It’s 2007. I’m in high school. The hallways are peppered with the sounds of $1 Old Navy flip-flops dragging on vinyl floors and smacking against bare heels as sandal-clad students shuffle to class.
But if you ask Andrea Michelle, a high school English teacher in California, the scene is a bit different in today’s halls. Generation Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012, is now occupying high schools across the country, and their feet are decidedly covered.
Today, many kids “wouldn’t wear their slides without socks,” said Michelle, who is a millennial (born between 1981 and 1996). “It was confusing to me because I live in San Diego County. I grew up wearing either Rainbow sandals or Ugg boots.” Gen Z has also taken to pairing chunky sneakers with everything and slipping socks under dressy sandals — or, perhaps even more horrifying to millennials, they’re wearing Crocs with socks. “That stood out as super weird that [my students] were dressing like my dad on a fall day,” Michelle said.
Not only do they often prefer not to show their own feet, but they can take offense to others who do. Michelle, who was in the habit of exposing her feet in sandals, was heckled by her high school students for the sartorial choice. “Usually, I hear, ‘Miss, the dogs are barking!’ or ‘Miss — for free?! You just giving out those free foot pics?’” she recalled. She has even experienced students barking at her feet.
On TikTok, the hashtag “dogsout” ― a Gen Z-coined phrase to describe visible toes ― has inspired countless videos with millions of views. TikTokers post clips of “dog attacks” (when people are touched against their will by someone else’s bare feet) or people embarrassingly having their “dogs out” in public.
It’s not unique for the exposure of a particular body part to go in and out of style. Crop tops (and thus stomachs) have come and gone, waistlines on jeans have risen and fallen (to conceal or reveal hips), shorts have gotten shorter and longer again (exposing and hiding thighs and even butt cheeks).
But there is something happening with Gen Z’s hidden feet that goes beyond pure aesthetics. Michelle, who goes by @EducatorAndrea on TikTok and has more than 215,000 followers there, has posted about the phenomenon. In response, she got “an influx of feedback” from Gen Z-ers who peg the trend’s origins to the awareness and online presence of foot fetishes.
“These kids have had mostly unfettered access to the internet, where foot fetishes have been explored,” she explained. With access to “sites like [FeetFinder] and being propositioned on the internet for pictures of their feet, they have trouble separating other people’s fetishes from the sight of feet.”
Raised on the internet, members of Gen Z have had distinct access to everything, all the time, their whole lives. And they’re uniquely aware of who’s always watching them — and how they’re dressed — online and out in the real world.
“If I’m going out in public, I try not to wear open-toe shoes. I feel like people are going to look at my dogs,” said Analisa Prowse, an 18-year-old audio engineer from Fair Lawn, New Jersey. “I don’t need that kind of attention ... The online fetishization of feet [is] so casual and normal now, it freaks me out.”
The possibility of attracting unwanted attention is very real. Annabel Smit, a Gen Z lifestyle and fashion influencer with 119,000 Instagram followers, has gotten “creepy DMs” from followers “begging for feet [pictures].” If Smit — who said she tries not to let such comments influence her style choices — posts a photo from her summer vacation in which she’s wearing sandals, “I’ll get a fair amount of creepy requests in my DMs to share another peek of my ‘beautiful, sexy’ feet,” she said. “I think sandy beach pictures in flip-flops or open-toe sandals might be the most provocative.”
And as part of a generation that’s uniquely aware of how to monetize their online presence, Smit understands that someone wouldn’t donate what they could barter. “Why show them for free when we can sell feet pics and earn some cash?” she said.
Indeed, a common chide in response to bare feet seen on social media or out in the wild is “no free feet.” The implication is that the person with exposed feet is relinquishing the opportunity to profit from a monetizable commodity: the sight of their feet.
This happens on sites like FeetFinder, where users can buy and sell custom foot photos or videos. Foot content is also profitable on OnlyFans, an internet content subscription service used primarily for pornography.
