Being-in-your-Crocs: A Micro-Phenomenology of Foam Footwear
Crocs precipitate an aesthetic crisis. Normally, the basic rules governing aesthetic appreciation are 1) that we like things that look good, and 2) that it is impossible to collectively decide which things those things are. Crocs break both those rules in that there is broad recognition of their ugliness, yet clear evidence of their mass appeal. Tastemakers like Questlove and Bad Bunny love Crocs, but somehow so does your three-year-old nephew; save for differences in size, it would be difficult even to determine which Crocs belonged to whom. Add in line cooks and floor nurses and you have an unlikely mix of people who love Crocs despite—or perhaps because of—their marked unattractiveness.
All this attention to ugliness is curious for the case at hand, though, since our primary engagement with footwear is not to look at it, but to wear it. With this in mind, I bought a pair of Crocs myself and stomped around my West Philadelphia neighborhood for a few days, searching for a perspective on aesthetic appreciation that would take my whole body into account rather than just my sense of vision. Heidegger and his famous hammer were my conceptual guides, my ears ringing with “the less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it … the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is.” This point could equally be made about foam clogs, which we can only fully encounter as objects of use. To wear Crocs is to approach them on their own terms, to allow them to present the world to our bodies by way of their unique affordances.
It was from within this specific mode of world-disclosure that I came to recognize how Crocs play a curious aesthetic trick: they disappear. Not only do we cease to “stare at” our shoes as we walk around in them, we stop even recognizing that we have them on. Just like eyeglasses, our shoes melt into our perceptual apparatus, giving way in our perception to the world beyond them. We feel the street beneath us rather than the shoe that presses against it, the presence of the final term of our perception mediated by the material lens in between. With Crocs, this phenomenon is more pronounced, as their lightness prevents them from coming to our attention even to the limited extent that sneakers or boots do. Foam shoes give us the sense of being uncovered and unencumbered but still safe from the dangers of what lies beyond our front doors.
What is it that calls us all to this particular tenor of world disclosure at the current moment in history? What longing do we quell when we project a sense of safely shielded nakedness as we traverse the outside world? Here, I walk around and find out.
Many ways to be “aesthetic” (✨)
When you start wearing Crocs, you quickly learn that everyone has an opinion at the ready:
The friends I informed about my experiment with foam footwear voiced a variety of fairly predictable opinions on the subject. Some saw in it an unexpected open-mindedness about contemporary fashion; others felt I was unsuccessfully attempting to pull off a style marker better suited to the under-26 crowd (to which I do not belong, I was needlessly reminded). A constant among these opinions, though, was the premise that Crocs are ugly. Where I had initially presumed that judgments about their attractiveness would be mixed, I found that almost everyone I spoke to insisted that Crocs were visually displeasing, even if that fact ultimately added to their charm. Mass media seems to agree, with the New York Post calling them “aggressively unattractive.” the Washington Post “hideous,” and BuzzFeed News “the Guy Fieri of shoes.” While these judgments sometimes came with caveats—“so ugly they’re cute”—the ugliness was decided by almost all parties.
Those who cringed at the sight of me in my ugly foam clogs took a recognizable stance toward aesthetic experience, aligning roughly with the position of “aesthetic hedonism.” From this perspective, aesthetic value equates to positive feelings resulting from the perceptual experience of particular objects. The hedonistic position largely scans with our everyday experience: we buy flowers for the kitchen table because we enjoy seeing them there; we savor the pleasurable experience of a colorful sunset; we appreciate a striking addition to a city skyline. Questions about why certain objects are experienced as beautiful to some people and not others have puzzled philosophers since at least Hume, who oscillated between the poles of you need to be clever to get it and there’s no accounting for taste. What Hume may not have predicted, though, is the way in which negative aesthetic judgments applied to Crocs entirely fail to dissuade people from wearing them.
