In Australia and New Zealand, Barefoot Is a Way of Life

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I had just moved to New Zealand, at age 12, when a new friend suggested that we slip out to the corner store (dairy in New Zealand English) for some candy (lollies).

It wasn’t a warm day — July or August in Auckland hovers around 50 degrees Fahrenheit — yet when I stopped to put on my shoes, she looked at me with bemusement. Why would I need shoes for a quick trip down the road?

New Zealanders — and their Australian cousins — like to go barefoot. They’ll often eschew footwear to go to the gas station, the grocery store, the playground and even the pub.

Seth Kugel, a writer for The New York Times, who visited New Zealand in 2012, put it like this: “People walk around barefoot. On the street. In supermarkets. All over. It’s not everyone, but it’s a significant enough minority to be quite striking and a bit disconcerting. Sure, city sidewalks are clean. But they’re still city sidewalks.”

(He was also surprised by a lack of tipping culture, the fine distinction between a flat white and a latte and the preponderance of te reo Maori, the country’s Indigenous language.)

In Perth, in Western Australia, at least one elementary school has a “shoes optional” policy, with administrators citing claims that going barefoot “helped children improve posture, develop sensory awareness and strengthen their feet and body.” (Podiatrists are less convinced.)

And it’s not just the kids. In 2019, Australia’s cricket team made headlines in England when they walked barefoot around the pitch in an attempt to capture “positive energy coming out of the earth.”

“It was nice,” the batsman Peter Handscomb told The Times of London. “You get a feel of the grass on your feet, a bit of grounding.”

There isn’t a straightforward reason behind why it’s so common to go barefoot. Some have attributed it to the influence of the two nations’ Indigenous cultures. Others see it as evidence of a more casual, literally more down-to-earth culture.

Speaking to the BBC in 2021, David Rowe, an emeritus professor of cultural research at Western Sydney University, offered another explanation: Going shoeless was an opportunity for migrants from chilly northern Europe to celebrate an easier life in a warmer clime.

“The culture developed of removing your shoes as a sign that you’ve left the northern hemisphere behind,” he said. “This is a new country, a sun-loving, fun-loving place. You can cast off your footwear and embrace the land.”

Before moving to Australia, Jordana Gray, who makes TikTok videos about life as a British expatriate on the Sunshine Coast, would never have gone barefoot, and even believed it was illegal to drive without shoes on.

“But now, I love it,” she said. “I like to drive with my gorilla toes gripping the pedals. Feels so freeing to be barefoot, and my feet are so much healthier.” (If you’re going to try it at home, she suggests doing the “toe test” before committing to stepping out of the car and onto hot tarmac.)

In a recent TikTok video, Gray described feeling a happy sense of “culture shock” on discovering that many Australians simply leave their shoes at the entryway to the beach.

“And they’re still there when you get back!” she said, kicking off her white sandals.

In the comments, Australians weighed in on instances where their shoes had not, in fact, been there when they got back — Birkenstocks lifted by a ne’er-do-well, for instance, or a treasured pair of glitter jelly shoes gone for good.

One commenter weighed in with a solution: “It’s got to be cheap Kmart shoes. Shoes you don’t really care about. It’s OK if they get stolen, because it’s totally acceptable to walk around the beach suburbs barefoot.”

At that point, you may as well forget the shoes in the first place.

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