Vibram FiveFingers and the False Dichotomy

Vibram FiveFinger ShoeI literally JUST bought a pair of the now-infamous Vibram FiveFinger shoes.  I was excited by the purchase.  I brought them home and tore them out of the box with the same fervor that my 4-year-old son shows when opening Christmas presents.  But by the time I had finally managed to wrangle my wayward piggies into their cozy toe holes, the internet was ablaze with the news of a big scandal:  the Vibram FiveFinger shoes are a scam.

The news stories made it clear that my investment in new footwear technology had been sadly misplaced.  Twitter was abuzz with links to articles with headlines like: “Those barefoot sneakers might be a total scam” or “Five-toed shoes carry no health—or fashion—benefits” or “FiveFingers maker will pay millions to suckers.”

I guess that makes me a sucker.

But here’s the thing.  I didn’t pay much attention to Vibram’s claims for their shoes in the first place.  I never expected the shoes to be some miracle panacea to better foot health and athletic prowess.  And likewise, I also don’t give much credence to those that are thumbing their nose at Vibram now.  The media’s claims that Vibram shoes give “no health benefit” are just as unsupported by evidence as the claim that they strengthen your feet.

I don’t pay any of these messages much heed because I know how we like to talk in our society.  We like to go to extremes.  We love false dichotomies: ignoring the gray areas where the truth lies in favor of the more sensational black and white that make better headlines.  Yesterday, this shoe was the best thing for your feet since Adam gave Eve the first foot massage.  Today, Vibram is a scam, the shoes are worthless and anyone who wears them is a “sucker.”

As consumers we are forced to choose.  Do we stand by Vibram and accept their claims of the benefits of barefoot running?  Or do we reject Vibram as a scam artist, using marketing hype to push their worthless and perhaps even harmful shoes on gullible and unsuspecting rubes.  But like all false dichotomies, this choice is an illusion.  The truth is somewhere in the middle.

The Vibram FiveFinger shoes do strengthen your feet.  They also do cause more injuries.  This is not “either/or.”  It’s “both/and.”

To borrow an elegant phrase from Nassim Taleb, human beings are “antifragile.”  We are strengthened by stressors and bolstered by increased exposure to risk.  That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

So barefoot running–just like weight lifting, athletics, or even shoed running—makes us strong because it exposes our body to risk.  It broadens our repertoire of movement, allowing us to test new ways of moving and using our bodies.  Push the limits of that—with too many miles on paved roads—and yes, you will get injured.  But I’m guessing that there is a “sweet spot,” in terms of how much time and distance we put in, where our antifragile footsies do experience some significant benefits from going barefoot.

Admittedly, I might be more reluctant to wear my FiveFingers in public for a while.  Mainly because I’ll be a bit more self-conscious about those averted glances of passerbys muttering “sucker” under their breath when I pass.  But I don’t love the shoes any less today than I did yesterday.

Vibram FiveFingerI’m wearing them now, in fact, as I write this.  And they feel pretty good.  Imagine you had been wearing mittens your whole life and someone suddenly handed you a pair of gloves.  It’s pretty liberating.  I think Vibram is probably doing the right thing by settling on their lawsuit about “false claims.”  But I also think they’ve created a good product, which I intend to continue wearing.  Five-toed shoes deserve a place in our shoe racks.  If you don’t have a pair, now is your chance to get them at a really good price.

By Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)


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5 Responses to Vibram FiveFingers and the False Dichotomy

  1. Judy Krings May 28, 2014 at 6:10 am #

    Here’s “Toe” ya, Jeremy! Loved your fun.

  2. quackwatch May 29, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

    Jeremy – I was an early adopter of the “5 fingers”. Unfortunately there use seemed to coincide with more injury. Yes they are comfortable but largely impractical. They smell horribly and your feet get very cold when they get wet. Mine are now confined to the wardrobe.

    The parallels between pp and the vibrams are interesting. Lots of claims re benefits but without many deliverables. Just think of the CSF – millions spent with minimal impact. And the Penn Resilience Program doesn’t seem to work in the long term.

    I wonder when someone will sue one of the PP gurus who claim efficacy – it seems ripe for the picking.

  3. HappinessSavouredHot June 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    I like your honest review of those kinds of shoes! As a runner, I have tried many different types. After a couple years, I have come to the conclusion that the best type for me is the “close to minimalist but not quite”. I can bend my shoes and they are rather light and low to the ground, but they are not considered “barefoot running”. This offers just enough support while letting my body do most of the work. If you run with proper form and have a neutral foot, this is perfect. Fads are just fads, we each need to find what works for us.

  4. alex June 30, 2014 at 1:45 am #

    I have been wearing them for years! I mainly exercise with them and they rock, wear them on the river too. I always get weird comments too haha, you either love em or hate em

  5. Irene July 7, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    I’m a little late to the party it would seem, but I had to comment on this post, having become a sucker myself, a few weeks ago. I’m a runner with plantar fasciitis, and I would NEVER consider running in my Vibrams. I use them exclusively in the gym, where my trainer has noticed better form perhaps because I’m relying on my foot and leg muscles to position me more accurately (naturally?) for some of the exercises, instead of having the influence of my running shoes. Imagine – maybe those shoe manufacturers really DID make shoes that are specific to an activity…! 🙂

    Your conclusion about the dichotomy is so great and an important reminder to us all about many debates…the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

    Fun read! Thank you!

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