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When Did Our Love/Hate Relationship With Feet Begin?

We’re not saying that Jesus had a foot fetish, but it’s possible

On the sole of your foot, right in the center of the heel.

According to the ancient practice of reflexology, that’s the zone of the foot that corresponds to the genitals. Further forward, in the arch of your foot, right before the ball, is the zone that connects to your stomach. And if you’re getting turned on right about now, know that you and your fellow foot fetishists are far from a recent phenomenon.

You’ll be wildly unsurprised to discover Sigmund Freud speculated that foot fetishes exist because toes resemble little penises. More useful research, however, came from neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran in 2011, as chronicled in Live Science. He found, in the course of his research into phantom limb syndrome, that since the parts of the brain associated with feet and genitalia are adjacent, it’s common for there to be some “cross-wiring.” Which helps explain why feet are always among the top 10 most popular fetishes.

Then there’s the power dynamic. Per Princess Fawn, a foot model and foot fetish dominatrix, “A foot dominatrix like myself enjoys having submissive partners worship my feet by kissing, licking and massaging them. Many of them enjoy the fact that foot play can feel humiliating and degrading, especially if they’re made to sniff or smell my feet after I go running. They love being below and beneath me, under my sweaty feet.”

French philosopher Georges Bataille also touched on this in his 1929 essay, “The Big Toe,” in which he expressed his feeling that man, while trained to be attracted to ideal beauty, was also drawn to the base, subversive and even disgusting. Perhaps this dynamic best describes man’s complicated relationship with the foot: praised by some cultures, shunned by others and mutilated beyond recognition by the rest.

While we can be pretty sure there were some caveman foot fetishists, the oldest known record of foot praising comes from Egyptian hieroglyphics dating to between 2600 and 2100 B.C. The image depicts the vizier Ptahhotep having his feet tended to by a servant: The exact nature of this artwork is debated, but many believe it’s an early depiction of reflexology, a practice based in the idea that every area in the body corresponds to a point on the feet and hands, and that by massaging these points, the corresponding area will see a relief in pain and stress. True or not, what is clear in this artwork is that the vizier is being tended to by a servant, suggesting a type of foot praise simply by the lowly stature of the one tending to it.

Given the fact that the Ancient Greeks wore sandals, you wouldn’t think that feet were a big deal back then, but, oh boy, they definitely were. The legend of the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, makes special note of her “shapely feet.” The footprint, by association, was often a symbol of a woman leading a man to love. But while adult goddesses were believed to lure men with their feet, virgin goddesses were usually depicted in Greek artwork with their feet covered as a sign of modesty.

Because this is Ancient Greece, there was also a lot of writing about the feet of young boys. (Shortly after Christianity reached Greece, the showing of bare feet by a woman would be considered immodest by religious figures, but there seemed to be no such provision for little boys.) Oftentimes, the foot would be a euphemism for the penis in Greek comedies — there was even a series of very popular vases that had a little penis in place of the standard foot of the vase.

In the Old Testament period and right through the time of Ancient Rome, the practice of foot-washing was a big part of life: It was customary to wash one’s feet upon entering a home. While not associated with sex per se, the practice of washing someone else’s feet was very much a symbol of humility in the Old Testament, while for the Romans, it was seen as the lowest of tasks, relegated to slaves. It’s because of this dynamic that the image of Christ washing the feet of his disciples in the New Testament was such an important sign of humility.

Taking things a step further, the practice of kissing another’s feet became the ultimate sign of humility, respect, gratitude or even servitude. It became customary to kiss the feet of the Pope during the reign of Eugenius II in the early ninth century, a practice that continues today. The feet of the statue of Saint Paul in Rome have eroded, in fact, after hundreds of years of foot-kissing.

While the foot was intertwined with praise and humiliation in the Western world, the level of shame associated with feet in the East would reach levels of outright brutality. The practice of female foot-binding in China originated in the mid-900s, after Emperor Li Yu was tantalized by a dancer who “bound her feet into the shape of a new moon.” Within a couple hundred years, it had become customary for girls to begin having their feet systematically massaged, broken and bound at the age of 5. Large (or even regular human-sized) feet were considered unattractive — the smaller the foot, the more likely a girl was to be married off.

In the 19th century, Westerners and Christians began to travel more frequently to China, and the practice of foot-binding was viewed as barbaric by these newcomers. This outside influence led to a political uprising resulting in the end of the practice. But because the “lotus foot” fell out of fashion so quickly, many women who had achieved that most painful symbol of beauty suddenly found themselves left by their husbands, due to their unfashionable hooves. Some women even went through the humiliating experience of having their bindings publicly cut off, exposing to the world the feet they wouldn’t even allow their husbands to see.

Shame and punishment surrounding feet also persisted elsewhere. In many Middle-Eastern countries, the practice known as “bastinado” was a punitive foot-whipping that existed well into the 20th century. And during the Catholic Inquisition, women accused of witchcraft were forced to be barefoot at all times, as it was believed that this would impede the use of their evil magic.

The puritanical customs of covering feet in American society persisted into the 1960s, so much so that the hippie culture thoroughly embraced going barefoot as a way of demonstrating their deviation from the cultural norm. In response, many businesses began hanging signs that read, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” as a way of deterring hippie customers. Even today, such distaste for the human foot persists: In 2013, one New Jersey town banned bare feet from its boardwalk.

For sufferers of podophobia, of course — literally, a fear of feet — such a ban would presumably be a blessing. While not a terribly common phobia (approximately 1 in 1,000 people), podophobia sufferers can, upon seeing exposed feet, “experience anxiety symptoms, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, tightness in the chest and heart palpitations,” says psychologist Glenn Mason. “For some it can even trigger an overwhelming sense of anxiety, leading to them experiencing a panic attack.” While the research into the causes of podophobia are limited, it’s believed that a trauma from childhood involving feet could often be pointed to as a reason, such as being kicked.

Pain and fear, freedom and slavery, love and hate, sex and shame: All of these meanings have been widely and paradoxically applied to the most utilitarian of body parts throughout history. So whether you’re a toe-licker or a podophobic, or even if you feel that a bare foot is going to protect you from black magic, know that you’re not alone in your beliefs: Humankind has been trying to figure this stuff out for millennia.