Body Image and Second-Hand Pants for Big Men

I’m going to start by saying that everything that follows is totally disputable, as in the words of Paul:

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” – Romans 14:1

Mark Van Steenwyk has written a series on “hipster” culture and what he calls the “style of subversion”, over at Jesus Manifesto. It’s great and I highly recommend it, it has been helpful for me (thanks Mark).

Something that struck me was in Part I, when Mark notes:

You see, I came of age in the mid 90s. The commodification of the counter-culture was well under way, but it could hardly be called mainstream yet. Because of this, most of the “alternative” folks that I knew were social outcasts, or at least were socially akward. Like me. To put it indelicately, most of the counter cultural types I knew weren’t academic enough to be nerds, weren’t athletic enough to be jocks, and weren’t attractive enough to be popular. The counter cultural types tended to hang out together with all the other lower-order social groupings. And since I was unpopular (in fact, one poll that the girls did in junior high put me as the 3rd from the bottom in the social pecking order).

So, my brain was confounded by what I saw at PAPA Fest. Most of the 20 something crowd was attractive. There were young men aplenty with chiseled, shirtless, chest throwing footballs in a perfect spiral to other young men with similarly perfectly chiseled chests. In fact, if it weren’t for their dreads, I would swear that they were jocks.

Mark goes on to say:

Members of a majority or dominant group may (perhaps) achieve alterity by being ostracized as a subversive or deviant. However, we live in a culture where it is easy for mainstream twenty-somethings (and younger) to embrace the style of subversion. And because they speak a certain lingo, wear certain clothes, and use certain products, it is socially understood that these stylish subversives care about social outcasts, the poor, and the downtrodden, even if no tangible evidence exists of that care. In other words: it is great when people begin to challenge the status quo as they pursue justice and mercy, but how excited should we be when it is very easy in our society to look, sound, and act radical without it costing anything?

Even more, what happens when hipsterism gets so tied into consumer capitalism (you know: Messenger Bags, Hot Topic, Ipod, Apple, Moleskine, American Apparel…) that you become a radical in appearance, but a profound reinforcer of the status quo in your way of life?

I want to take this in an entirely different direction than Mark might have taken it but his thoughts got me thinking. Up until two years ago, I was a fat guy. I was 6’3 and 280 pounds. I was not healthy and it had a lot to do with a cycle of poor body image mixed with eating to feel better and drinking alcohol excessively to forget how hopelessly unattractive I felt.

But a couple of years ago, I was called by Christ, and have lost a lot of weight and stopped drinking heavily (no… this is not one of those “testimonies”, I’m just telling it like it happened).

However, I have always considered myself radical, in the sense that I have always had a pretty radical political orientation, have rarely gotten involved with liberal vs. conservative debates, I spent several fighting in the anti-sweatshop movement, battled my university administration to pay low-income janitors a living wage, and continue to fight for grassroots economic justice in one of the poorest cities in the country. And I am pretty up to speed on “counter culture” music, art, literature, movies, etc.

However, after the past few weeks, I realized something: I can’t “dress” like a radical.

There is an expectation among some radicals who are pre-occupied with personal politics that you should, ya know, support your local Amvets or Salvation Army (without realizing where they are spending their money – some of which is on sketchy right-wing political causes).  The idea being that one should not support “big business” clothing that is generally sourced from maquilladoras and sweatshops. In a strange way, this psuedo alterity has a real consequence in my life: I am expected to find second-hand clothes that fit me.

So, this past week, I went to my friendly neighborhood Amvets, which was recently rated by our city’s “hip” weekly magazine Artvoice as the “Best Thrift Store” in the city. In other words, you can find some really kitschy stuff there.

Well I went to this Amvets and attempted to find clothes. Unfortunately, I’ve never really had a sense of fashion. And I don’t consider myself sell-out bourgeois mainstream Ralph Lauren-weaing jock idiot and neither would most folks that I know. But when I see my skinny vegan friends in their women’s pants (so they can challenge gender identity) that they got in the kid’s section at Amvets and a second-hand Dickies plaid shirt, I feel the expectation to dress in the same sort of uniform. So I searched out pants, searching….searching…. and after looking for 3 hours and trying on 15 pairs of pants, I found what I thought were “cool” and “vintage” khaki pants that I would look “good” in.

Well I brought them home and tried them on for my girlfriend and a couple other friends. The fact of the matter was, the pants I bought, simply didn’t fit. I looked really uncomfortable. The pants looked shrunken and small. I didn’t look “hip”, and I certainly didn’t look mainstream, I just looked silly.

I felt really defeated. Because I tried really hard to find clothes that would be “just” and “fair” and also fit me ok.

