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“You have got to stop gaining weight” isn’t something a feminist mother expects to yell at her 15-year-old daughter, but stress makes us say things we regret.
The problem wasn’t my increasingly doughy body. My mother never criticized my appearance or policed my food intake or expected me to be thin — which is more than you can say for a lot of moms. But she was supporting two children on her meager disability benefits and I was outgrowing my jeans faster than she could afford to replace them.
Nothing about being poor prepares you for being comfortable. So now that I can buy jeans whenever I want, how many pairs of jeans constitute a proper adult wardrobe, and where does a collection cross the line into hoarding?
Like most poor people, I grew up owning just one pair of jeans at a time. New jeans were purchased mostly in emergencies, when months of daily wear finally rubbed a fatal crotch hole into my single pair. The only pants that lasted more than a year were those I bought when I was starving myself and quickly outgrew when I inevitably returned to bingeing.
In prosperous times, I had a pair of zip-off Abercrombie & Fitch cargo pants to break up the monotony of my single pair of jeans. In the sparsest times, I schlepped through wind chills of minus 40 degrees with a cheap pair of leggings under my badly ripped jeans, to keep from exposing a nearly pornographic amount of thigh.
Around that time my mom was yelling at me about outgrowing my jeans, I was diagnosed with what was then known as an “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (now it’s called other specified feeding or eating disorder) — in my case, a pattern of bingeing followed by brief, intense phases of restriction and over-exercise. Then I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a common hormonal imbalance that causes weight gain.
Even as the experience of being fat in America becomes increasingly well documented, little has been said about fatness and poverty, about the feeling of being too much in a household that doesn’t have enough. It’s true that obesity is common in poor households, in part because unhealthy foods are cheaper and easier to come by than healthy foods. Anyone who’s been poor knows that vices like junk food and cigarettes are among the few joys in a life filled with existential anxiety and shitty living conditions. There are no family vacations, no concert tickets or baseball games, but there’s always room in the budget for a 99-cent Kit Kat bar.
A 2010 poll by ShopSmart says the average woman owns seven pairs of jeans, which sounds both accurate and a little excessive to me, the guiltiest shopper who ever shopped. One in 10 women owns 10 or more pairs.
In that one in 10 demographic is Tiffany Herring, a 23-year-old photo editor in New York. She’s got 14 pairs of jeans.
“I like to have all bases covered — light wash, dark wash, white, black, cropped — but I would say the majority of mine are just nice-looking skinny dark-wash jeans,” Herring says. “I think the amount can be attributed to the fact that i generally shop at consignment stores and thrift stores.”
Herring’s collection began to snowball when she moved to New York, where the thrift stores have a wider variety of high-end items than the thrift stores in her native Iowa.
“I really have always hated bad quality, fast-fashiony things that wear out, so ever since I’ve shopped on my own I’ve had, like, five pairs of Madewell and Levi’s jeans in the necessary categories,” Herring says.
And while it helps that Tiffany wears an easy-to-find size (a 26 in her go-to Paige jeans and a 25 in most other brands), her collection comes with a pretty comfortable price tag. In December, she left Goodwill with four pairs of Paige jeans for $25.
“I don’t necessarily need them, but I know they fit me great and I’ll wear them a lot,” she says.
Janelle McCoy, a 32-year-old marketing manager in Kansas City, grew up in circumstances similar to mine — but sharing with her sisters meant she had two or three pairs of jeans as a teen. Today, she owns 46 pairs of jeans (but also works at a fashion brand). Before she started that job, in March 2017, McCoy estimates she had about 25 pairs.
“I’m too busy to do laundry is mostly the reason — but it’s come to my attention that I spend way too much on clothing,” McCoy said.
Plenty of men answered my call to talk about jeans, but their collections were all modest. Garrett McGraw, a 27-year-old retail manager in Denver, wears denim every day — he’s a big fan of BALDWIN, out of Kansas City — but has just three pairs of jeans in his rotation. Mike Lavieri, a 28-year-old public relations coordinator in Kansas City, insists he needs just four pairs of jeans: dark blue, light blue, light gray, and dark gray.
Recovering from disordered eating and becoming comfortable in my own body required letting go of the idea that I take up too much space in the world — a vast world that can accommodate all 250 pounds of me even if it sometimes chooses not to. I’ve managed to stop assigning morality to food, no longer describing certain dishes as “sinful” or equating “healthy” with “low in calories,” or letting my size and shape determine how much I like myself.
But as I took inventory of my own denim collection, I expected to find myself buried in frivolous purchases, still consuming more than I deserve. I counted five pairs of jeans — two pairs with holes in the thigh that I wear anyway, one pair that’s a bit too small, and two pairs that I’m not crazy about but forgot to return. I don’t know exactly how many jeans a person ought to have, but I think we all deserve at least one pair we actually like. So I went online and bought myself a pair of basic skinny jeans, on sale at Old Navy. And just as I’ve trained myself not to feel guilty about ordering dessert, I’m going to let myself feel entitled to $26 worth of denim.