A different, non-hedonistic position is required to explain how the New York Times could position Crocs as flagbearers of the “ugly/comfy shoe trend” while simultaneously feeling the need to remind us that “Crocs aren’t just for Instagram”—the implication there being that in the first instance Crocs are for Instagram, meant to be displayed for the enjoyment of others. Where does this enjoyment come from, if not the pleasure of encounter with a beautiful object? There is the possibility that Crocs embody the “paradox of painful art,” wherein certain aesthetic objects are valuable for their ability to elicit worthwhile experiences that are not strictly pleasurable. Looking at a Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son is hardly pleasurable in the way that looking at a bouquet of sunflowers is pleasurable, but it does stir up feelings of awe and dread that seem worth having; you are left moved, if not entirely pleased. Are Crocs like this, though? It seems like a stretch to say that Crocs are so ugly that we experience some revelatory anguish in their presence.
Perhaps aesthetic value is not always defined by emotional reactions to perceptual experience at all. There seems to be evidence that an appreciation of Crocs is not so much about the beauty of the object, but rather the pleasures of taking part in a shared practice in which Crocs serve as a kind of fetish object. Take for example a video posted by Crocs themselves, captioned “How to: Make Crocs ✨aesthetic✨.” There is no voiceover telling us exactly how to make our Crocs “aesthetic”—just dance music—but the photo montage that makes up most of the clip shows that the process has three steps. First, situate yourself such that your shoes can be photographed, a challenge if you also want to include any part of your body above the knee. Next, decorate your Crocs with a selection of jibbitz, plastic charms that signal personal preferences and affiliations. Finally, apply a series of photo filters to establish the desired visual mood. In contrast to other contemporary fashion ads, there are no attractive Crocs-clad bodies to see ourselves in, nor close-ups of feet traversing challenging terrain. Instead, this ad merely promises that if we buy Crocs, we will be able to show other people that we are taking part in the Crocs phenomenon.
What is the Crocs company doing by positioning their shoes as ✨aesthetic✨ rather than attractive? This new sparkle-surrounded sense of the term seems to connote secondary aesthetic value rather than immediate aesthetic value; the viewer’s appreciation of how Crocs look is deemphasized in favor of stressing that we can show off to others that we are wearing Crocs, probably via social media. Any fashion trend entails these two simultaneous layers of interpretation, as the promise of commodities lies in our being seen with them as much as it does in our use of them. With Crocs, though, the makers of the shoe seem almost entirely concerned with the former. A contemporary theory of aesthetics therefore needs to be a theory of audience and a theory of social practice in addition to being a conceptual tool for the exploration of the pleasures of the visual.
Lopes puts forward a framework for thinking about these aesthetic practices in his “network theory” of aesthetics, in which the end goal becomes successful achievement of a social practice rather than appreciation of the objects within it. From this perspective, modelling your Crocs on Instagram provides the satisfaction of successfully signaling your membership in an exclusive social group; the Crocs may appear to you as enticingly appropriate for this purpose, but the real joy is in acknowledging their utility for serving a further purpose, rather than tickling our aesthetic sensibilities in any immediate way. From this perspective, the notion that Crocs are ugly is almost entirely irrelevant to their aesthetic value. The same goes for the graduation gown or the “I voted” sticker, the beauty of which is clearly secondary to its use of signifying participation in a particular cultural activity.
The network approach helps to address a puzzle about Crocs aesthetics, which is that not everyone who wears them seems to wear them in a particularly “aesthetic” way. Babies wear Crocs without looking cool because babies and internet influencers—if we can accept the latter term as a catch-all for the very-online who appreciate things like Crocs—do not participate in the same aesthetic practice, despite making use of the same object. What sets babies and influencers apart is the “pattern of correlations that obtains between the aesthetic value properties of items in the practice and some other properties they have.” Crocs always look the same, but babies, suburban dads, and ER nurses do not participate in the social-historical practices that make them read as “aesthetic,” in the sparkle sense of the word.
So far it seems that the new sparkle-sense of the word “aesthetic” can possibly serve as a way of indicating that the aesthetic value of objects need not be fully grounded in the immediate pleasure of the observer. To make your Crocs ✨aesthetic✨ can be to revel in the successful performance of an aesthetic profile, regardless of the pleasurable experience found in encountering the shoes themselves. This is not to say that beauty never enters the equation, or that we must necessarily agree with the common opinion about Crocs being ugly; instead, this is merely to acknowledge that there might be something more going on in this sense of “aesthetic” than Crocs being beautiful in the same way as a Turner painting or a sunset being beautiful.
