Toward the end of last year, right around the peak of gift-giving season, something called “shoe theory” blew up on TikTok. The theory—which posits that giving your partner shoes will cause them to dump you—threw romantic hopefuls into a tizzy. Hordes of people posted TikToks about failed relationships that had deteriorated after a shoe gift. Others voiced concern that they were exposed to the theory too late, and had already gifted their significant other a pair of possibly fatal footwear. A frenzy of warnings and cautionary posts ensued, followed by the usual chiding in the comments for daring to believe such a thing was true.
TikTokker @angela.chaan made a helpful explainer video in which she revealed that her mother, who learned about shoe theory decades ago in school, had been cautioning her about it for years. In the video, she explains that the theory has roots in Chinese culture, and that the Mandarin word for shoes (鞋 xié) “has the same pronunciation as the word 邪 xié (meaning ‘bad luck’ or ‘evil’).” “So,” she says, “to gift someone a pair of shoes implies a similar idea to gifting bad luck, hence the person receiving the shoes might walk out on you/your relationship.” TikTokker Betsabe Morales—who first discovered shoe theory on TikTok two years ago—has also heard whispers of it in Caribbean culture, and my own Jamaican family confirms that they’re up on shoe theory too.
It’s in the ether, which may explain why Angela hasn’t given shoes as a gift to a partner before. That’s mostly been unintentional, but, she says, she “wouldn’t be surprised if knowing this myth at a young age may have subconsciously affected my choice when shopping for presents.”
Still, the idea doesn’t faze her much—she believes the theory is just a “cultural superstition,” and explains that it would take more than just a simple pair of shoes to end a relationship. However, for the superstitious among us, she advises that you can avoid a breakup by “giving as little as $1 to the person that gifted you the shoes.” That way, you technically “bought” the shoes from them.
Providing some more nuance to the theory, Betsabe (who goes by @DiscoSexGuru on social media) gave a much more lenient interpretation: “You give someone a pair of shoes and you’re inviting them to walk out of your life,” she tells me. To counter the nonbelievers, Betsabe—who provides mysticism services like tarot readings—says it’s not so concrete, but rather a metaphor in which “you’re paving the way for them to decide whether they want to [stay] or not.”
She would know, too. Betsabe gave her former partner a pair of Merrell Gore-Tex sneakers and some furry Birkenstock-esque slippers for their birthday a few years back. Just a few weeks later, their partner decided to leave New York City and move back to their hometown.
“I think that was sort of the beginning of the end, because prior to that gift, there was no sign or indication of them moving home or the relationship ending,” Betsabe says. Their relationship strained over long distance for about nine months before she called it quits. “I don’t know if maybe the first pair of shoes went towards the move, and then the second pair of shoes went towards the relationship,” she jokes. When I asked her if she would ever give someone shoes as a gift again, she said it was unlikely.
Taylor Castro, a philosophy student and self-proclaimed “slightly superstitious person,” has also sworn off footwear gifts, adopting a better-safe-than-sorry mentality. Taylor made a popular TikTok about her own relationship that died after she gave her partner a pair of Nike Cortez sneakers. And though she acknowledges that the breakup had little to do with the shoes, her story likely went viral because of its fun twist: “The funniest part of the breakup was that he put those specific shoes on Depop a matter of days after we [broke up],” she tells me. “Still, to this day, I’m not sure why, but I feel it adds a further coincidence toward the shoe theory.”
On the other hand, there are those who don’t regret shoe-giving at all. One anonymous redditor on r/FootFetishTalks reveals that they’ve gifted their significant other shoes before, and it remains the gift they’re proudest of. “She loves them and wears them all the time,” they tell me. Still, they admit that shoes could be the nail in the coffin for other relationships. “I could see it having some effect,” they continue. “Shoes definitely fall into a different category of gifts. But it also might just be a comforting narrative for people going through breakups to be able to point to some reason, because a lot of times we exit relationships feeling confused, stunned, and without answers.”
One would imagine that these anti-shoe sentiments would be bad for the footwear business, but shoe influencer Justin FitzPatrick—who writes the popular blog The Shoe Snob and owns the brand J.FitzPatrick Footwear—isn’t all that worried. “I won’t let superstitions dictate my life,” he tells me, explaining that he buys shoes for his wife all the time. However, he doesn’t gift shoes to others because it’s a complicated process, and “how a shoe fits is very personal.”
FitzPatrick suspects that shoe theory has something to do with the rise of footwear culture (“look at people standing in line for Yeezys for hours”) but even more with the state of our relationships. “I don’t believe that the idea that staying with somebody for your whole life is as strong as it once was,” he says. “It could’ve been a million other things. It could’ve been a different rule, like: If you’ve ever combed your wife’s hair, that couple wouldn’t last. You can almost say anything, and that rule will potentially be true, because separation is more common than staying together.”
And plus, isn’t it easier to direct our sorrows at our slippers than ourselves? To use shoes as scapegoats, stand-ins, and symbols when we don’t have the words to explain what went wrong in love? The Redditor thinks so. “Our psyches communicate through symbols,” they explain. “There’s a lot of symbolism around feet. They can represent rootedness, groundedness, devotion, subservience, domination, earthiness, mother, etc. It could be possible that getting shoes as a gift triggers certain unresolved psychic complexes.” Maybe they symbolize something for your partner that you didn’t intend to convey.
At any rate, there does seem to be something cosmic to shoe theory. FitzPatrick told me that the reason he quickly responded to my interview request is that, mere minutes before he opened his inbox and saw my email, he overheard some customers at his shop discussing the shoe theory. Even the biggest skeptic can’t ignore the signs, it seems. And if you don’t believe it, well, just wait for the other shoe to drop.