The Guess Jeans

Hi. My name’s Athenae. I’m a recovering Catholic schoolgirl.

I got a funny e-mail about the post below asking me, basically, why all the anger toward the poor, misunderstood DLC. I’d like to explain my thought process a little, how I came to the conclusion that a lot of people apparently haven’t come to yet, but which I believe is right. And the easiest way to do that is to tell you the story of the Guess jeans.

I went to my local Catholic grade school because my mother went there and so did her mother, because all my cousins went there, because it was three blocks from my house and because my mother believed that one of the best ways to pass her faith on to her children was through that faith’s education system, which was designed for that purpose. I went to the Catholic grade school, and so did my brother and sister, because Mom wanted us to be good Catholics. She’s had better luck with my brother and sister in that regard, but nonetheless, she sent me, and off I went.

Now, when I was growing up my family wasn’t loaded. We weren’t broke, but we certainly weren’t going to private school because otherwise we’d just use twenty dollar bills to light the fire. My mother cooked dinner every night and made lunches every day and she’s a talented seamstress. She made most of her own clothes, and all of mine, too.

You all see where this is headed now, don’t you?

A lot of the students at the Catholic grade school were there not because they were Catholic but because their parents were richer than Croesus and the public schools were a little too integrated for their tastes. They had fancy shoes and perfect, shiny hair and it was like something out of a Molly Ringwald movie, and I didn’t know any better, nobody ever told me about rich little girls who were mean just to be mean. I was taught by kind parents to be nice to other people and they’d be nice to me. If they laughed at my round shirt collar or my plastic watch (uniforms don’t solve shit in this regard, kids will get into a sniping contest over who has a better ponytail holder if that’s all there is to be competitive about), well, it had to be me, right? I had to be the one with the problem. I hadn’t read Shakespeare yet nor Tom Wolfe, I had no idea what these people were like.

Eighth grade. All the girls wore Guess jeans on non-uniform days. Guess T-shirts. Guess socks, for chrissakes. Expensive things bought in stores from the city to the north of us, which we hardly ever visited. I don’t know if they got together after school and decided or what, but suddenly it was all Guess, all the time. I still remember the sneer in that girl’s voice, I can’t remember her name but I’ll never forget how she sounded when she looked at my Target-brand denims and said, with a sigh like it was an unbearable burden on her, “God, don’t you have anything Guess?”

Well, that was it. I wheedled. I begged. I wanted Guess jeans. They were $50, an unheard-of amount for clothing in our house. My mother was horrified. What did her 13-year-old daughter need designer jeans for? Jeans she’d grow out of in a year or less? But I wasn’t going to be denied. See, if I just got those jeans that everybody else had, all my social awkwardnesses would go away, the girls wouldn’t see my frizzy hair or my too-needy expression or my shoes that were scuffed and the wrong color. They’d like me then, because I’d be just like them, I’d have what they told me I was lacking. I whined and complained for days and days, and finally, at Christmas, I got the jeans. Acid washed. Tight. With the all-important little Guess triangle on the back pocket.

God, my mom was pleased. Just the thought of it still makes me ashamed of myself. She was so happy to give me those stupid things, so happy to make me that happy. The day after Christmas break I practically swaggered back into school with those jeans on, shirt hiked up high so that everybody could see that they were the real thing, not some stupid knockoff. I waited for people to come up and congratulate me, like this brand loyalty was an achievement, like it was a ticket to the lunch table where all the pretty girls sat with the boys.

Nobody even noticed. Nobody so much as remarked on those jeans I’d needed so badly, because I’d also tried to french-braid my own hair that morning (don’t ever do this) and it was fuzzy and crooked; one of the girls pointed it out to me and laughed. I had done exactly what they all told me to do, and exactly nothing changed.

My point is this. The DLC and the party can change all they want to try to conform to Republican expectations, but they’ll be missing the point.

A bully doesn’t bully to improve you. A bully bullies you because that’s what bullies do. If belittling your clothes is how they can make you feel small they’ll tell you those shorts went out last year. If denigrating your patriotism is how they can get more people to vote for them and not you, they’ll do that, too.

Bullies are what they are. It’s actually got very little to do with you.

Mercifully, I grew up and out of that awkward stage in high school and I learned that for different kinds of bullies there are different ways to make them stop. A flat-out, angry, push you around, hit you on the head bully? You punch him in the face and you do it again and again until he realizes his victim spent Easter vacation working the heavy bag at Dad’s gym and isn’t gonna be anybody’s bitch anymore.

The kind of catty, girlish, cutting bully? She’s harder to shut up. But it’s possible, I found. Here’s what you have to do. You go out over the summer and you find a dress from a store they haven’t even heard of, something new, something that fits you and not them. You cut your hair and put on high heels and a leather jacket and you show up at the school and you let those jealous slags watch as their boyfriends look down your blouse and pant after you like the dogs they are. You find a boyfriend from another school altogether, a hardbodied ROTC guy with a car*, just for one example, and you bring him to Homecoming and make out with him behind the punch table.

And when they whisper about you like they’ve always done, you smile, and you leave the room and go drive down the lake with your boyfriend, who has lots of friends and they all think you’re dead sexy and smart, too. When they’re around, feeding you scotch and cigarettes and telling you how gorgeous you are, you forget about the people whose approval seemed so important to you just a year ago. You realize how much bigger the world is, and how little they matter in it. And you think: Screw the Guess jeans. They looked like shit on me anyway.


*Wes Clark could work nicely in this scenario