Site moved to, redirecting in 2 seconds!

« Hand one another along | Main | Pop up your Nimrod »

14 July 2005

Burn those jeans

“A lot of disappointed people have been left standing on the street corner waiting for the bus marked Perfection.”
- Donald Kennedy

Jeans_high_school2Since leaving Freedom High School on Independence Boulevard with its (subtle) school colors of red, white, and blue and its aptly named football team (The Patriots, of course), I’ve carried a certain pair of pants around with me everywhere I’ve gone, like a pet Chihuahua in a diamond collar, a dangly gold charm, a passport, a ball and chain.

They are Levi jeans, at that perfect stage of worn-in-ed-ness, that place where the knees know where to go when you put them on, the pockets reveal a pentimento of your hands, and the bottoms are adequately frayed.

Over the years (decades? really? how did that happen?) they’ve become a symbol, a talisman, a veritable icon of my perfect high school shape, that long and lean and strong teenaged body that ran and hiked and climbed and bicycled everywhere, that simpler shape before thesis defenses, tattered hearts, sexual harassments, dead parents, business suits, big promotions, missed deadlines, inane meetings, working with mean people, being mean myself, dead friends, terrorist attacks, hydraulic systems failing on planes I happened to be riding in at 37,000 feet, and just plain living the over-rated adult life.

These jeans are cosmopolitan, accompanying me to college, to live in Germany, to graduate school, to all my jobs, around the world on a ship, to Washington, DC, and recently back to North Carolina where, ironically, they reside in a closet only 54 miles from where I first wore them in high school. Full circle right round the globe, that denim, those rivets, that distinctive red tag.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to carry them around with me, no. But there they were, everywhere I went, a reminder in denim that I don’t have that body anymore and that I had a Big Goal: get back into those jeans.

Years passed.

I still couldn’t fit into them. I continued to beat myself up when I failed to reach that goal. I joined fitness clubs, worked out with a trainer in DC who nearly killed me (I affectionately called him Thor, though not to his well-toned face), ate only raw foods, drank Master Cleanser Lemonade, joined Weight Watchers, and studied before and after pictures in Shape magazine as if I were consulting the hieroglyphic special edition of Man’s Search for Meaning. But even with all those starts and stops and high expectations and successes, the jeans still hung in my closet, unworn, taunting me.

No matter how well I did in eating right (occasionally) and exercising (sometimes)—knowing how fantastic it feels when you finally do come into your own body—and no matter my other successes in life—that fantastic husband, those amazing children, those slightly insane and terribly fascinating friends, those published books, those impressive-sounding job titles—I still couldn’t fit into those jeans, and so felt a failure all these years, an unconscious feeling that raised its little ugly head each time I came across them hanging judgmentally in my closet, ridiculing me with their utter hiplessness and unwearability.

A few months ago, my older daughter complained one morning that she had no pants to wear to school. Resisting Parental Lecturette #17 on Household Laundry Procedures, when I heard her plea for help I was standing at my closet door and saw, in front of me, The Jeans. “Why not,” I thought to myself. “It might be a while before I can get into these again.”

“Try these,” I said. “They’re kind of retro and too big for you, but you can wear a belt to gather up the extra. And remember, I want them back so I can wear them!” “Awesome!” she said when she saw them.

I remember so many fun, carefree days in those jeans—marching band practice with my big bass clarinet, hanging out in the Hardees’ parking lot (hey, it was a small town), watching “Tora! Tora! Tora!” at the Mimosa Theatre, driving my Dad’s blue and white Oldsmobile 88, big as a tank—and I just knew through all those years, even though I had failed to fit back into them, that those jeans were still a worthy goal, a beacon of thinhood worthy of bony Calista Flockhart and all those despicable, heartless women who give birth and look like Kate Moss the following day. So, in my heart of hearts, I knew I was right to hold those jeans up as my Mount Everest, my Oscar, my Gold Medal, my dark journey to the heart of the Nile, my People’s Choice Award, my Pulitzer, my Nobel Prize for Thinness.

Emma came back with them on her arm. “Thanks, but they’re too small,” she said, throwing them in my general direction and running back to her room to continue the clothing hunt.

Too small?

It hit me like a hair coat, a scratchy mantel of self-flagellation: for 30 years I’ve tried to get back into a pair of blue jeans that are too small for my thin, strong, athletic 12-year-old daughter.

And I’ve spent those 30 years beating myself about the head and face for failing to get back into them. Did I mention that she’s only 12?

Now ain’t that a kick in the pants, so to speak.

Just one more note about this in case it wasn’t clear—and then I promise to move on: To get back into those jeans, I would have to be smaller than my 12-year-old daughter. I couldn’t have done that in my 20s, much less in my…well, let’s just say later than that.

Everything is a metaphor, isn’t it? This isn’t an essay about weight, is it? Replace the word “jeans” with that albatross hanging around your neck, following you around through your life, diverting your attention from the real goal, setting you up for certain failure. Is it the wrong goal? Is it an unworthy goal? Is it an unreachable and unreasonable goal, a goal that can only make you feel bad, not good and right and strong?

Why do we punish ourselves with such unreasonable expectations, putting life on hold until we reach those frostbitten pinnacles? And what is the real danger of such pressures? Perhaps they delay living, deferring the real life right in front of us. “I’ll do that when, we say to ourselves. “I can’t do that now because I haven’t yet done this,” we explain. It’s like having an incomplete in your graduate
Milton class that just keeps hanging over you, making it impossible for you to do anything else because your comprehensive exegesis of the two parallel falls of Paradise Lost looms ahead of you at every turn. Not that I have personal experience of this phenomenon.

 Are the jeans even the real goal?

