Have you ever looked at baby's feet? Did you notice how supple they were, or how the toes, when splayed, were wider than the rest of the foot? Now look at your own bare feet. Move them around, massage them, stand up. Do they feel supple, are they mobile, do you feel stable on them? If you are like most modern day humans, the answer is probably "no" to all of the above.
How many of you think that this is normal? Have you even thought about your feet? Other than how stinky, or sweaty they are. Your feet are your support that holds you up, your tires that move you forward. It took years to learn to stand on them and move around. Then, in the middle of all that, your parents threw some forward binding contraption on them and you had to learn to move all over again. It is kind of like those videos of the dogs whose owners put booties on their paws. It's hilarious (and kind of sad) to watch the dogs try to walk. What's not so funny is that the same thing happens to us, except it's seen as normal, and then our altered gait is the result (which undeniably leads to long term biomechanical faults and potentially injury). So let's dive in.
As soon as something is put on our feet we instantly change the way we walk. Our ability to feel the ground underneath us is diminished, we are raised up off the ground so our depth perception is challenged, our toes are squished together, and our heels are lifted. Most kids shoes do tend to have wider toe boxes, flat soles, and suppler overall shoes (which then leads me to ask, why do shoe manufacturers think adult shoes should be any different?). High heels lift the heel the highest. But men, don't think you're out of the woods. Cowboy boots and even dress shoes have significant heels on them. And athletic shoes? All of them have a heel, but it's disguised as extra heel cushion to absorb impact. Imagine taking a block of wood as thick as the heel on your shoe, then place it under one side of a book shelf of your height. What do you think would happen? Now put on your heeled shoes. Your body, not being a book shelf, wants to be upright and not fall over. Naturally, it starts making compensations. The tricky part is that everybody makes these compensations in different areas in the body. So one person might develop tight hamstrings and a leaned back stance, while the next person might develop severe hyperlordosis (accentuated curve) in the low back and a forward head posture.
Then we have to compete with the tow box, which squishes our toes together and limits our foot's mobility and ability to adapt to the ground we walk on. Now, instead of our feet moving and keeping us balanced, the job goes to the ankles, knees, and hips (I have no doubt ankle and knee injuries are 100% related to modern footwear). Over time, our feet become deformed and start looking like the shoes we wear. So often I tell people they need wider toe boxes and they say that the shoes they wear are so comfy and there's so much room for their toes. That's because their feet have become misshapen. I usually shoe them my shoes (I'll give a list of the brands I recommend later), and the most common response is, "Those look so comfortable", which is true, because they allow my feet to move as if I was barefoot, just with added protection (which is actually unnecessary, but shoes are required for working in a chiropractic office. I'm still working on changing the rules of that game. If we are supposed to be walking the talk, then no health care provider should be wearing any athletic, dress, or high heeled shoes. Or shoes for that matter).
The bottom line to all this is that the human foot is designed with amazing precision and intelligence. Why would nature design a foot that "needs" support or protection? Also, why would shoe companies push their shoes as making a woman more sexy, or make your running more efficient? Nothing is as beautiful, graceful, and efficient as the unaltered human body.
Here is a list of the shoe companies I recommend and some of the caveats based on my experience with them:
-Vibram Five Fingers (really funky looking and prone to stinking, but overall the best of all the close toed shoes)
-Lems (a little on the thick soled side, but the best shaped shoe aside from Altra)
-Altra (best shaped shoe on the market, but far to thick, immobile, and padded sole. Great for transitioning to a more barefoot style shoe.)
-TadeEvo (a little too narrow on the pinky side, but easily the most flexible shoe on the market)
-Soft Star Shoes (toe box is more on the traditional side but wider than most, but they are so supple it acts like a naturally foot shaped shoe should)
-Vivobarefoot (again, the toe box is not as wide as it should be, however they have very thin, mobile soles and are very stylish. I have the Ababa which is their slip on and the widest model they have)
P.S. The best way to go if you want protection under your feet is to wear huarache style sandals (basically flipflops with a heel strap). Check out Bedrock, Luna, Shamma, and Earth Runners. I regularly hike, run, and run errands in my Bedrocks. If I'm not barefoot, I'm in my sandals.