If you’re a public figure, however, your feet are up for grabs for free on wikiFeet, a fetish website dedicated to curating snaps of celebrities’ “arch(es), sole(s) or toe(s) without opaque shoes and socks,” according to the site rules. Sophie Strauss, a stylist and former professional musician, was Googling herself one day and discovered that someone — she has no idea who — had created a wikiFeet page featuring every publicly available photo that offered even the slightest peek at her feet.
Who knew this choice of footwear could offend an entire generation?
Strauss, a millennial, was mostly confused. “Many of the images chosen for [my] wikiFeet were not otherwise particularly ‘sexy’ in the more normative sense,” she explained. “My wedding photos are on there and one of me pregnant.” Further adding to her bewilderment: “I definitely do not take care of [my feet]. I have pretty gnarly calluses.”
She saw the humor in the situation. “I was not at all uncomfortable or offended by it,” Strauss said. “But I was also well into my 20s and felt very comfortable with myself and my sexuality and the realities of the internet at that point ... I just wish I could’ve made some damn money off my feet, if only I’d known they were a hot commodity!” she joked.
Still, it’s easy to see how someone else — especially someone younger who is navigating their sense of self — might feel their privacy was being invaded if a stranger was curating a feed of photos in which their feet just so happened to appear. Even for private citizens and “regular people,” whose feet can’t appear on such sites without permission, it can create an awareness that a random follower could be zeroing in on an innocent Instagram photo of a group of friends and ogling at their sandal-clad feet. Or staring at their toes on the street.
LeMeita Smith, a Ph.D. who serves as director of clinical services at United Health Services and a psychological adviser at Tarotoo, has primarily counseled members of Gen Z over the past 11 years.
“I have encountered clients from Gen Z who have expressed concerns about their appearance and privacy in the online space,” she said. “Young people today are acutely aware of the potential for exploitation and objectification. The fear of having their feet fetishized, and the subsequent reluctance to show their bare feet, could be attributed to their desire to protect their personal boundaries and maintain a sense of control over how they are perceived.”
Crocs with socks are more than an irony-tinged, intentionally ugly-cool style choice. They’re a “back off” sign.
For others, the issue is not that deep. There are plenty of Gen Z-ers who have no aversion to baring their toes — or if they do, their avoidance is merely based on practicality. “My feet are usually covered because they get cold really easily, but I would show them no problem,” said Katie Schaefer, an incoming college freshman who lives in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “It’s more self-confidence than anything.”
For Schaefer, socks with sandals is a “go-to” look, “but in the summer, we’re always barefoot, so it’s pretty normal.” Still, she doesn’t want to see anyone’s “close up” foot photos online: “If it’s like a full body picture and feet aren’t the main focus, then I don’t even notice [the feet].”
Similarly, Smit is motivated by hygiene to cover her feet, more so than by the “creepy” messages she receives. “The [New York City] streets can be pretty grimy and getting stepped on while clubbing is no fun,” she explained. “Plus, pedicures here cost a fortune.”
Even if feet aren’t offensive per se, they are often seen as unglamorous. In her work as a “stylist for regular people,” Strauss says she sees the biggest aversion to bare feet among her bridal clients, who these days gravitate toward closed-toed shoes rather than formal sandals. “They dislike the idea of having their feet showing in the wedding photos they’ll look at for years to come,” she said, noting that most of her bridal clients are millennials.
I can relate. When recently shoe shopping for my own upcoming wedding (and simultaneously writing this article), I, a millennial, decided to return a pair of formal open-toed sandals I’d purchased for the event, in favor of closed-toed pumps. It’s not that I was suddenly self-conscious of my feet, or that I felt a need to keep up with the trends. Rather, my deep dive into the subject of visible feet (something I’d never really paid much mind) made me consider the fact that toes kind of are a uniquely — dare I say, weirdly — shaped body part that might disrupt the elegance of a wedding photo if they happened to be peeking out from underneath a gown.
While I can’t see myself scrapping my sandals or suddenly wearing them with socks, baring my feet at all now feels like a choice.
For her part, Michelle “invested in some Air Force 1s, because I was so over having weird comments made.” Still, she admires her students’ gumption: “They are a whole vibe, and I’m here for it, even if I can’t show toe anymore.”