There is ‘90s hip-hop pumping through the speakers of the OMG jeans store on 49th and Broadway. Hot, sweaty, and irritable, I looked at myself in the fitting-room mirror and swapped my ratty, old jeans for the crisp, clean pair. I knew the pants weren't going to fit. It'd been more than six weeks since I'd been to the gym, and even longer since I'd stuck to clean eating. Moving to a new city didn't make any of this easier.
I slid on the pair of Levi's 510s, the ones with a little stretch, but they wouldn't even go up my thighs. I could feel the shame in my cheeks, and suddenly became aware of how much my body jiggled. Trying on jeans hadn't felt this humiliating since 2010, when I never knew which pair—if any—would fit.
“If you wear your pants a little bit tighter, your butt will look nice,” my mom told me when I was a sophomore in high school. When I was 15, my blue jeans-clad icons stood on stage, while playing guitar to audiences of thousands. The bodies of Slash, Eddie Van Halen, the dudes from Metallica, and other ‘80s rockers looked painted with light- and dark-blue hues. In other words, their pants were tight.
This is how you're supposed to look, I thought to myself.
I was always aware of my butt, and how hard it was to hide under my stretched shirts—something other boys in my school never seemed to worry about. So when my mom suggested how to make my butt look nicer, I took her at her word. Of course, I didn’t need to buy new pants to make them tighter. Time and fast food were already taking care of that for me.
Like most insults I got when I was 15, I played it off like it wasn’t a big deal without knowing that it would still be on my mind when I tried on pants 17 years later.
A pair of light-wash jeans got me through most of sophomore year until my friend, Jonathan, pointed out that they were tight in front of my crew. In the 1990s, skinny jeans had yet to be on trend. Those were the days of JNCOS, of carpenter pants that fit loose from the thigh to the ankle, and I did not want to be The Guy at my high school who wore tight jeans. They were supposed to look natural on me, not snug. Like most insults I received at 15, I played it off like it wasn’t a big deal—not knowing that it would still be on my mind when I tried on pants 17 years later.
“All jeans are too long for me because I have tiny legs, but a somewhat normal torso,” Ric, 33, told me. “My butt and thighs make some jeans hard to put on, unless they have no shape. But who wants to wear that?”
He's my only friend who is vocal about having similar issues when it comes to wearing pants. Ric and I have similar builds—much like small bears—with long barrel chests and shorter legs, which always presents a problem when buying jeans.
Like Ric, my body isn’t a straight line, and I was always concerned with the parts of it that jutted out, especially the backside. In my 20s, I wore carpenter jeans or worker cuts (basically the same cut as carpenter jeans without the hammer loop) to hide my butt in the relaxed leg. My waist size see-sawed from 36 to 40, sometimes stopping in the middle at 38. A 30 inseam always worked best, but those were never a fixed length. A 30 inseam on a 34-waist jean is not the same as a 30 inseam on a 40.
I got over hiding my butt in my jeans during college when I became involved in a body-positivity group, appropriately named Flaunt It. We had meetings every few weeks and hosted a Saturday “fat swim,” which provided a safe space to hop in the pool for people who would otherwise feel uncomfortable or stared down. With Flaunt It, I was finally able to work through the shame I felt in my body, so buying larger pants wasn’t as much of an emotional problem. Instead, it was a matter of access. Once I surpassed 36, stores either didn’t carry my size, or the 30 inseam would be too disproportionate.
I GOT OVER HIDING MY BUTT IN MY JEANS DURING COLLEGE WHEN I BECAME INVOLVED IN A BODY POSITIVITY GROUP, APPROPRIATELY NAMED “FLAUNT IT.”
My involvement in Flaunt It naturally led to fitness. I began commuting via bicycle in 2009 when I lived in San Francisco (it’s flatter than you think), and continued to do so during my time in Austin (it has more hills than you think). Suddenly, jeans weren’t so hard to come by. By that time, I shopped almost exclusively at the Gap, and started wearing a slimmer cut—dare I say, skinny jeans. The first time I fit into slimmer jeans, I was in disbelief, making excuses as to why they went up my legs in the first place. “Gap sizes run bigger,” I told myself. It took several months before I could actually admit that they just fit.
In 2011, I joined a gym in Austin, Texas. The gym was special in many ways, but mostly because of its focused approach to fitness, which was similar to Crossfit. It stressed how a person feels over how they look because fitness means a lot of different things to different people.
After about six weeks of work at the gym, I was comfortably fitting into 34-waist Levi’s—something I hadn’t done since I was 15. But as my new lifestyle took over, I had to be mindful of the ways in which the gym was changing my body. It wasn’t enough for me to simply lose weight; that felt like a boring reason for me to work out. I wanted to be stronger, and with that came powerlifting in 2013. But I never considered that it would affect my jean size.
“My actual waist size is 32, but because of my bigger lower body proportions, I have to go up a size,” Mark told me. I met Mark at the gym where we both got involved in the powerlifting program. He was, at one point recently, the state record-holder in competitive powerlifting.
“I have a hard time finding jeans that fit my body,” Mark said, noting the change in his thighs since taking up competitive lifting. We could relate to each other on that issue. Although my waist size didn’t change, I could feel my thighs filling out the upper leg portion of the pants, and my butt filling out the behind, creating a sensitive ecosystem whenever I ate something that wasn’t chicken and kale. It felt like one slice of pizza could destroy months of work.
I left the OMG store without a new pair of jeans. Despite their wide selection of Levi’s, I couldn’t find a pair that felt right on my thighs or butt. The clerks must have brought me four different pairs while I was in that fitting room, trying to decide whether or not I should buy a bigger size that didn’t fit perfectly.
My ratty, old jeans felt comfortable again. It was nice knowing how something would feel when I put it on.
“How were those?” the clerk asked me, when I walked out of the fitting room.
“They didn’t work. I don’t know, they felt weird,” I replied. “I’m going to keep looking.”
I made a lap around the store, then snuck out of the exit.