Consider this Public Service Alert #1: Clogs Can Cause Harm to Self and Others. If you are a clogger by trade or even a hobbyist clogger, disregard this entire post. You have probably already taken out additional health insurance policies to protect you from what I am about to explain.
Since we were on the topic of fashion (See Jean Shorts on the Ground and Midwesterners: Hide Your Fannypacks Now!), I stopped when I stumbled upon a site called Stylelist—is that not a great blog title? See, this is why I’ll never make it as a blogger. I simply lack the kind of cleverness and concision that allows you to get right to it. But as a language person, I sincerely revel in the play on and with words so many blogs pitch into the atmosphere every day. And nobody does it better than fashion copywriters and sports columnists.
Well, I was alarmed to learn from this site that an iconic accessory of the 60s and 70s is being resurrected and foisted on an unsuspecting generation of flip-flop wearers. Note: my lexicon’s first impulse here is to have me say “thong-wearers,” but that sends us down a whole ‘nother path of blogging, though it’s an excellent example of how swiftly the spoken word can change up on us even as we speak it.
For instance, I walked into an Old Navy four or five years ago looking for flip-flops for my son to replace the ones he’d ripped and all I saw was a rack of green and pink ones. I approached two teenage sales associates measuring the distance between meticulously folded stacks of T-shirts and innocently asked, “Do you have any thongs for males—you know, like the ones with the stars and stripes motif on them? ”
Their eyes big as saucers, the female regained her composure first while the male blushed six ways to Sunday and found a sudden interest in the floor. “Oh, ma’am, we don’t carry those here. No, we’ve never carried those. No. No.”
I looked at her incredulously. “Are you sure? Because I’m positive I bought some here before. Actually, I think my brother got them here for my son’s birthday. You know, one side has stars on it and the other side has stripes on it. But they were large; you definitely had them in mens’ sizes.”
The two of them started backing up while they momentarily sank deep into the epiphany of what it’s like to be an adult in these times: TMI, TMI, TMI. Given that their employer, Old Navy, had hijacked a national holiday the decade prior when it made itself the official corporate sponsor of the Fourth of July, both probably interpreted my question as blasphemous. Star spangled thongs at our beloved Old Navy—by golly, NOT!
The male sprang forward first, finally realizing what I had meant. “Oh, you mean flip-flops, ” he said, relieved, as his shoulders dropped and he breathed a sigh. I share this simply to note that some way, somehow, a word shifted meaning substantially in a relatively short period of time.
This kind of change happens far more slowly with the written word, hence you have words just like “hence” hanging around since monks first calligraphied manuscripts, unscathed by any visible signs of change, even though they are not likely to turn up in text messages any time soon. Clearly, that’s another post.
Back to clogs and the perils inherent in wearing them. A few months after I turned 40 and was lounging one day in Flat Rock Creek Pool, I felt like I was stepping on a golf ball. I looked to the bottom of the pool and saw no golf balls. Then I realized: the golf ball was inside my foot. No words to describe the shock and horror I felt as I grasped the fact that my body had betrayed me both physically and spiritually when seemingly overnight, a golf ball could find its way into my sole.
The next word I learned was “podiatrist,” or foot doctor. Prior to this, I had little realized there was a whole specialty in medicine devoted to the saving of women’s feet from the ravages of aging and donning stupid footwear. The way in which they save feet is really the stuff of horror movies.
Case in point: I couldn’t look when the podiatrist used a foot-long hypodermic needle to inject a substance between two of my toes so I could become mobile again. I just watched my husband’s eyes nearly pop out of his head instead.
I had been diagnosed with a neuroma, which sounds like a brain injury rather than a foot problem. It’s kind of both, really, since nerves in your feet send desperate SOS signals screaming to your brain when the delicate network of nerves in your feet becomes inflamed because of poor footwear choices and/or, as the young podiatrist pointed out to me, age, which is doctor code for “poor footwear choices over a lifetime.” Suffice it to say, nerve endings are amazingly receptive; the pain of a neuroma is akin to having a cattle prod tucked between your toes.
I am sounding this alarm as a public service because no podiatrist remotely interested in job security is going to say a word. That is, until you are 40. Then they’ll be all over you, nodding understandingly when you cry that you can no longer wear those stylish Blahniks or Choos or even New Balance orthopedic tennis shoes. So the next time you fashionistas are tempted to cattily chide Baby Boomers for clinging to their hippie ways, think again. At this point, Birkenstocks could mean the difference between horizontal and perpendicular for them because quality of life is now coming down to the width of their toe box.
