The Skinny Jean Panic is Rooted in Toxic Body Shaming

Millennials fear a return to the ultra-low rise.

Earlier this week I wrote a humor piece about skinny jeans getting canceled by Gen Zer’s. I don’t write humor often but this one sort of flowed out. I suppose that’s what happens when you become internet irrelevant.

I stand by every word, too. This is not a piece in defense of skinny jeans or anything. It’s one to say that if you’re confused by the panic, there’s a deeper explanation here. Yeah sure, it sucks to admit that we are, ahh — um, I am, getting older and now watching my generation deteriorate one trend at a time. But that’s not the real reason for the panic here.

Memory Lane

Music videos were aired constantly on channels now reserved for terrible reality TV shows. I sneaked Eminem CDs past my parents who believed it was M&M. I exploited the hell out of that assumption. I am sort of sandwiched in the middle of the millennial years. It’s a strange place to be and have been — situated before the internet, through dial-up, those monstrosities of black bags known as car phones, then flip phones, MySpace, and later Facebook.

I thought I was Posh Spice and dreamed of somehow lucking into a career that was Carrie Bradshaw 2.0 (a dream I haven’t given up on yet, clearly). I remember when the world was turning into a pumpkin at midnight on 12/31/2000. Britney Spears coined the word ‘Toxic’ and Chris Crocker catapulted to fame by defending her on the internet.

I shopped at Gadzooks and longingly thumbed through Delia’s catalog. Delia’s ruled teenagers like the JCPenney toy catalog ruled children at Christmas time. I had a pair of dark wash denim jeans that tied together instead of buttoned and had fake leather laces up the outside hem of both legs. I never got into the Von Dutch and trucker hats thing but they were around. I was more of an Etnies kind of girl.

I was a teenager when Christina Aguilera debuted with “Genie”. Shortly after, she dropped ‘Dirrty’. It was her glow-up if you will. Very quickly fashion shifted from perfectly normal fitting, mostly bootcut and flare jeans to ultra-low rise, hip huggers. Britney Spears, Pink, Avril Lavigne, and others shortly followed and hopped on this hip bone fashion trend.

They paraded around in these jeans that showcased at least a mile and half of their stomach, with belly button rings, and crop tops. White eye shadow, heavy black eyeliner, and hideously chunky highlights. Everyone was tan, too for some reason.

Size Zero Became THE Size

In the 2000s, the size, 00 and 0 became synonymous with style, fashion, and coolness. Anything outside of the double zero, zero, or size 2 equaled fat. Originally, the size zero was introduced in 1966 and custom made for British supermodel Twiggy. Much to be said about the impossibility of squeezing into a size zero or double zero for a lot of teenage girls, myself included.

The important takeaway here though is that size zero is a 23-inch waist — roughly the equivalent of an 8-year-old child’s body. You’ll find this sizing today in almost all children’s clothing fit guides. It’s important to note that Twiggy was indeed a child herself when she debuted at 15.

It wasn’t about this it was about vanity sizing. As human bodies changed, the way clothes were designed didn’t always keep up. Instead, stores changed their sizing scales. What once was a size 6 became a size 4. A size 4 became a size 2 and a 2 became a size zero or double zero.

Fashion was Your Body, Not Clothes.

You weren’t showcasing the clothes. Jeans and white crop tops or tightly fitting, screen printed t-shirts are casual by every standard. It wasn’t about that. It was about your flat, flat, flat stomach — nothing else. If you didn’t have a symmetrical dip on both sides of your abdomen, showcasing the top of your pubic bone and stomach as flat as a board, with the outline of playboy bunny from a tanning bed sticker, you were out.

There were no alternatives. It was hip-hugging jeans that sat on or right below your pubic bone or high-waisted or straight-cut jeans over there in the grown-up, uncool Mom section. No one cared about thigh gaps or hip dips or abs even.

The tell-tale way to showcase these jeans? With a brightly colored, perfectly shaped ‘T’ standing for thong underwear, sticking out of the top of these pants. Somehow the perception of women’s bodies did not include normal creases or rolls, as the ‘T’ was expected to stay in place for all the world to see. It was the flag that brandished you as acceptable and in style.

Body Positivity Did Not Exist

There were no messages calling for women to embrace their bodies as normal. Instead, we were shown these body types bestowed upon a tiny portion of people as the norm we should strive for. And we grew up with extreme body dysmorphia because of it.

If you did not have the body for this aesthetic, society was quick to let you know it. It bred incredibly deep toxic shame in many of us. At our most formative years, this was the cultural standard. This mattered a lot for the millennial generation because of the media. Teenagers before us didn’t come of age with 24-hour cycles of available television and advertising. It now came from all angles.

We were taught to hate our bodies for everything they weren’t rather than embracing our humanness or our flaws. Mean Girls wasn’t just a movie. It was a real-life thing that followed us into adulthood.

In the humor piece, I stated:

..there were no jeans anywhere labeled “Curvy” that wasn’t a politely coded way of saying fat. You don’t remember a world where unbuttoning your jeans in the car on the way home was the equivalent of taking off a push-up bra which you also don’t remember, I venture to guess because everything is touted for comfort now — which is the entire point here.

Skinny jeans wrote the permission slip for bras to lose underwire and leggings to replace even those stuffy pairs of dress pants. A beautiful blend of shape, body positivity, sizing readjustments across the board, and the freedom to move about our day freely. A meld of legging and jean.

It isn’t about the skinny jeans aesthetic.

It’s about the deep-seated fear that this trend will come back and toxically shame another generation of women into believing they are not, their bodies are not “good enough”.

You can say “Oh but why do you care what a bunch of teenagers is deeming uncool on the internet?”. And sure you can shit on millennial women like myself who are out here in a full-blown panic over the cancellation of skinny jeans or whatever, but we know what comes next. Most of us are only now beginning to accept and embrace our bodies for what they are because we weren’t allowed to growing up.

Personally, I still struggle with the obsession of what size my jeans are. The truth is, it doesn’t even matter what it is now. I was never a size zero or size two. A pair of those pants would maybe fit my left calf. I graduated from little girl jeans sizes straight to a size 8. I never bought nor fit into anything smaller than this. I have big hips and broad shoulders. A rib cage that is roughly the size of a small sedan. At the rate my body stores fat, I am relatively certain my ancestors were vegan foragers or something. Because of that, I agree with you — it’s time for a new, less form-fitting jean trend to start.

The point here? I was the absolute opposite of everything I was being conditioned to believe was acceptable. And the thought of fashion trending back to that to shame other teenagers into carrying this for the rest of their lives terrifies me. Especially now that we have more advertising and social media too.

Final Thoughts

In my day we had to walk in 10 feet of snow, uphill both ways! Just kidding. Seriously, Gen Z, I am so grateful for you that you have body positivity and are embracing that. Sorry, you have to glow-up via TikTak or whatever it’s called. At least we ancient millennials had the freedom for our shenanigans without the advent of camera having smartphones. Canceling the jeans is only your job as the younger generation and I genuinely hold no malice about it.

Because I cannot help myself here, if you’re reading this as a Zoomer and thinking how insane it still is that millennials are panicked about the jeans strike-out thing, probably be grateful that you can read this. I would have written it in cursive and dropped it like the heart of the ocean diamond if I could have.

P.S. Still don’t come for the black leggings.

Resident black sheep. Generational trauma explorer. Survivor. Advocate. Old enough to have a skincare routine.

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