Simon Stanley reveals the dangers lurking behind Southeast Asia’s favourite footwear. Photo by Vinh Dao.
The latest hand-written letter from my mum sits open beside my laptop and carries in black and white her latest warning. Last time it was about a man who died after eating sushi.
“She’s probably right,” I say to myself as Google’s blinking cursor appears. “Mum knows best,” a voice in my head replies.
This time it’s about flip-flops. “They’ll ruin your feet,” she writes. “Please, for me, try not to wear them all the time.” Sorry, Mum, but like so many of us living here, I do. I realise I’ve unconsciously kicked my Havaianas off under the table.
Although they have been around for thousands of years, with evidence of similar designs having been worn by the ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek societies, the modern flip-flop is thought to have been conceived shortly after the second world war. American soldiers returning home from Japan wanted to replicate the Japanese Zori — a traditional form of sandal made from either wood or rice-straw, with V-shaped cotton straps. In swapping natural materials for rubber and plastic — and devising one of the English language’s best onomatopoeias — the flip-flop was born. Cheap and easy to produce, the world soon caught on.
The Bad News
A 2010 report from the UK’s National Health Service suggested that as many as 200,000 people a year were being treated for flip-flop related injuries in Britain alone. And British weather sucks. Summers can come and go overnight. Only on a few chance days can we Brits expose our feet to the elements, so I can only imagine how many similar incidents occur in tropical countries like Vietnam. Trips, slips and ankle sprains aside, experts continue to trace a whole variety of musculoskeletal disorders in patients to their rubbery friends.
Simon Costain, consultant podiatrist, chief practitioner and owner of The Gait and Posture Centre Ltd, a pioneering, UK-based clinic, points to the flip-flop’s often pan-flat design as the primary cause of both short and long-term damage. “If we think back to how humans were made initially,” he tells me by telephone from his office on London’s prestigious Harley Street, “it’s supposed that we were quadrupeds walking on all fours. If you’re walking on all fours, you’re standing on the ball of the foot.”
Costain explains that when we as a species began walking upright and our heels first hit the ground for added stability, the foot and leg had to adapt. “Our Achilles tendons and calf muscles have had to stretch a bit in order to allow [this to happen]. If the calf muscles remain tight, it flattens the arch of the foot.
“There are many of us, at least 70 to 80 percent, who are probably still a bit tight in our calf muscles. Tight calf muscles tend to propel the foot into a flatter position. So if you wear a heeled shoe, even a high-heeled shoe funnily enough, it protects the arch of the foot more than if you wear a very flat shoe or walk bare-footed.
“Flip-flops are flat, and so if we take the 80 percent of us who need a bit of a heel raise, that being somewhere between three quarters of an inch (approximately 2cm) and an inch and a quarter (approximately 3cm), most of us are standing in [them] inappropriately — with flat feet.”
It’s All In The Arches
Over time, without a heel-raise and with zero arch support, plantar fasciitis — severe pain in the foot — can develop. This can be an early warning sign of more serious conditions such as degenerative arthritis.
When walking in flip-flops, we force our bodies to adopt a wholly unnatural gait. Keep it up and the entire skeleton can become misaligned. “That flat arch will create knocked-knees,” warns Costain, referring to an abnormal curvature of the lower leg. Unsurprisingly this creates knee problems, knee problems create hip problems, hip problems create back problems and so on. “It has a ricocheting effect right up to the neck and shoulders. The whole of your posture is involved.”
The short-term solution is to wear your thongs in moderation. While they’re great for padding around the pool or making a short dash to Family Mart, you may want to think twice before hiking up to that pretty waterfall or setting off across the city on a day-long excursion. You may not like it but a pair of soggy sneakers may be worth the risk.
But it’s hot, damn hot, and fortunately for us modern design has come to the rescue. Available in Parkson stores across Vietnam, Fit-Flop, and Scholl are among the foot-friendly brands to look out for, offering podiatrist-approved combinations of moulded insoles, snug straps and an all important heel.
“Just pick a more expensive beach shoe that has more of a heel-raise to it,” suggests Costain, “with some sort of arch support and more of a contoured shape to it.” They may not win you much respect from your buddies at the next Saigon Soul pool-party but at least your mum will be pleased.