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The Psychology of Wearing Flip-Flops

The deeper meaning of summer’s favorite footwear.


Flip-flops rank up there with backyard grills, beach towels, and baseball as a quintessential symbol of summer fun. Personally, I own a couple dozen pairs in rainbow colors, but there’s always room for one more pair of these compact, carefree sandals.

Podiatrically speaking, flip-flops might not be the best choice in footwear. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, the open design raises the risk for cuts, scrapes, and stubbed toes, and the minimal support increases the chance of sprained ankles, ligament injuries, and heel pain.

Psychologically speaking, however, flip-flops can’t be beat. Recently, I chatted with two mental health pros and flip-flop fans about the deeper meaning of summer’s favorite footwear.

Carefree Ease

“Flip-flops are easy. With a simple slide of the foot, you’re ready to go—no laces, buckles, or socks required,” says Erena DiGonis, a licensed psychotherapist and certified health coach in Syosset, N.Y. When the rest of life seems difficult and fraught with responsibilities, flip-flops evoke happy-go-lucky ease.

After-Work Play

Recently, researchers at Northwestern University coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on a wearer’s psyche. Their research showed that volunteers performed better on selective attention tasks when wearing a lab coat, for instance. When donning flip-flops, you are telling yourself that you're the kind of person who knows how to relax and have fun.

Just as putting on a pair of no-nonsense women’s pumps or men’s wingtips sends a message to the brain that it’s time for work, slipping on flip-flops signals play. “Flip-flops liberate us from formality,” says Debbie Mandel, a stress management specialist and author of Addicted to Stress. They tell us that it’s time for recess.

Getaway Shoes

More specifically, flip-flops conjure vacations in exotic locales—even if you wear yours mainly for running to the supermarket. These eminently packable sandals are the ultimate getaway shoes. Just as imagining the sight of a lovely tropical beach, the smell of salt on the breeze, and the feel of sun on your skin can be relaxing when you need a quick escape from everyday life, so can the kinesthetic experience of walking in beach-ready flip-flops.

Expressive Soles

Although flip-flops are unassuming, minimalist footwear, they’re no shrinking violets. To the contrary, they announce every step the wearer takes, and there’s something soul-satisfying about that slapping sound. “When we wear flip-flops, we feel that we don’t have to tiptoe around others,” Mandel says.

Flip-flops themselves come in a palette of fun colors, and they’re inexpensive enough to own multiple pairs for matching a spectrum of moods. Plus, flip-flops make the perfect frame for a colorful pedicure. “They offer a risk-free way to express individuality, nonconformity, trendiness, or youthfulness,” says DiGonis.

Emergency Flip-Flops

“Flip-flops are unbounded and free,” says Mandel. “When we wear them, our feet can literally and metaphorically breathe.” To tap into this feeling when you need it, keep emergency flip-flops handy. Mandel says, “Put on that pair of flip-flops, spread your toes, and you’ll be able to ease on down the road.”

Linda Wasmer Andrews also advocates cutting down stress by mowing the grass or flying a kite. Follow her on Twitter. Find her on Facebook. Visit her online.

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