Up until this point, however, we have only approached Crocs aesthetics from a limited angle, that of the outside observer. So much of what is written about Crocs talks about how they look, a peculiar perspective given that our primary encounter with footwear is normally that of wearing it. There are recognizable reasons that we may have fallen into this perspective, including our generally “visualist” biases in sense perception, the necessarily ocularcentric nature of social media, and the construction of the implied audience in any visible fashion choice—the imagined view of our clothes from the outside often dominates our own embodied experience of them. Looking back beyond the Enlightenment root of the usual sense of the word “aesthetics,” we find aísthēsis, or perception rooted in bodily senses. Why not, then, consider the aesthetic pleasure of feeling an object as opposed to seeing it?
One non-visual quality comes up in nearly every discussion of Crocs, usually as a counterpoint to their ugliness: comfort. Innumerable Amazon reviews point out that Crocs are perfect for someone working in a kitchen, traversing hospital hallways, or simply fleeing the discomforts of more conventional footwear. It may be that Crocs have blossomed in popularity simply because the material from which they are composed, ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), represents a major technological advancement in structural support. With this thought, however, we are returned to the problem of aesthetic hedonism, just centered now on the feeling of the body rather than visual experience. Comfortable to whom, one might ask. My own experience of wearing Crocs could hardly be called comfortable, given the amount of tripping I did as the shoes bounced around on my feet. Standard-issue Crocs come in only one width and no half sizes, seemingly indicating an indifference to how well they fit the feet of the wearer; fit is surely one dimension of comfort, and one left unaccounted for by these supposedly comfortable shoes.
Looking closer at the question of comfortability, the concept itself begins to look suspect. Can you feel comfort? The question at first seems nonsensical, since we take feeling to be the only sense modality through which comfort can be perceived. It seems equally likely, however, that what is being reported to the senses is in fact a lack of uncomfortable sensations rather than a positive sense of comfort. Discomfort is easy to define: pain, itch, ache, or even just the unexpected persistence of an object in attention all fall under this banner. Comfort, on the other hand, brings no such specific sensations to mind; instead, it is apparently the absence of feelings, rather than their presence, and as such does little to illuminate the experience of Crocs-wearing. Crocs being comfortable may be shorthand for the many ways that they do not feel, rather than one way that they do.
So it seems that the question of comfort may do more to obscure our understanding of the experience of Croc-wearing than clarify it. Thinking of comfort as a feeling at all might be a problem because “feeling” does not accurately describe the experience of Crocs in the first place. Despite our normal engagement with shoes being through our feet, our perception does not normally terminate in them; we feel the world through our shoes, rather than feeling the shoes themselves. It is of course possible to feel the shoes, to wiggle the toes around and encounter the toe-box as a space in which the foot is enclosed, or to rock back and forth such that the drop from heel to toe becomes apparent. Normally, though, we join with our shoes and allow them to mediate our experience of the outside world. As Merleau-Ponty writes:
To get used to a hat, a car or a [walking] stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments.
Imagine instead holding a ripe apple in a gloved hand. In the normal course of events, one would never experience this as feeling the glove, even though it is only the inside of the glove that is directly accessible to the sense of touch in the hand. Instead, the physical qualities of the apple come to mind in much the same way that they would without the glove. The roundness, hardness, and weight all remain perfectly clear, even if the perception of the surface texture is reported to the senses differently for the addition of a layer of fabric. The glove joins with the hand to reveal the world beyond it in specific ways, rather than merely getting in the way of perception.
The example of the gloved hand is easy to parse, as it replicates the familiar subject-object conception of perception. Here, we (subject) encounter the apple (object) through the lens of the glove (intermediary/tool). As with all familiar tools, the glove ceases to be encountered as an object in itself and instead comes to mind in the same way as the parts of the body; just as the hand never appears in consciousness on its own as we grasp an object, neither does the glove around it. But even this description obscures our perception of the world, which comes to mind all at once in the light of the purposes we pursue as we set forth in it. We rarely experience ourselves as subjects at all—instead, the content of consciousness is possibility and potential for movement, opportunities for meaningful interaction with objects and other people. It is not so much that we have a body, or even that we are a body, but instead that the existence of the body is what allows the world to announce itself. To quote Merleau-Ponty again, “To understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance—and the body is our anchorage in a world.”