RolexI worked with a man many years ago whose roommate died suddenly of what was reported to be spinal meningitis. It was, in fact, AIDS, and he wasn’t a roommate, but a partner—but this was a time when such things weren’t discussed. Steve was out of work for a while and when he returned, he had a big Rolex watch. “Patti,” he said to me quietly and very carefully, “all my life I’ve wanted a Rolex watch. I thought if I could just have a big fat Rolex watch, it would mean I had arrived in this world, that I was somebody. So after Frank died, I decided that he would want me to have this watch and I went out and bought it. As I was driving in to work today, I kept looking over at my arm as I drove, looking at the road, then looking at my arm. Having this watch just doesn’t feel like I thought it would.”

Was the watch the real goal?

There were pieces of that Jeans Goal that were healthy and aspirational for me, indeed. What were they? And what part was destructive and belittling, minimizing all progress because it was never enough? Is our house ever big enough, our car ever new enough, our wardrobe ever cool enough, our watch ever big enough, our job title ever impressive enough. Are our jeans ever small enough?


Are those jeans more than a symbol of a lost shape? Are they also perhaps a symbol of a carefree life, a simpler life, a more active life, a less stressful way of living, a life less encumbered by the weight of things? Perhaps those are the goals I should reach for, not the jeans themselves.

What if the goal is the problem?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

LeviOne evening this week, pour yourself a nice glass of a 2002 Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Mt. Difficulty vineyard, brush pollen (or snow, depending on where you live in the world) off a chair in your nicely manicured backyard, put some sweet Aimee Mann tunes on the CD player, grab the safety matches from the kitchen and a delicate bottle of lighter fluid, and go outside and burn those old jeans; torch that goal that limits and minimizes rather than frees you.

Liberate your Self by ensuring that your goals are challenging, not destructive. Look behind the goal to see what’s really there, The Real Goal: is it the jeans, the watch, or is it something else altogether that you’re really longing for?

Have I torched those jeans yet? Well, um, not quite yet.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Burn those jeans:

» 37 Days from Legacy Matters™

And so, as always when awful things happen, I tried to figure out how to reconcile in my mind the fact that it was happening and the fact that the only thing I could do was try to make some good out of it....  But here's how I answered it: Wri... [Read More]


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

GREAT Post and a wonderful twist with your daughter telling you the jeans were too small for her. We really do get so obsessed with things that do not matter and some times it just takes a little thing to make us say What was I thinking?

What a nice note - thanks for your comment...perspective is such an important part of life and I think we often lose the perspective we need to be healthy - I know I do - glad you liked the post.

I have some of those pants. Size 3 with waist taken in. Mine are beige cords, though. I'm not throwing them away or burning them because they remind me of so much. They remind me of a photo, now lost, of me on a ferry between Belgium and England on a month-long trip that cost $700 including trans-Atlantic plane fare. They remind me of being 28 and having a great life in spite of being poor and a single mom and relatively ignorant of a lot of stuff I've learned since then. They've been packed up and moved dozens of times; they don't take much space. They live now in Umbria. My life is a lot better now than it was, but it doesn't hurt to remind myself that even in adversity it just wasn't that bad.

I love your perspective and I'm sure your pants love Umbria. I decided to keep the jeans as a reminder much as you did - and I just worked on burning the unreasonable expectations ...

I have just visited your blog for the first time and read the jeans essay. Very serendipitous to have read it at this point in my life. At 43, working full time with 3 kids, I have realized over the past 3 years,(turning 40 was the catalyst I think) that I will never fit in those jeans again. And trying to isnt healthy for me. I am working on embracing the new me. It isnt easy to change those old thought patterns of self criticism but each step I take toward that goal makes me feel a bit more free. If I had only 37 more days, taking even minute to think about "those jeans" would be such a waste. Thank you for your essay and for helping me take one more step in my journey.

Have you burned the jeans?

don't burn them! send them to Body Politic's "skinny jeans" project:

Hi Patti, Just returned from SUNA conference where you spoke. Very moving lecture, Thanks for giving yourself to this work Kathy

and here I sit, with those jeans upstairs in my closet, and I'm still not ready to burn them. I've become more accepting of my figure now, although it's a struggle. Daily, it's a struggle. I applaud any and every woman who CAN burn those jeans -- and I aspire to be one, someday. For now, keeping the jeans is a way to balance out WHO I WAS with WHO I AM ... it tells me I'm not just who I am today, but I'm also who I was 7 years ago, when those cute size 4 jeans fit me. And 17 years ago (size 6). And 27 years ago (size 9). And 37 years ago (size 7). And yes, 47 years ago (I was just 3 1/2, so pretty tiny in the jeans department then!). :-)

I found you through a RT on Twitter and am so glad I did. What a beautiful essay on the hidden meanings/yearnings/longings/symbolism behind our cultural obsession with fitting back into those skinny jeans of our youth (and if we weren't skinny, then the fantasy of someday fitting into a pair). I am an author/illustrator who deals with similar topics. My very different post on the skinny jeans is here

Yes, I have a pair of jeans from my 20's that I hold onto. And, from time to time over the years, I can actually get into them. I've decided, though, that I am a woman who loves to eat and I'm going to accept a few extra pounds. My cooking is worth it!

Thanks for the metaphor of the jeans. Often we spend too much time burning our energies trying to 'achieve' something that doesn't seem to happen, just because the rela issue is hidden 'behind' the jeans.... I lik something you say about writing a book.... ITS NOT THE FORM THAT MATTERS BUT THE CONTENT. And often that's what gets lost with the famous 'jeans' and with them.... us. Not that complicated after all! Thanks for the insight!!

The comments to this entry are closed.