This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
I am writing in a Levi’s fitting room. Why do fitting rooms always seem like they were made intentionally to make you feel self-conscious and unwelcome? They’re small and boxy, the lighting is atrocious, and only if you are lucky is there some masochist’s version of a chair in the corner over which to drape your purse and clothes.
I’ve texted several of the women in my life in emotional preparation for this moment. “Pants are so hard,” I text my mother and one of my best friends. They both concur. The waist to thigh ratio never matches my body’s, they’re too short, or too long, and while I know clothes can’t possibly fit every person’s body, I always wonder who it is that these clothes are being designed for.
I have not bought myself a new pair of pants in years. Most of the pants I own are from a previous era in my life, or bought by someone else as a gift to me. They all fit fine, some better than others, but none of them fit me the way I want them to, the way I think they should. Part of the reason for my lack of pants shopping comes from my income, and the other part comes from the idea that I don’t need new pants, I have decent enough ill-fitting pants at home. But when I tell myself I don’t need new pants, what I am really telling myself is I don’t deserve new pants. And each ill-fitting pair adds a voice to the chorus saying “See how the waist is too loose and the thighs are too tight? Your body is not made to wear pants. You should give up and accept that your body is not a space that deserves comfort.”
As I shut the fitting room door, a part of me has to force my mind to go blank, perhaps even to dissociate, because I am so physically vulnerable, and I recognize each emotion that comes briefly before I push it to the side.
The fitting room stalls come with a man attached. He has long hair, longer than mine, and a beard, and he wears glasses and cut off shorts. He tells me to flip over the leather sign on my door if I need help finding a new size. I am one pair in and already feeling claustrophobic in this stall. My body is taking up too much space. I know I’ll be taking him up on his offer.
There is a girl across from me in a similar situation. She is stuck between sizes. We flip our signs at the same time and he comes to both of us, then whisks away to find our sizes in the store’s walls of washed denim.
I can hear other women in other stalls trying on jeans and discussing how they look. When they bring the rejects to the fitting room man, he asks what went wrong. They describe the usual haunts: legs are too short, too tight in the waist, low in the crotch, doesn’t fit thighs, gappy in the back, legs are too long, and so on.
The girl across the aisle from me chimes in that if any of us tried on a certain style, we should know that “the distributor messed up,” and that all sizes in that style run several sizes too small.
The fitting room man is shocked and calls over one of his coworkers, who confirms: “I couldn’t even get a pair on the mannequin, and all mannequins are size 26. The sizing on that style is way off.”
After some “hmms,” and brief, heart-soaring validation that we know our bodies better than the numbers listed on tags, we all retreat to our respective places. I try on pair #5 and nearly cry out in defeat before venturing back out into the main store to pick out two more pairs. The fitting room man, who at this point I have likened to Charon, ferryman of the river Levi’s, wishes me well and gives me another room, and that is when I really notice the letters.
In each fitting room there is a framed letter from someone, to someone else, that somehow involves Levi’s jeans. If the letters are genuine, it is clear that they were chosen by Levi’s marketing team to invoke a certain feeling. The atmosphere they are going for is down-home, salt of the earth, working and middle class, dream-big-American. And it is working, because after recognizing this pattern in my second fitting room, I take a picture of the second letter.
In the second letter, a man named Peter writes to the Levi’s advertising manager about a pair of jeans he found years ago. “You see,” he says, “I’ve had this particular pair of Levis for 18 years, though it may be 17. When I got them they weren’t new either. They’d already seen enough wear to fade them a little. But they were stretched out on the grass at a lost-and-found gathering of clothing during the last week of summer camp where I was working before going to college. Well, nobody claimed those Levis during the two whole days they lay there in the sun, so I finally tried them on. They fit like a charm.”
Peter goes on to describe, in a nutshell, the past 18 years of his life, and where he went in his Levi’s: camping and canoeing in the Wisconsin woods, surveying in the Big Horn Mountains, Philadelphia, Upstate New York, and back again to the Midwest.
“I even got engaged in those Levis. The girl ran off with someone else, but at least the Levis held true. I still have them now that I’m living out here in California. One knee finally ripped awhile ago–but I got a girl to sew it back up. I even looked at a new pair of Levis recently–but then I decided to let the old pair finish out the rest of their days first.”
After reading this letter, I suddenly feel eight years old in Gap Kids trying to decide if my jeans fit. “Does the waistband have the elastic thing with the button, for when you grow?” My mother asks in my imagination. For when I grow? This is a concept I’d forgotten.
As a kid I wore out the fabric of every knee, and my mother ironed on patches over the threadbare grass-rimmed holes. Eventually they would get too short, noticeably too short, and my ankles would wave hello to passersby. The patches, the shortness, all made me self-conscious, years before I would even grasp what society wanted my butt and thighs to look like, how much space people wanted me to take up.
I realized that, back then, my mother wasn’t necessarily worried about the cost of buying me a new pair of jeans, nor was she worried about how people would perceive my body. She was hoping I would be able to grow, to be able to live in these jeans as much and as long as possible.
The man in the letter found his Levi’s on the ground, put them on, and they fit him wherever he went for many years. And Levi’s framed this because on some level they truly cared about the quality of life that one led while wearing their pants.
This is capitalist marketing, but it is still real and I am still grateful for it. What Levi’s is doing with these pieces of writing is creating spaces for people to exist, in these tiny fitting rooms, with typewriter font letters, and in their jeans, with cotton that conforms to the space of your body. In my fitting room’s case, with Peter, Levi’s is telling me that their jeans can be worn anywhere, in any place, in any period of your life. Which allows me to infer that they think I belong anywhere, I am allowed to take up space.
It hits me then, as I zip up the best fitting pair of pants of the day, that this mindset has filtered into every aspect of my life. Even after a master’s degree in writing, I still feel like I don’t belong in writing spaces. My concentration is in fiction, so what business do I have writing this column? When my boss asks me questions, I realize she is actually looking to me for an informed answer. She respects my opinion and wants to know what I think. What do I think? I am often so afraid of getting it wrong and disappointing both her and myself that I give a noncommittal answer.
I am often so afraid of writing something less than perfect that I do not write at all.
The pair of pants I have on does not fit me perfectly, but they do fit me well, and I allow myself a smidgen of hope. They are too tight, but I know the next size up is too big, and when I describe my dilemma to the fitting room man, that they are almost right, he tells me “as long as you can move in that pair, get the smaller pair. The jeans stretch. They make space for you as you go.”
What the pants look like does not matter, what you look like in the pants does not matter, what the tag says does not matter, because for all we know, the distributor messed up. Where you take yourself in them is what matters. How you allow yourself to grow in different places is what matters.
I order two pairs, and then I go home and write the rest of this column.