A Conversation with Carol Ann Rinzler on Leonardo’s Foot

Q: How did you come to write about the human foot?

A: I had just published the 5th edition of Nutrition for Dummies and was looking about for my next project. I started the search for a subject (a moment all writers anticipate with both pleasure and dread) and my first thought was to explore the cleft lip/palate, but that lacked reach beyond the medical. My second idea was rubella, but there is already an excellent book on that. And then I thought about the foot—inelegant, overlooked, underreported and completely indispensable  (it turns out) to our climb out of the caves into modern civilization. While it is common to credit our progress to the evolution of our increasingly more complex brain, in fact, we stood straight before we began to think straight, and our two feet have influenced our language, our politics, our religion, our legislation and, of course, our medicine.

Who could resist such a mix?

Q: Did your approach to writing this book differ from your previous work?

A: Ordinarily when I write I sit surrounded by medical books, including almost every single one of the Merck Manuals (I have collected all but two Manuals and all the Indexes). This time I had Dickens novels, the Bible, dictionaries in various languages, histories of the Roman Empire and the Nazi era, anthropology texts—and, yes, medical books.

It was like being let loose in the biggest best toy store in the world.

Q: You tell many delightful stories about how our idioms (“cold feet,” “putting our best foot forward,” “feet of clay,” “two left feet,” etc.) relating to the human foot came to be. Did any of the etymology research surprise you?

A: Yes, but it’s unrelated to the foot! It’s the word “Amazon.” Because these ladies were famous for slicing off one breast so as to draw a bow more smoothly across the chest, I had always assumed the name came from the Greek a- meaning without and mazos meaning breast, but in fact it’s from the Persian ha-maz-an that translates roughly as fighting as one. Who knew?

Q: From the shocking price paid at auction for the shoes of Marie Antoinette (an auction soon overshadowed by that of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers) to the existence of Cinderella stories in many world cultures, you detail our love affair with foot fashion and fetishism. What is your personal opinion about high heels? Do you wear them?

A: My personal opinion is that they are sexy as all get out—but, no, I don’t wear them. I have this aversion to tripping on the pavement in the streets of New York.

Q: A University of Iowa study has just revealed that pregnancy can permanently change a woman’s foot size. With new research creating a renaissance in the scientific and medical realms, do you think you’ll have cause to revisit the story of the human foot?

A: I am keeping a file of such tidbits because authors always hope to revisit in a second edition.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Leonardo’s Foot?

A: I hope they’ll see how our view of the ideal body has affected our culture, and how an underwhelming, underreported and totally indispensable body part can have such an extraordinary impact on our lives, proving, I expect, that nothing human is unimportant.