand what this meant at the time. When she received the overwhelming urge to walk without shoes, she took this as an indication of an answer.
“I knew right then and there without a doubt that she wanted me to be barefoot, and then to bring people back to a connection with the earth.”
Ever since then, Kenney, based in Ontario, Canada, has lived mostly barefoot. As she goes about her daily life, she treads through gravel, mud, and even ice, without socks or shoes, which she only wears to tread through deep snow or to be polite when visiting friends, she told Insider.
Kenney is one member in a community of “barefoot influencers” who promote their lifestyles on social media and give viewers tips and advice on how to try it for themselves. The hashtag #barefooting, used to describe the lifestyle on the app, has more than 47 million TikTok views.
Though this niche type of content is incredibly popular, it is also controversial. Detractors who label the lifestyle “weird” have flooded these influencers with online hate, and concerns about safety risks have sparked questions about how responsible the content is. Still, barefoot influencers continue to expose themselves to criticism in order to promote a lifestyle they believe has more benefits than pitfalls.
Barefoot influencers say they want to encourage young people to connect with nature in a digital age
On TikTok, it’s common for people to tell each other to “touch some grass” as a derogatory slang phrase to suggest someone has spent too much time online — but Mara Doemland, who has been barefooting since 2015, means it literally.
The 29-year-old TikToker, who has 134,000 followers, told Insider that touching grass with her bare feet created a “nice sensory feeling” that made her feel calm, and she wanted to share that feeling with others by promoting the lifestyle on TikTok.
“People on the internet will say go touch grass, and I don’t know if they’re trying to be mean or whatever, but it can actually make you feel more relaxed and calm to actually just touch grass,” Doemland said.
Kenney told Insider that she started her TikTok account in 2020 because she felt concerned for young people who were “stuck in their rooms” during COVID-19 lockdowns.
She hoped that if she made a video talking about her lifestyle, a handful of young people would see it and feel inspired.
“I wanted to give them hope that even though they were isolated, they could maybe go out to their backyard and get outside,” she said.
After posting a single video introducing herself with the camera pointing down to her feet, she received 1 million views on the platform. As she filmed more clips showing herself exploring nature, her level of virality continued to increase and she was receiving millions of views per post.
“They were all commenting and reacting and they were so engaged. That was really quite moving for me,” she said.
These influencers have fought against huge amounts of backlash against their content
Doemland told Insider that despite her best intentions, she estimates that around 80% of the comments on her TikTok videos about barefooting are negative.
Comments seen by Insider mentioned that they think walking barefoot outdoors or in public venues is “dirty,” and that they don’t want to see a person’s feet in public.
Doemland told Insider she thinks there is a taboo around barefooting, but that she does not agree with the reasoning behind the stigma, since it is common to see human feet when people are walking indoors or outdoors wearing sandals, for example.
“I don’t really understand why there’s such disgust,” she said.
Kenney also told Insider she thinks there are lots of misconceptions about people who partake in barefoot lifestyles, saying that she has been called “weird,” and that some people have left comments saying they believe walking barefoot into public spaces, like restaurants, is illegal.
There are currently no federal or state laws preventing people from walking barefoot in indoor venues, although establishments might have their own service policies, according to The Barefoot Alliance, a website that distributes information about barefooting.
Kenney told Insider that she has previously been refused service at restaurants for being barefoot, which she said was “embarassing” for her, but she added that she wants to keep answering questions and debunking misconceptions that a barefoot lifestyle is illegal or strange.
“There’s all these ideas about who you are if you’re going barefoot. But it’s really the most natural human thing,” she said.
Health experts say there are potential risks involved in walking barefoot outdoors
Another level to the criticism launched against these influencers are concerns about how safe the practice is, said Doemland, who often receives comments from people warning her about the dangers of stepping on sharp materials, like nails or glass, and injuring herself.
Experts have previously suggested that the benefits of walking barefoot include the fact that it can restore a person’s “natural” walking pattern, freeing them from excessive cushioning that comes with some shoes, while improving foot mechanics and strengthening muscles in the leg, according to Healthline.
However, walking barefoot outdoors creates risk of injury from the terrain, which can expose the foot to harmful bacteria or infection, professionals who spoke to the outlet said.
Dr. Hamad Husainy, a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, and an emergency doctor practicing in Alabama, told Insider that infection is increasingly likely if a person walks barefoot on a damp surface like grass.
“Your feet are at increased risk of getting more moisture to them. And then I think the follow-up on that is that you can get athlete’s foot more easily because of the moisture and the wetness,” he said.
Husainy also told Insider that he sees many cases of injuries as the result of people stepping on glass and nails, which can often be very painful to treat.
“The sole of the foot and the surrounding area is really one of the most sensitive areas in the body. If there’s one place on the body that it’s probably my least favorite place to sew is actually the sole the foot because it’s so painful,” he said.
People with diabetes, who are particularly prone to injuries of the peripheral nervous system, which includes harm to the legs and feet, can be especially at risk in such instances, as serious infections can lead to hospitalization and in some cases even amputation, he added.
Husainy said that while humans have walked barefoot outdoors in many parts of the world and for centuries throughout history, he would not recommend the activity from an injury-prevention standpoint.
“With the way our current environments are created, the reality is that we have more waste, metal, glass, and plastic, and we have more causes for injury than ever,” he said.
Undeterred, barefoot influencers continue to promote the lifestyle, believing the risks can be mitigated
Kenney and Doemland told Insider they are aware of the potential risks involved in their barefoot lifestyles, but that they believe the benefits they have experienced outweigh those dangers.
Doemland said she tries to be careful about what she says, and that she often tells viewers not to “push it too far” and to experiment with barefooting in a gradual and cautious manner.
Kenney added that she feels her role as a barefoot influencer does involve a responsibility to encourage people to be safe and cautious, but that ultimately, her viewers are liable for the extent to which they handle that advice.
“My job is to plant a seed. To introduce people to this, to teach them about it, and then let go. I’m not responsible for what happens to them,” she said.