Why Low-Rise Jeans Should Definitely Be Left in the ’90s
Louder for the people in the back. Nobody wants this fashion comeback.
In the fall of 1998, the search engine Google had launched, Viagra was approved, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal wasn’t letting up, sleazy tabloids were seeing record readership, and my friends and I were doing our best to achieve Britney Spears-level physiques. “ … Baby One More Time” had just premiered on MTV, and we 15-year-olds (Louisiana girls ourselves) were obsessed with a few things: our appearances, our grades, MTV’s Total Request Live, getting the hell out of the rural South one day, and fashion — namely, the low-rise jeans and crop tops we found at Abercrombie & Fitch and Wet Seal.
We were inspired by the perfectly toned, bronzed bellies of Britney, Paris Hilton, Gwen Stefani. We would slather baby oil on our stomachs, lie out on towels in our concrete driveways with a boom box blasting, and spend as long as we could stand out in the blistering heat. When the weather got cool and we got our driver’s permits, it was to the tanning beds we’d go — Planet Beach’s best customers. Forget the Tae Bo fad — hundreds of crunches a night were the only exercise we needed. Long legs? Nope — it was long torsos that we envied. We would try the Special K cereal or cabbage-soup diets and nibble SnackWell’s Vanilla Creme Cookies for a treat. One diet involved eating two bowls of Cheerios daily and nothing else. That lasted about half a day.
At our Church of Christ high school, we were routinely sent home for visible thongs or bright bra straps. “Your body is a temple of God!” red-faced teachers would bellow before marching us down to the guidance counselor or calling our parents. They held an assembly dedicated to how the girls were dressing — about how we’d distract the boys, who, by their nature, couldn’t look away (but that’s a story for another essay).
So when I saw on Twitter and in Vogue that low-waisted jeans were making a comeback, I cringed at what it would mean for young trend-following teens out there. Hadn’t we moved on from this one-body-type beauty ideal? Was it possible for low-rise jeans to align with body positivity?
“Y2K fashion trends … were understood to celebrate a very specific body type, one generally found in teenaged girls. The trends helped normalize the sexualization of pubescent girls,” Jess Sims recently wrote about the phenomenon in Harper’s Bazaar. “Young women internalized this message, unknowingly embarking on a lifelong pursuit of youth and thinness, never stopping to critically assess the unrealistic body standards.”
I have a (relatively) healthy body image now, but at age 38, I still think about my weight every day. I suspect that many millennial women do.
For the past 10 years, I’ve worn only high-waisted pants. Ironically, zipping on high-rise jeans finally allowed me to breathe. Perhaps you don’t realize you’ve been sucking in your stomach so long until you finally stop. But earlier this week, on my birthday, I laughed when opening my husband’s gift — low-rise boot-cut maternity jeans, designed to wear under my growing belly. In this case, I’ll put on the pants … but there’ll be no tanning or SnackWells involved.
Published as “Nostalgia No-No” in the January 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.