We should not then simply think of tools as things that mediate our perception of the external world—while this is not incorrect, this linguistic construction emphasizes the presence of the self in consciousness in a way that jars with lived experience. I generally do not feel myself feeling things, so even the construction “I feel” is unduly weighted toward the perception of the self. Instead, things come, arise; they beckon, call, tease, and resist. To whom do things come? To me, of course, but by the time I bring myself into reflection, I have broken the original spell of perception. The song of the world naturally begs for a harmony, and it is the body—augmented with tools—through which this harmony is achieved.
The world-disclosive potential of foam clogs
I was in front of my computer when my Crocs were first delivered, sat at my desk in my third-floor apartment. As usual in late summer, I had been puttering around the house just in socks. The doorbell rang and I rushed downstairs, stopping at the threshold where the entry hallway gives way through the front door to the covered porch beyond. This is a psychic barrier for me, in that I would only place a bare foot on the outside porch in the rarest circumstances. To do so would mean changing my socks once I was back upstairs, as I would have contaminated my inside feet with whatever lies outside. While I know that the last step on the porch and the first step inside the entryway probably have the same stuff on them, there is a distinct psychic threshold that makes the former seem so much dirtier.
My package was within arm’s reach on the porch, so I leaned over the threshold to grab it and jogged back upstairs; whatever germs are in the liminal inside/outside entry hallway are obviously time-limited and cannot affect me if I move quickly. Safely inside, I cut open the plastic shipping bag and pull out a pair of matte black plastic oblong spheres. Two impressions struck me right away. First, without feet in them, these did not really look like shoes. I was reminded of the unrecognizable plastic bits that are swept up on the curb after a car accident—clearly industrial in origin, but with no recognizable purpose.
The second impression the shoes made is that they were jarringly light. At just under a pound in total, they weigh less than half of what my low-top hiking boots weigh, despite being roughly the same size. The perceptual effect is that the Crocs do not immediately present themselves as real shoes; they seem more like shoe-shaped objects, maybe toy shoes or prop shoes. I once tried to buy a large ceramic pot online only to be delivered an almost identical plastic one, and holding the Crocs in my hand for the first time was like struggling to square my experience of the superlight plastic pot with my expectations of the mass of ceramic. The disconnect was dream-like and induced a feeling of vertigo.
I opted at first for “Crocs with socks,” an apparently controversial choice given the feedback I have since received. In most ways the experience was unremarkable, a hybrid of the feelings presented by flip-flops and clogs. Hanging around the apartment I was charmed to find that stepping on familiar surfaces with my newly plastic feet revealed a wide range of unfamiliar noises, mostly varieties of the squeak. Otherwise, however, little had changed.
Wearing Crocs out of the house, though, presented a much more unusual experience. I do not want to overstate the difference between the felt experience of these shoes and my others, all of which generally recede from my attention as I go about my day, ceasing to be the end term of my perception after I tie my laces. What I did notice about the experience of wearing Crocs, however, was that their weight made them feel like I was walking around without shoes at all, just wandering around outside in my socks. Flip-flops might be even lighter, but those always stick in my attention when the thong part rubs between my toes or the heel slaps against the sidewalk. In comparison, with the strap behind my heel (a position dubbed “sport mode”), the Crocs rarely brought themselves to attention at all.
It seems to me now that much of the experience of wearing normal shoes is tied to the sense of their weight as you lift your foot off the ground. This weight may not draw your attention to the shoes as external objects, but it does contribute to a general sense of being dressed. Without that weight, I had the erotically charged perception of walking around without enough clothes on—at least from the ankle down. And yet, at the bottom of the cycle of my step where my sole came into full contact with the ground, the world presented itself with the sense of safety and surmountability that solid footwear affords. Overall, the experience is not entirely like wearing shoes, as Crocs are too light to come to mind on their own. Instead, wearing Crocs is like going outside with just your socks on, but stepping into the world with the sense that you are nonetheless fully protected.
