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Moe Morales, who prefers to go barefoot, walks along Yonge Street in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen

Bryan MacDonald was on his way out the door one day when he decided he wasn't in the mood for shoes.

Fifteen years later, the mood still eludes him, and the 64-year-old resident of Windsor, Ont., spends 99 per cent of his walking life shoeless.

"I go everywhere barefoot, even church," Mr. MacDonald says matter-of-factly. "Once I started doing it, I realized I've hated shoes all my life."

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He even pads around barefoot during the winter, though he draws the line at temperatures below minus 18 (at that point he reluctantly slips on flip flops). The retired auto worker chuckles that his children "think dad's a little crazy" but says a shoeless existence simply feels more natural - and healthier - to him.

Mr. MacDonald is not alone in his quest for foot freedom. The Facebook fan page "Being Barefoot" boasts more than two million fans, and in late June it was one of the fastest-growing pages on the social networking site, according to a trend-tracking website, Inside Facebook. Across the Internet the "barefoot lifestyle" is booming, with adherents turning to websites such as the Society for Barefoot Living (www.barefooters.org), which has more than 1,200 members.









There is also the Living Barefoot (www.livingbarefoot.info) site which launched in January and hosts The Barefoot Living Show podcast, launched yesterday. Founder and Vancouver barefooter Al Gauthier says membership has grown to about 140 people, with traffic reaching 4,000 hits a month.

But despite the growing ranks of this barefoot army, a naked foot still sticks out like a sore toe. Most people associate bare feet with poor hygiene and trashy behaviour - just think of the collective "ewww" a 2004 photo of Britney Spears's barefoot jaunt into a gas station bathroom spawned across the world.

These are exactly the kinds of negative reactions and attitudes that everyday barefooters hope to combat.

"We're there to put out the word but we're also there to connect people to the community," Mr. Gauthier says. "Hopefully in the future, I'd like the group of us to affect some change."

Mr. Gauthier says more people are questioning the benefits of traditional footwear thanks in part to products such as Vibram FiveFingers, deemed one of the best inventions of 2007 by Time Magazine. The form-hugging shoe sports individual toes and is made from a thin, stretchy fabric, allowing wearers to feel the ground beneath their feet (it looks like a winter glove for the foot). Since debuting in Canada in 2006, sales have tripled every year, according to Vibram's publicist Anne Tommasi.

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For 32-year-old Tina Dubois, buying a pair of FiveFingers was her first step into barefoot territory. An avid runner, Ms. Dubois suffers from various sports-related injuries, including a bad back and plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammatory condition often caused by walking or jogging on hard surfaces. Since banning regular shoes from her wardrobe, she says her chronic pain has all but vanished.

Ms. Dubois recently took the plunge into total foot nudity and has gone on barefoot walks around her Cochrane, Alta., neighbourhood. She also recently did some shoeless shopping for the first time, finding the experience surprisingly pleasant.

"I kind of wanted to see what walking is like the way we were evolved to walk," she explains. "When you walk completely barefoot, it's a much gentler way to step."

Toronto's Mauricio Morales, aka "Barefoot Moe," agrees that walking sans shoes feels more natural, and says his gait has improved since he first ditched footwear in 1993. His shoeless wanderings know few bounds and his soles have come into contact with every surface imaginable, from nightclub dance floors to Chinatown sidewalks. The freelance graphic designer has even showed up shoeless for job interviews in the past.

The 39-year-old has learned to navigate city sidewalks with ease, his black-soled feet instinctively side-stepping garbage and wet patches. His website, Barefoot in Toronto, features photos, blog entries and tips for beginners. But his path to barefoot paradise has been paved with stigma and discrimination, he says. Plodding down Yonge Street on a busy summer afternoon, onlookers gawk at Mr. Morales's exposed toes. One man points, turning to whisper to a friend.

Mr. Morales says he's been kicked out of stores and restaurants, with managers citing health hazards as the reason.

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"One thing I can tell you is I'm gay and it's much easier to come out to people as gay than coming out to people as a barefooter," Mr. Morales says with a sigh. "Barefooters are doing something wrong in people's minds."

Many hard-core barefooters point to an emerging body of research to back up their lifestyle. There are increasing research studies that question the benefits of athletic shoes, for instance, and in 2007, a South African study concluded that footwear seems to have a "significant negative effect on foot function."

But most doctors advise against walking barefoot. Podiatrist Millicent Vorkapich-Hill of Windsor, Ont., warns that exposed cuts or scrapes can lead to serious infections.

Also, the human foot is not a perfect design, she says; shoes help prevent ailments down the road such as arthritis and tendonitis.

"Shoes reduce stress on not just your feet but your knees, hips and lower back," she says. "Having more wear and tear on your bones and joints is going to be detrimental to your overall foot health."

But hard-core barefooters such as Mr. MacDonald remain unconvinced. "If you think about it, we were designed to walk barefoot. It's much more comfortable, it's healthier, your feet don't stink. Shoes and socks make your feet stink."

Mr. Morales also believes shoes can be harmful. Their excessive supports and cushions trick muscles and joints into becoming lazy, he argues. He says he's never sustained a foot injury - though he acknowledges he once stepped in dog poop.

He even goes so far as to say his feet have never been healthier and his bad arches have actually improved since he kicked off his shoes.

"All the benefits surpass the potential risks," he says. "It's amazing the amount of sensation you feel when walking barefoot."

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