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It was a modest newspaper item, almost an anecdote, published in the hot, dog days of late August: According to a study conducted by American paleo-anthropologist Eric Trinkaus, human toes have become thinner and weaker than they once were because of the use of supportive footwear. Or, in other words, homo sapiens (that is, us) and Neanderthals (who, unlike us, did not survive) were fashion victims. In every sense of the word.

If you take a moment to think about this article, it may well be the key to understanding, albeit only partially, the hottest fashion rage of recent years, which developed into a veritable craze during this past summer: flip-flops - those simple, flat sandals with a flexible upper and a thong that separates the big toe from the rest of the crowd. Thong sandals, or what we call beach shoes, are now no longer viewed as a mere fashion whim, but as a means of self-preservation.

And like all rehabilitation processes, the opposition did not go down without a fight:In July, for example, a mini-scandal broke out on both sides of the Atlantic "Flip-flopgate," it was dubbed in the United States after a large group of young women, members of Northwestern University's lacrosse team, were invited for a meet-and-greet with the president at the White House. The outrage was exposed in all its shame in the official photograph, published on the university's Web site: At least four of the young women standing in the first row next to the president were wearing flip-flops.

The picture shows George Bush, looking as merry as ever, dressed from top to toe (in black shoes) holding two lacrosse sticks. The lovely players are standing tall, with their toes fully exposed for all to see, as if nothing in the world could be more natural. The Chicago Tribune, which discussed the affair at length, explained that the women did not think that there was anything irregular in their behavior and said their thongs were designer flip-flops, since you asked.

Flip-flop flapOn the one level, the "flip-flop flap" was yet another battle over the always-relevant question of how to dress in certain social situations. In Britain, The Times reporters asked representatives of the queen if she would be upset if visitors wore flip-flops when seeing her, and her response was that all she wanted was for people to feel comfortable in her company meaning that they should wear whatever they like.

But on the more important, hidden level, the flip-flops in the White House marked a significant change in the perception that the more formal and high-level the event, the more parts of the body that might be considered intimate should be covered. The foot was removed from the equation.

And how did this happen? In the same way that one could see at an upscale restaurant in Tel Aviv this week that all the women, without exception, were wearing the same simple, flat and relatively modest flip-flop, which has penetrated the mainstream of the local wardrobe and has become what, for lack of any other word, might be called "legitimate.?

In addition, the more accepted the flip-flop becomes, the more a new type of acceptance of what it is supposed to bare - the female foot - can be seen. No longer confined in a leather prison, elevated and adorned (some might say exciting), it finds its natural place in its original contour, exposed and free.

When the exposed foot becomes a common sight everywhere, it becomes accessible. And when it is accessible, those who nevertheless frown at them for their own reasons, find themselves inundated by it on all sides.

On the one hand, the foot represents a constant temptation - to steal a glimpse, to see if this particular human organ complements others parts of the body, if it is "pretty? - while on the other hand, because it is exposed for all to see, without the manipulations or distortions created by high heels and straps, it loses its suggestiveness, its traditional status, and most importantly, its rareness in social situations.

All this of course has a fashion-based explanation: "Naive chic" is the elegant name that European designers in the late 1990s gave to the designer-ashram look, inspired by the New Age wave that swept through the West then. In recent years, not only have clothes become more comfortable, lighter in weight and color and simpler, but all this is also accompanied by an ideology of "connecting" to the earth, to the self, to the body.

Of course, it would not be completely far-fetched to conclude that this whole New Age trend is no more than an excuse to sell flip-flops at exorbitant prices, but even if the fashion of non-uniform oriental ideas and seemingly simple consumer goods passes, one cannot ignore its contribution to female posture and comfort. Could one have imagined an advertising slogan a few years ago (for flip-flops, of course) like, "You are most beautiful when you feel comfortable"?

The ideology of "connection to the earth" has created a situation where stiletto-heeled, pointy-toed shoes, the kind that challenge the shape of the foot and weaken its structure, as we have learned from the findings of the American anthropologist, are starting to look as ridiculous as whalebone corsets. And because such shoes are basic elements in erotic imagery, can it be that flat shoes will do away with the shoe fetish?

Dr. Eyal Dotan, a local researcher of culture, sees no difference between a foot fetish and a shoe fetish, and does not think that a foot that becomes more "accessible" from one year to the next changes the balance of power. "People can enjoy all kinds of objects without having the complex psychological makeup that involves fetishism, not pathologically in any case," says Dotan. "And, in general, most psychological characteristics are acquired, and acquired relatively quickly. They can be gotten rid of or held in check.?

So what do those that take pleasure in bare toes benefit from? "Male enjoyment is by definition fetishism," says Dotan. "Men view women as objects; that's how they get enjoyment and that's fine. Some men become more specific [in their fetishism]. We can just call them 'specialists?.?