So I went to Target (gasp!) and bought store-brand khakis for $15 a pair (gasp!) and they fit ok.

The moral of the story is this: Though I have lost about 60 pounds in the past 1 1/2 years, I certainly am not small like all those hipster boys, I don’t have that body, I don’t have that look. I look comfortable in a big button-down shirt and some regular old jeans/pants and dress shoes. I look awkward in nike shoes that are yellow, neon green and blue and a band t-shirt that is a size too small and women’s size jeans. In other words, I am an outcast from the look of the “other”.

When we tell people they should shop at thrift stores, do we pay attention to their – or our own – body size and shape? Or do we expect those who aren’t skinny and fashionable to fit an “alternative” expectation that they simply can’t meet? And would you pass judgement on a guy who wears hiked up jeans and a dress shirt, assuming he isn’t radical?

Just a few things to think about.

Comments (4)

  1. Mark Van Steenwyk

    I loved this. Thank you for taking some of my thoughts and running with them into your own life.

    I can relate to what you write. I am a chubby guy. I weigh about 290 lbs, though most folks are surprised by that since I have broad shoulders and carry my weight pretty well. In radical circles and new monastic circles, I am constantly being confronted by a sort of fashion that I simply cannot pull off. I buy stuff at thrift stores out of necesity rather than style, and often have to get the sort of clothes my father would wear. But I try to put my own spin on things. Nevertheless, I often feel like an old fart. I have resigned myself to being more like Friar Tuck than St. Francis in this whole new monastic and/or radical intentional community thing.


  2. Sajia Kabir

    I only saw this website today and I’m already in love.
    I ought to do a post in response relating your post to the expectations of liberals and conservatives in the West (both Christian, atheist, and Muslim) as to how Muslim women and non-white women are expected to dress. I’m a Muslim feminist singer-songwriter, but I like dressing in salwar kameez, and might even keep hijab if I could keep the damn scarf from falling off my head.
    In my opinion, the biggest foe of people of color in North America is not poor white culture, but hipster conformity. Some of the most Islamophobic and misogynistic comments I have ever seen (admittedly I refuse to patronize LGF) have been at the atheist-dominated comments sections of Crooked Timber and 3QuarksDaily. Ignorance is easier to cure than intellectual arrogance.

  3. ST

    Thanks for sharing. Thinking about who we are and how we are as we do the “work” is so crucial.

    I for one want to say that the heart of rebelling to the fashion machine is to express YOURSELF and wear things that are FUNCTIONAL, not what others say you should be or should look like. Feeling obligated to do that defeats the whole purpose.

    I think some of the strain comes from the current Western fashions in general. The tight stuff. Tight stuff makes sense for the winter, since it can assist in keeping your body heat close to you. In the summer however, fashionable or not…my tight stuff goes back in its box to be saved for winter (so I don’t wear it out in a year) and out comes the loose stuff. Since I live in a place that is not air conditioned, the BEST stuff to wear is loose stuff. But that’s not the bread and butter of Western fashion for summer. So I look Eastward and Southward.

    Men’s galebeeyas (spelled different in different Arabic speaking regions) are sweet and look and feel amazing on big guys. A long cotton tunic with pants that go underneath. They are regal, and simple, flexible and beautiful.

    And the best part about them…and my overall advice to you in dealing with clothes and justice: YOU CAN MAKE YOUR OWN. It is so fun to learn and it makes you appreciate everything so much more. And many times it’s just as practical. Sewing is a great intergenerational activity, one can learn many good stories as one learns to stitch at the machine.

    On another note…another fun thing about internet forums…you can’t see what anybody is wearing. I’ve appreciated your contributions a lot, folknotions, and I haven’t thought twice about what your clothing style is. :)

    It is neat your experience with Jesus did inspire you to become a healthier person. As Zenobia Bianchi stated in her address to the African American Mennonite Association last month: Jesus saved all of you…mind body and soul…don’t neglect any part.

  4. Skylark

    Hmm. I guess this is one of the few times when fat women have it easier than fat men. I only rarely have trouble finding functional clothing I like from thrift stores and garage sales. I don’t consciously choose clothing that fits with a certain subculture, but I still often get comments that I look stylish–or like a stylish hippie, depending on the day.

    You might be able to raid the fabric section of your local thrift stores to get the material for the clothing ST suggested you make yourself.

    If the ethics of the thrift stores bothers you, check out FreeCycle. You can get stuff for free if people in your area will give it to you. And, you can give away your stuff to people who might need it. If ordinarily you would trash unwanted stuff or give it to a sketchy thrift store, this might be better. But then, researching the ethics of individual people can be kind of hard when you don’t know them and they’re not public figures or companies.

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