If my experience of wearing Crocs holds for everyone else, then millions of people are similarly transforming their phenomenal worlds, experiencing their everyday landscapes in this novel way. The lightness of the shoes is the key component in this transformation, but it is not the lightness itself that is experienced—indeed, it would be hard to make the case that lightness is ever experienced as such, as opposed to perceiving the absence of familiar weight. Here, what is experienced is a terraforming of the outside world, where sidewalks and cafés and even the tiled floors of hospital hallways invite the naked foot in the same way as the bedroom does. The shoes do not come to mind as such, or even relay the perception of having shoes on, but instead project the clean, rubbery inner sole across the terrains we encounter in front of us.
There may be a way to read this experience in terms of aesthetic hedonism, that there are understandable pleasures to be found in experiencing a sense of nakedness in public spaces, or a reassurance in projecting walkability across any aspect of the landscape. Moreso, however, I think Crocs allow for a kind of pleasing empathic experience, seeing ourselves in one another: I see you; you too seek to project control and safety, those things we miss so badly. You too want to feel uncovered without feeling danger. In this network aesthetic reading, it is not the sensation of our feet in plastic shoes that is pleasurable, but instead the experience of kinship among others who long to bring the safety of the inside to what has become a dangerous, infectious outside. It is not the feeling of nakedness in itself that appeals to us, but rather the collective desire to be exposed to the world again without worry.
They say that of all the senses, smell is the most evocative of the past, in that a whiff of something familiar from long ago transports you to times and places you would otherwise have long forgotten. The feeling of wearing Crocs—or rather, experiencing yourself and the world joined by them; a Heideggerian Being-in-your-Crocs—may come a close second, evoking a worldly timbre from the past that was so pervasive and so subtle that it was never noticed to begin with. It is the bodily resonance of readiness for exposure, the eagerness to show ourselves to the outside and be greeted by it in kind, with all of its promises and dangers on full, thrilling display. I cannot imagine embracing that feeling again after these years of isolation, and I know I am not alone in that. But when I see you in your Crocs, I see the same longing in you, and that thought comforts me. Maybe these ugly shoes are a way of soothing one another at a distance, individually grasping for a taste of what we had while collectively mourning what all of us have lost.
 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 97.
 Marisa Dellatto, “Why Ugly-Cool Crocs Have Stood the Test of Time,” New York Post, May 4, 2021, https://nypost.com/2021/05/04/why-ugly-cool-crocs-have-stood-the-test-of-time.
 Jennifer Huget, “Not Such A Croc,” Washington Post, August 1, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/31/AR2006073100890.html.
 Scaachi Koul, “Crocs Are Ugly!!!,” BuzzFeed News, May 11, 2021, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/scaachikoul/crocs-are-ugly.
 Servaas Van der Berg, “Aesthetic Hedonism and Its Critics,” Philosophy Compass, 15.1 (2020).
 David Hume, “On the Standard of Taste”, in Selected Essays, ed. by Stephen Copley and Andrew Edgar, Oxford World’s Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
 Vanessa Friedman and others, “The Ups and Downs of Fashion in 2020,” The New York Times, December 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/23/style/the-ups-and-downs-of-fashion-in-2020.html.
 Aaron Smuts, “The Paradox of Painful Art,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 41.3 (2007), 59–76.
 Dominic Lopes, Being for Beauty: Aesthetic Agency and Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
 Note that this is not a matter of “taste,” as least in the sense of the word that Bourdieu uses, despite the common overlap between aesthetics and social practices (See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste [Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996]). The network approach allows for interest in and judgment of aesthetic objects without and immediate (final) pleasurable experience of those objects; that point obviously makes the theory particularly applicable to an analysis of Crocs aesthetics.
 Lopes, 130.
 Lopes, ch. 7.
 see Mark Paterson, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies (Oxford: Berg, 2007).
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002), 166.
 Merleau-Ponty, 167.