NEW YORK The increasing prevalence of all-day urban flip-flop wear during the summer is something we need to talk about as a culture.
I won’t deny that this ancient shoe design, which can be seen in Egyptian murals dating to 4000 B.C. (the British Museum owns a 1,500-year-old pair made of papyrus) has its situational utility. On the beach, by the pool, showering at the gym, taking out the garbage – all these are moments in which the advantages of lightweight, easy-to-don-and-doff footwear are self-evident.
I understand, too, there are parts of the world where the inexpensive, mass-produced flip-flop is worn for reasons other than aesthetic choice; in many circumstances, it may be the only shoe that’s both available and affordable. But we’re talking about grown adults in affluent societies – people presumably in possession of at least one pair of actual shoes – who see fit to navigate the grimy sidewalks of cities shod only in a loosely flapping, half-inch-thick slip of rubber.
Those people – you, if you’re among them – need to face the reality that you are, in essence, going barefoot, and it’s grossing the rest of us out.
From what angle to approach the wrongness first? The crux of the flip-flop problem, for me, lies in the decoupling of footwear from foot with each step – and the attendant decoupling of the wearer’s behavior from the social contract. I’ve witnessed flip-flop wearers on the subway slip their “shoes” off and cross their feet on the train-car floor with a contented sigh, as though they were already home.
Then there’s the lack of support and protection the flip-flop offers its wearer’s foot. Of course, the same might be said of any flat, thin-soled shoe – but as soon as you slap a heel strap and a buckle onto that sad, flapping sole, my objections disappear.
Individual sandals and clogs are subject to scrutiny as to their wearability and visual appeal: Tevas and Crocs may be aesthetic abominations unto the Lord, but at least they perform most of the basic functions of shoes.
With their thicker soles and foot-harnessing straps, they at least go some way toward protecting the feet from the most egregious aggressors in the outside environment: broken glass, loose nails at construction sites, wads of gum, pools of motor oil, piles of dog poop, puddles of human effluvia.
It’s evident that flip-flop culture is steadily gaining ground. By 2011, the stigma had diminished to the extent that Barack Obama became the first president to be photographed wearing a pair of flip-flops (though to his credit, the context – an ice-cream shop in Hawaii, where he was vacationing – was flip-flop appropriate. It’s not like he was meeting with foreign dignitaries.)
I contacted some professionals to confirm my suspicion that flip-flops are not only unappealing and unsanitary, but actively bad for the health of the human foot.
Richard Kushner, a podiatrist in New York City, stopped short of committing to the condemnation of flip-flops, though he allowed that they left the foot more vulnerable to injury, and that any thin-soled, unsupportive shoe would encourage the eventual degradation of the structures that maintain the joints of the foot.
Jeff Gray, a pedorthist and director of education at the orthotics company Superfeet Worldwide in Ferndale, Wash., was more voluble in his condemnation of the rubber-soled scourge.
With the ordinary flip-flop, he said, the foot is left in the pronated (inwardly rolled) position.
Gray also believes that backless shoes are a major cause of injuries and falls, especially among older people, thanks to their lack of maneuverability: “Go and take the lug nuts off your car and see how well you corner.”
My final line of argument against flip-flops is a more nebulous one, having to do with their laziness and lack of character as footwear.
Because of the ease with which they’re put on and removed, flip-flops connote a sort of half-dressed slatternliness, a sense that the wearer has forgotten to do anything at all with his or her body from the ankles down.
I was going to call them “foot underwear,” but that’s not quite right. After all, it’s not like you’re going to put a pair of real shoes on top. More precisely, flip-flops are foot robes, and seeing hundreds of strangers walk by in dirty, sidewalk-sweeping bathrobes barely held on with loosely tied belts is no one’s idea of summer fun. Unless your daily commute is a stroll from your hammock across white sands to the pina colada stand you manage in Waikiki, please consider leaving the foot robes at home.
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