I grew up in an era where people spent a lot of time discussing arches and I don’t mean the golden ones or the one that a handful of people proclaimed a gateway to the other side of a river. I’m talking about the ones that should be at the base of your body.
Back then, adults spoke in hushed tones about their arches and I often accompanied my grandmother to a dimly lit shoe store downtown high atop a skyskraper where special grandmotherly shoes could be purchased for a small fortune and other more fashionable high heels could be overhauled and stuffed with padding by expert shoe stuffers to make them wearable. My grandmother, style maven that she was, was not the least bit interested in investing in what my sister later referred to as “nun’s shoes.” She would rather fund the retro-fitting of her vast collection of tasteful pumps with cushioned pads.
Invariably, the topic of arches would come up and sympathies were expressed for those who didn’t have them naturally or worse, whose arches had—gasp!—fallen. Who pushed them down or why I never knew, but the reactions of adults led me to believe this was nothing less than catastrophic.
Understand that at this time, people registered only utter disdain for those who deigned to wear flip-flops anywhere except around a body of water. But then women were also wearing elbow-length gloves in the sweaty heat of summer, so that should give you some idea of the social pressures of subscribing to fashion dictates back in the day.
However, also note it would never have occurred to anyone to wear flip-flops anywhere else: they were so cheap, they could only be purchased at a dime store. No parent in their right mind would have let a kid out of the house wearing flip-flops, not just because they found toes a serious TMI issue but because they weren’t considered real shoes. And why not, you ask? BECAUSE THEY HAD NO ARCHES!!! One summer, watching the Olympics was banned in some homes because a runner raced barefoot. It was scandalous.
By the time I was a teenager, there was no question that I’d been sent some powerful messages about shoes. All of the adult women I saw strode around in Italian leather stillettos, you know, the kind my Barbie doll and June Cleaver wore. They were positively murderous on the metatarsil area but, hey, at least they had arches!
So by the 1970s, the culture was ripe for the surreptitious onslaught of wooden clogs imported from Sweden and made by the daughters of Olaf. Teenage girls lusted after the brightly colored clogs with blonde wood soles, their primary colors a wholesome antidote to the psychedelic neons of the 60’s. As a fashion statement, they imparted a sweet, youthful look of innocence and fostered images of frolicking in a Swedish meadow or milking a cow.
Now, I would not presume to think that this style of footwear did not have all kinds of historical and cultural significance long before it found its way into Midwestern closets. But I will tell you that I now strongly believe that this was the beginning of the end of my feet. I don’t pretend to know much about physics, but having a giant block of wood slapping against your heel repeatedly cannot be a good thing. And on that count, I’d like to know just where Dr. Scholl got his or her medical degree.
Sadly, I went from the frying pan right into the fire. Though I prided myself on making better choices than my mother in regard to shoes and had the good fortune to be a young adult during the ongoing fashion disaster that was the 80’s, when flats reigned supreme, it turns out they are just as problematic because, yeah, you guessed it, many of them don’t offer any arch support.
So though I felt both fashionable and metatarsally healthy as a teaching assistant when I trooped daily up and down the lone hill in Kansas atop which a state university sits, sporting my dropped waist dresses and corresponding leather flats ala Princess Di, I was actually inflicting long-term damage on my feet by pounding the pavement with nothing but a thin, flat sheet of leather cushioning the blows from the ground.
Neuromas are not the only malady my feet have known. This is where taking four years of high school Latin paid off: I could fathom perfectly well the medical term “plantar fasciitis,” which translated means “your heel hurts like hell—unremittingly and indefinitely, for a period of years.”
The one time in my life being fashion-conscious paid off? Ironically, that was when I wore Famolares with my police uniform, rejecting the standard issue Corframs mens shoes that everyone else wore at the time on the basis that they were just too ghastly for my feet to bear. The Famolares, on the other hand, were hideous in a fashionable kind of way and were like walking on a mountain of rubber—lots of shock-absorbing protection there, kind of like a Kevlar vest for the bottom of your feet. (I also like to take credit for introducing scrunchies as a hair accessory to that industry.)
So, alas, flip-flop nation, I issue you this caution: those who do not remember history are ever so doomed to repeat it. Be scared, be very, very scared of the return of any semblance of the wooden clog. You’ve taken on the other big issues of the day. Now pick up the gauntlet for purging the need for podiatrists.
Dear Readers: This blog will now host an ongoing feature, Lived to Tell, devoted to perspectives on other curious cultural phenomena to which I have been privy, the kind that beg the univeral rhetorical question: What were we thinking?