Bare feet in public are a litmus test for how we feel about ourselves and our society. They are a sort of ped-ometer – or bare-ometer – if you will. Are we controlled leather-shod, laced-up and wholesome soles? Or are devil-may-care libertines who must be allowed to run free?

When a friend moved here from France a few years ago, his first sighting of a pair of naked feet in a supermarket set him reeling. It prompted the posting of photos on his blog complete with nasal sneers of Gallic derision.

But he's not the only one who finds it hard to stomach other people's feet. There's a security guard at Sylvia Park mall who can't abide them. He told barefooted customer Rachelle McDonald to leave the mall immediately and not return until her feet were decently covered.


It's easy to dislike feet. They have a hard life and look like it. Quite early in life they begin to attract scars from blisters and stubbed toes and corns and ingrown toenails. There they continue to sit – or rather stand – as far away from us as it's possible to get.

So I'm no fan, but I will defend to the end of this column one woman's right to go barefooted in public. As appearance crimes go, Ms McDonald's offending was definitely at the lower end of the scale.

It's not like she was wearing Crocs, or cycle gear when not on a bike, or jeans that had been distressed, bedazzled, sequined or otherwise edited, or a puffer jacket, or denim on denim, or a Hawaiian shirt or a onesie or a long line tee or anything Versace or a Santa costume. Just the feet she was born with (though a bit bigger, obviously).

Is Rachelle McDonald an example – perhaps unwittingly - of the footwear avant garde? Just a few days before the unfortunate events at Sylvia Park, the American musician David Byrne was in town for a rapturously received concert in which he and his fellow musicians performed in bare feet throughout.

When he does it, it's called "redefining the concert experience". When Ms McDonald does it, it's called grounds to kick someone out of Sylvia Park.

Perhaps there was a hidden commercial agenda. The mega-mall houses 13 footwear stores so management clearly wouldn't want to be seen to be giving any institutional endorsement to a footwear-optional lifestyle.

We don't know if Ms McDonald went back. Perhaps she voted with her feet and decided to shop elsewhere.

In the absence of an official explanation, the most popular theory was that the mall had rules to make people cover their feet in order to pre-empt any legal action in the event of an accident. Pretending to protect its customers, it was really protecting itself. As though ACC didn't exist.


When approached by the media, Sylvia Park centre manager Susan Jamieson – no doubt glad of the distraction from the trivial duties involved in the daily running of a giant retail centre – said Sylvia Park had no such policy.

It's all a bit trivial, but the speed with which the theory was adopted does tell us something important: it shows how many people believe that we live in an over-regulated world, where we are not allowed to take responsibility; where nanny state – or aunty shopping mall – is there at every turn to look after us because we can't be trusted to do so.

That's what makes bare feet a barometer of whether we see ourselves as cogs in a machine or free spirits. Bare feet are indeed a rallying cry for freedom. As for my French friend, within a couple of years of migrating, he had moved to Waiheke and pretty much given up on footwear altogether.