Adolph Menzel, 1876.
As a young woman, I went on a few highly improbable dates with a guy who did something in the realm of what, in my family, we call “beeswax.” After a few absurdly adult dinners at real restaurants, I told him we shouldn’t see each other any more. He said, “You’re probably right. I have a feeling you sometimes have dirty feet, and I can’t handle that.”
His “feeling” may have been based on certain clues—at this time in my life (the “pre-makeover Harlequin-heroine” phase) I dwelt exclusively in vintage heeled sandals, and these often proved so fragile or painful that, in the cases where my ever-present moleskin and tube of Crazy Glue didn’t work, I was forced to take them off and trudge around New York barefoot. So, yeah, maybe my feet were sometimes less than pristine.
But I knew what he meant, and even as I was stung, I knew he was right. He was getting at a fundamental divide between the two of us. I recently heard the term “trailer-park feet” used by a Texan to describe this condition; clearly, it’s a thing.
I am grubby-footed by nature, and maybe by magic, too. My floors can be immaculate (granted, they rarely are) and I’ll still end the day with grayish soles and need to run my feet in the tub. But what’s worse is that at some fundamental level, this doesn’t bother me enough. (Save, of course, the humiliation that is the unexpected shoes-off house.)
I have come to think of the clean foot—the really clean foot—as a synecdoche for a certain type of modern aspiration. The beau ideal (or so it seems to me) of a certain kind of effortless-seeming luxe is exemplified by being forever barefoot—and yet having immaculate, polished, perfectly smooth feet. This implies a great deal of unseen labor (those who care for both feet and floors), but it creates an illusion of down-to-earth-ness.
I could have a full-time maid and an on-call pedicurist and move through my days in flowing white linen and my feet would still be dirty. Even when they’re clean, they’re dirty; there is a certain lack of fastidiousness to some of us that is not good or bad but is simply inherent to what we are. This is, in my experience, highly incompatible with beeswax.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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